Preventing the 2013 F1 world championship from being decided in Sebastian Vettel's favour this weekend is already a long shot for Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, but the pair still decided to take a strategic gameplan into qualifying for the Indian Grand Prix.
While Q3 has generally become a baseline for pure performance since refuelling was banned in F1, the third race at Buddh International Circuit proved that there was still room for manoeuvre, largely thanks to Pirelli's decision to bring a soft compound tyre that showed extreme wear after just a handful of laps. Teams were thus faced with the dilemma of going for single lap performance in search of a decent grid position, but with the caveat that they would need an early stop on raceday, or set a time on the more durable medium tyre and have to work their way up the order when the lights go out.
“Tyre performance continues to be a key factor here in India,” technical chief Pat Fry confirmed, “Tomorrow's race will definitely be determined by car performance, based on what the tyre choices are for the start. We have heard a lot of talk about graining and blistering, two phenomena that have a negative effect on tyre performance and they could become two key factors in tomorrow's race.
“Those who will start on the softs could have to pit earlier than planned for their first stop. However, those that start on the medium will be favourite, even if, later on, they will have to work out the best moment to fit the soft compound.”.
In the end, Ferrari – like several of its rivals – decided to have a foot in both camps, sending Felipe Massa out on the softer tyre, while using the medium compound on Alonso's car. The top three qualifiers – Vettel and Mercedes duo Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton – all followed the same route as Massa, employing the soft tyre to their advantage, with Mark Webber, in fourth, the first of those to try the alternative strategy. Massa took fifth in his F138, ahead of the similarly soft-shod Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg. Alonso was eighth, but ahead of the two McLarens of Sergio Perez and Jenson Button, who completed the top ten on the medium tyre.
“Before qualifying, we looked at what might be the best strategy and it was very difficult to choose between two possibilities of equal worth,” Alonso revealed, “Using the soft tyres in Q3, we could have aspired to a better starting position, while the mediums would mean running a race with no traffic because, if the softer compound follows the pattern we have seen so far, then those starting with it will have to stop very early, around lap six, which would put them behind a group of cars that will stay out until lap 30.
“It's true that, at some point, I too will have to fit the softs, which will signal a more difficult moment and we must be prepared for that. On Friday, I did 15 or 16 laps on them, while today just three, and that's why it's absolutely impossible to say how it will go tomorrow. Only after the chequered flag will we know which was the right choice.
“The good thing about this decision is that, in putting two cars in the race on different strategies, at least one of us, me or Felipe, should be in a position to help the team in its goal of finishing second in the constructors' world championship, which is our priority now.”
Massa is not necessarily a sacrifice, however, with Ferrari believing that, with more rubber on the track come raceday, problems like graining and blistering could be reduced and the life of the tyre improved. As a result, the Scuderia hopes that the Brazilian has a chance of picking up some places after the start, before experiencing a 'more stable' race once he switches to the mediums at his first stop.