How Mercedes’ ‘small advantage’ could make a big difference in the Japanese GP

How Mercedes’ ‘small advantage’ could make a big difference in the Japanese GP

The battle for second in the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship is on, thanks to Ferrari’s strong result at last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix. While Mercedes currently holds a lead over the Scuderia in the standings, Ferrari might have the advantage in tomorrow’s Japanese Grand Prix, as both Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles Leclerc are set to start ahead of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell.

However, the Silver Arrows might have one arrow left in their quiver, and it could be a big one.

An extra set of tyres.

Tyre degradation may be the story of the Japanese Grand Prix, and it is an area where Ferrari has struggled this season. But what is the advantage Mercedes holds over their rivals? As noted by F1 journalist Albert Fabrega, the Silver Arrows have an extra new set of hard tyres for both Hamilton and Russell.

Sainz and Leclerc, however, each have just one set of hard tyres at their disposal:

Neumáticos disponibles para mañana . Red Bull y Ferrari con 2 juegos (3 Max) de medios. Mercedes, McLaren y Alonso con 2 juegos de duros.

Tyres available for tomorrow. Red Bull and Ferrari with 2 sets (3 Max) of medium. Mercedes, McLaren y Alonso with 2 sets of hard. #f1

— Albert Fabrega (@AlbertFabrega) September 23, 2023

How could this play into their hands on Sunday? Consider this: Suzuka is known to be brutally tough on tyres, as noted by Pirelli in their race preview:

The asphalt at Suzuka features some of the highest levels of roughness and abrasion seen all season. Wear and degradation are important factors in determining the run plan for free practice, as well as race strategy.

“The Japanese Grand Prix takes place on one of the most fascinating and demanding tracks in Formula 1 history: Suzuka, with its unique figure of eight layout. This historic venue is a drivers’ favourite, being absolutely thrilling to drive in today’s ultra-competitive single-seaters,” said Pirelli’s Mario Isola, Head of Motorsport. “With its very significant lateral and vertical loads, Suzuka is as demanding on tyres as it is on drivers. These demands are equally distributed across all four wheels, with 10 right-handers and eight left-handers throughout the six-kilometre lap. As a result of these challenging characteristics, we bring some of the hardest tyres in the 2023 range to Japan: C1, C2, and C3.”

Furthermore, the ideal strategy at Suzuka is a two-stop race, as outlined by journalist Chris Medland in this piece for F1 Unlocked. “So a two-stop is definitely the way to go based on all the data that has been gathered so far, and it’s the hard compound that is the preferred race tyre.”

However, teams might want to roll the dice on a one-stop race, avoiding the average 22 seconds lost on a pit stop in Suzuka. With two fresh sets available for both Russell and Hamilton, Mercedes could roll the dice, starting with hards and pushing it as long as they can on those, hoping for a safety car as they gain track position.

That might give them a chance to pick up track position against those teams forced to turn this into a two-stop race, as well as avoiding that 22-second loss of time on the second stop.

If nothing else, the team has the option to consider that plan at the start Sunday, and see how things unfold. They could set both drivers out on the hards and see how the degradation situation impacts both drivers. Mercedes could even employ a strategy split, option for a one-stop race for one driver, and a two-stop race for the other, depending on how things unfold. They would still need to make a switch in compounds, as teams are required to use two different sets of softs over a single race, but it gives them more options over the race.

Other options include still employing a two-stop strategy, but going hard-hard to start, picking up as much track position as possible, and switching to softs at the very end of the race to take advantage of the increased grip with that compound.

In their post-qualifying report, both Russell and Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin hinted at the options available to them.

“Our nearest competitors in the championship are Ferrari. We will have an eye on them strategically tomorrow as they line up ahead of us, and hopefully we can be in a race with them,” said Shovlin.

“We came here thinking that tyre degradation would be high. That looked to be the case on Friday and even earlier today in FP3. Our second set of Hard tyres means that we can look at strategies and stints that they possible cannot,” added Shovlin. “Hopefully we can exploit that. We will ultimately find out in that first stint how the degradation is looking and its impact on the race.”

However, while hinting at that option Russell downplayed just how effective it could be.

“We do have the option to try some different strategy options, having two hard tyres in our allocation,” said Russell. “McLaren and Ferrari may not have the same freedom. However, I only expect it to only be a small advantage.”

If nothing else, the team has one more thing working for them.

Hamilton’s incredible helmet for the weekend:

Maybe that will help them get lucky.

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