The Malaysian Grand Prix, won by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, got underway with 59 degrees of track temperature: the hottest race conditions seen all year.
Two stops was the winning strategy as expected, but the tactics were influenced by three virtual safety car periods in the race – the second of which fell just within the pit window for a two-stop race.
Many drivers took advantage of this to switch to the hard tyre, which had to be used during the race because it was nominated twice as an obligatory available set. But Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was the only driver in the top four to move onto the soft tyres again during that period. This helped him undercut his direct rivals before emerging from his second stop in what became second overall after Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton retired from the lead with a mechanical problem – in what seemed set to be a one-stop strategy.
Ricciardo too may have adopted a one-stop strategy, but took advantage of the third virtual safety car period to make a final stop, which was the case for a number of other drivers as well, including Verstappen who finished behind his team mate to make a Red Bull one-two.
An alternative strategy was used by Williams driver Valtteri Bottas, who started from 11th on the grid with the medium tyre and finished fifth after one-stopping. Renault’s Jolyon Palmer tried something similar, starting from 19th on the grid with the hard tyre and then changing to the soft to finish 10th.
“It was very close as to whether or not a two-stopper would be quicker than the three-stop strategy we predicted as theoretically fastest, so we saw a fascinating tactical battle between Mercedes and Red Bull, with Red Bull splitting their strategies to try and beat Mercedes,” said Paul Hembery, Pirelli motorsport director.
“In the end, it was the virtual safety cars that influenced the strategy. We also saw some different one-stop strategies all the way down the field, with some drivers starting on the hard and medium compound. This was all made possible by degradation being managed from start to finish despite the highest track temperatures we have seen all year”.