The season-long race for second place in the Formula One drivers’ championship came down to … hold on … really? … an effective Ferrari strategy call? OK, then.
Entering Sunday’s season finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Sergio “Checo” Pérez were dead even on points, with each having 290 and locked into a dead draw for second place. (Leclerc had the tiebreaker, by virtue of winning more races this season.) Since Max Verstappen’s dominance ended the title race months ago, this was the best drama left in the F1 season, at least outside of the “this is Sebastian Vettel’s last race and everybody is crying” division. It was, essentially, a shootout: Whoever beat the other on Sunday would claim the first loser spot behind Verstappen.
After qualifying second on Saturday, and starting off Sunday’s race with pace, it looked like second place would be Pérez’s to lose. Leclerc had pace, too, but not as much, and so Ferrari needed to do something bold to make up the difference. The choice was almost forced upon them: Do they try to match Red Bull and stop in the pits twice, or do they push Leclerc long for a one-stop and hope that the 22-second pit stop difference played out in their favor?
Because this is still Ferrari, it wasn’t particularly clear which strategy they were going for in the first half of the race. Leclerc stayed out until lap 24, while Pérez changed his first set of tires on lap 16. It appeared right away that Leclerc had the wrong strategy, as Pérez had built up a five-second lead after both drivers pitted. Ferrari has had problems with tire degradation all season, which seemed to point to a two-stop race; the late pit in the first stint might have doomed them.
So, that was out, then. Instead, Ferrari was forced to keep Leclerc on a one-stop strategy, despite other drivers in the race struggling with the one-stop strategy. Vettel employed that tactic and was audibly complaining about it on the Aston Martin radio, and Lewis Hamilton was similarly incredulous at the one-stop strategy before his car’s shifting system crapped out and forced a late DNF (Mercedes’ first mechanical retirement of the season; the W13 car can’t go away fast enough). The only driver that seemed relaxed and in control with the one-stop strategy was Verstappen, who had no competition up front and was able to look after his tires on his way to an easy and record-extending 15th win of the season.
Even Leclerc seemed confused by the one-stop strategy, questioning whether he could pit and still catch up in the second half of the race. Eventually, he gave up that dream and committed to the one-stop strategy, but once Pérez swapped from his hard tires to mediums in a second pit stop, the race was on.
At the time of his second pit stop, the Mexican driver was 18 seconds behind the Monegasque driver, with 22 laps to go. Math tells us that Pérez needed to make up about 0.9 seconds per lap, and he looked capable of doing just that on fresher tires.
The great thing about a Formula One race, though, is that shit happens. Even on what was a better strategy, based on both practice times and what actually happened during the race, Pérez still had to not just make up a lot of time on Leclerc, but navigate slower cars one lap behind. This played a key factor in Leclerc’s defense and the eventual success of Ferrari’s one-stop strategy: since Leclerc had to pass drivers during his defense, he was able to get into the Drag Reduction System range repeatedly, allowing him to keep good pace even on older tires.
Pérez also had those same cars to pass, but they felt more like obstacles than advantages. Perhaps the most important obstacle for the race for second came towards the end, as AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Williams’ Alex Albon were battling right in front of Pérez on lap 56. Gasly didn’t receive a blue flag early enough to get out of the way of Pérez, slowing down the Red Bull driver just enough to break the momentum of his charge. That little bit of slow down was about all Leclerc needed: Pérez never got within a second of Leclerc the rest of the way, and Ferrari was able to clinch second in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
To be clear, leaving Leclerc out on a one-stop strategy was probably the wrong call. With a better plan to keep him close to Pérez early on, he could have pitted for mediums towards the end and had a proper race, rather than a panicky defense against the charging Red Bull. Still, though, F1 is so often about results that Ferrari actually ended up doing the right strategy. Why? Because it worked. It is sometimes that simple, and no amount of Ferrari shenanigans this season can rob them off the fact that, by sticking Leclerc out on track for longer than Pérez, they clinched the spot they so desperately needed.
Luckily for Ferrari, though, they know that strategy needs an overhaul for next season if it is going to challenge Red Bull like it looked like they would at the start of this season. Team principal Mattia Binotto is a charming character, but he seemed in over his head as a manager. He’s reportedly out for next year, with Alfa Romeo principal Frederic Vasseur coming in instead. It remains to be seen if Vasseur will overhaul the strategy team if the reports turn out to be true, but it has to be one of the higher priorities for Ferrari regardless of who is at the top.
This season, it felt like Ferrari was always going to have the worst strategy of the three top teams, and even when they didn’t, it felt a lot like Sunday: a wrong choice that still somehow worked out for them. The off-season has arrived with more joy than it looked like Ferrari would experience in the dying days of this campaign, but now it’s time to build something less frustrating for 2023.