Tanked out

It’s out in the open. Ferrari’s fuel tank is much smaller than that of Renault!

Let’s go back to the Malaysian GP. Michael was faster than Fernando Alonso by over a second, putting him 4 slots ahead of Alonso. But the engine penalty meant that he had to start the race 8 slots behind the Spaniard.

To add insult to the injury, he ended up finishing behind teammate Massa who started way back in 21st position – seven slots behind Michael.

However, during the race when Michael made his first pit stop on Lap 23 of 55, common wisdom suggested that he would go for a longer second stint without stopping a second time. To confirm the hypothesis, Massa stopped just six laps later on Lap 29. For someone who didn’t even run in Q3, it looked like a sensible thing to do – splitting the race into two long stints.

But when Michael pulled into the pits again on Lap 45, the hypothesis was blown to smithereens. Fernando on the other hand, stopped on Laps 23 & 45, and gained immensely. So in the end, it was: Fernando – 2nd, Massa – 5th and Michael – 6th. That’s a gain of 5, 16 and 8 positions respectively.

Of course, had Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber not suffered engine failures, the Ferrari drivers would’ve finished 7th and 8th respectively, which would’ve meant a gain of 14 and 6 positions respectively. That also makes Michael Schumacher the bigger loser. How could it happen to Schumi? How could it happen at Ferrari?

Was it wrong strategy? Or was it something else?

Let’s look at their respective stints.

Driver                Stint 1          Stint 2          Stint 3

Fernando:      26                    17                    13

Michael:          23                    22                    11

Felipe:             29                    27                    –

Now, let’s look at their time gaps from the race leader, on the lap after respective pit stops of Michael, Fernando and Felipe, plus the gaps at chequered flag).

Leader-Driver Lap 24 Lap 27 Lap 30 Lap 44 Lap 46 Lap 56
L-Fernando 0 16.437 14.611 11.784 8.593 4.585
L-Felipe 31.398 26.410 56.299 47.194 47.598 43.254
L-Michael 46.279 43.660 46.453 25.960 48.625 43.854

While Fernando managed to claw back 4.653 seconds during his second stint (between laps 27 and 44), Michael actually lost 2.346 seconds (between laps 24 and 46). Why? Because Fernando was running a much lighter load than Michael (fuel worth 5 laps). Also Fernando jumped Jenson at the second pit stop, giving him a clear run to catch teammate and race leader Giancarlo.

What’s interesting is that Felipe, despite a heavy fuel load worth 27 laps, he ended up finishing ahead of Michael – albeit just.

So the question is, should Michael have opted for a single stop strategy? Looking at Felipe’s amazing run from 21st to 5th, it certainly seems to be so. But let’s do the math.

Taking the FIA issued fuel measurement of 2.80 kg per lap for Sepang:
Michael’s fuel load for his first stint would’ve been 23 x 2.80 = 64.4 kg.
Assuming that they leave 2 laps worth fuel as reserve for the grid formation lap, slowing down lap, etc., his first stint fuel load would’ve been 70 kg.
By the same logic, Fernando’s first stint fuel load would be (26 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 78.4 kg.

As for the second stint:
Michael’s would’ve been (22 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 67.2 kg.
Fernando’s would’ve been (17 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 53.2 kg

And the third stint:
Michael: (11 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 36.4 kg.
Fernando: (13 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 42 kg

During the third stint, Fernando despite a heavier fuel load, managed to recover 7.199 seconds (between laps 44 and 56) against Michael’s 4.771 seconds (between laps 46 and 56).

Now, back to the question. Could Michael have done a one-stopper like Felipe?

Let’s look at Felipe’s second stint fuel load:
(27 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 81.2 kg

Since we’re pretty much sure that Felipe would’ve started with a full tank from the back of the grid (hence splitting the race into two almost equal halves/stints), 29 laps worth of fuel for first stint + 2 laps of reserve must be the maximum that Ferrari can take. That makes it a maximum fuel capacity of (29 x 2.80) + (2 x 2.80) = 86.8 kg

But for Michael to complete the Malaysian GP on just one pit stop, he would’ve needed 98 kg of fuel to be pumped in – which is 10 kg above the limit of its tank.

What about Fernando? Could he have done it with a one-stopper? To do that, he would’ve needed 89.6 kg fuel as pointed above. Does his Renault’s tank have that kind of capacity?

For that we need to go back to what happened during qualifying.

Remember all the confusion about Fernando’s car being refueled twice by mistake? But for this cock-up, Fernando should’ve been on pole or maybe second. That would’ve meant a typical Renault flying start followed by a disappearing act. So ideally, he should’ve pitted a lap before Giancarlo’s Lap 17. That means, fuel for 16 laps + 2 laps reserve = 18 x 2.80 = 50.4 kg, which is 14.4 kg lighter than Michael’s first stint load. Thanks to double fuelling, he should’ve been carrying 32 laps + 2 laps reserve = 95.2 kg. That’s a clear 8.4 kg over Ferrari’s capacity.

In the race however, Fernando pitted on Lap 26, which means that he was not actually carrying 95.2 kg but 78.4 kg.

So did Renault re-fill the entire 13 laps worth fuel spent during Q3? Going by the above calculation, the answer is no. They must’ve claimed less, allowing Fernando to sprint ahead of Jenson.

But there’s still one questioned that remains unanswered. Why was Fernando’s qualifying lap slower than Giancarlo’s by almost 2 seconds? He didn’t seem to make any mistakes. His race pace certainly was as good as Giancarlo’s. The only logical reason seems to be a heavier fuel load.

So, was Fernando’s planned first stop actually a lap or two after Giancarlo’s? If true, that makes it one hell of a fuel tank. And a big worry for Ferrari in the coming races.

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