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2010 Abu Dhabi Strategy Review: How Ferrari Threw It Away

The 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is one of the more memorable races at the Yas Marina circuit. The title decider had 4 drivers still in contention: Alonso, Webber, Vettel and Hamilton. The perception is that the championship leader Alonso threw the title away due to a strategy blunder by his Ferrari team. Here we look at the truth of this claim, whether Webber could have won the championship, and the roles of Alguersuari and Massa during the race.

  1. Pre-Race Situation
  2. Race Summary
  3. Webber’s 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
  4. Alonso’s 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
  5. Massa’s 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
  6. Further Context
  7. The Fate of the Gods
  8. Conclusions

Pre-Race Situation

With 4 drivers in the title hunt, there were a multitude of outcomes. The short version is that is was in Alonso’s hands. A 1st or 2nd would guarantee him the title, and 4th would be sufficient if Webber didn’t win the race. Webber, Hamilton and Vettel would realistically require both a win and Alonso to have a relatively poor race as a minimum condition to win the title. The points going into the race and most likely outcomes are listed below:

-3rd/4th, with WEB 2nd (or lower)
Webber238-1st, with ALO 3rd (or lower)
-2nd, with VET 3rd + ALO 6th (or lower)
Vettel231-1st, ALO 5th or lower.
-2nd, with WEB 4th + ALO 9th or lower
Hamilton222-1st, with VET 3rd, WEB 6th, ALO 11th (or lower)

Given Hamilton had no realistic chance of a title without DNFs, this article will focus on Alonso and Webber.

Starting Grid

For context, let’s see how the top 6 drivers lined up on the grid.

  1. VETTEL (Red Bull)
  2. HAMILTON (McLaren)
  3. BUTTON (McLaren)
  4. ALONSO (Ferrari)
  5. WEBBER (Red Bull)
  6. MASSA (Ferrari)

If the race finished in this order, Alonso would be champion with Vettel as his closest challenger. Remember that all championship contenders needed to start the race on the option (softer) tyre, as they were required to use their qualifying tyre. Kubica in 11th place was the first driver on the prime (harder) tyre. Although he was unlikely to challenge the leaders directly, he was expected to go longer before his stop.

Race Summary

Firstly, let’s have a quick summary of the race and how the championship swung from Alonso to Vettel.

Early Race

Start: Vettel maintains the lead from pole, whilst Alonso loses a place to Button. He is now 4th, and needs to maintain this position to win the title. A collision between Schumacher and Liuzzi brings out the safety car.

Photo of Liuzzi's Crash with Schumacher at the start of the race.
In the pre-halo era, Schumacher was lucky to walk away from this.

Lap 1: Rosberg, Petrov, Alguersuari and others pit under the safety car, saving time. Due to the low tyre wear of the circuit they don’t need to pit again. The championship contenders now need to either build a gap to come out ahead of them or overtake them on the circuit.

Laps 9-15ish: The leaders struggle with graining. Whilst this is correctly interpreted as a temporary problem, it’s unclear how long the option tyres will last once the graining clears up.

Pit Stop Phase

Lap 11: Webber pits from 5th (a championship losing position) after struggling with his tyres. He emerges behind Rosberg, Petrov and Alguersuari.

Laps 13-14: Ferrari pit Massa to try and get him out in front of Webber, but he emerges behind. Webber clears Alguersuari, but has little hope of winning the title.

Lap 15: Ferrari pit Alonso to prevent a (seemingly) vital undercut from Webber. However, he is now behind Petrov and Rosberg and needs to pass both to win the championship.

Laps 16-39: After the graining clears up Vettel, Hamilton and Button are able to lap faster than Rosberg, Petrov, Alonso and Webber. Their option tyres last longer than expected, allowing them to build a big enough gap to pit and remain ahead. Vettel holds a (net) lead throughout. Alonso and Webber are still stuck behind Petrov.

Lap 46: Kubica pits on an offset strategy and also emerges ahead of Petrov. This means Alonso now has to overtake 3 cars to win the title.

Race End

Race End: Alonso loses the championship to Vettel after being stuck behind Petrov for most of the race. The German takes a comfortable victory to seal an unlikely comeback.

The common perception is that Ferrari threw away the championship by unnecessarily responding to Webber’s pitstop. Alonso needed to finish 4th, which in effect meant he needed to be ahead of Webber, Petrov and Rosberg (and Kubica). By pitting early he covered off Webber, with Ferrari having the (ultimately incorrect) assumption that he could pass the other, slower, cars on track.

How accurate is that assessment, and is there anything else Ferrari or Webber could have done to win the title?

Alonso’s 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Should Alonso Have Pitted Under The Safety Car?

The first potential error is not pitting under the safety car. In hindsight everyone on the option tyres should have considered pitting. However, at the time it was not known how competitive the pace would be at the end of the race. In addition, the leaders were (rightfully) cautious of being stuck in traffic by pitting early. Overall, Ferrari’s decision to keep Alonso out is pretty logical. This is because he was in a championship winning position at the time, and none of the other title protagonists pitted.

However, it does hint at a flaw in the team’s thinking. They were only focused on the drivers around Alonso, and the fact that others were pitting was not seen as relevant to Alonso’s race. This would come back to bite them later on.

The Problem of Petrov and Rosberg

It is often assumed that had Alonso stayed out, he would have built up a sufficient gap to Petrov and Rosberg as the McLarens and Vettel did. This is almost certainly correct, but how clear was it at the time?

Firstly let’s look at how the net gap between Petrov/Rosberg and Alonso varied before his stop. This is recorded as a net deficit that Alonso has (i.e. how far behind Alonso would be if he pitted) .

Graph showing how Alonso pulled out a gap to Rosberg and Petrov behind before graining halted his progress.

The graph shows Alonso pulling away in the first few laps (i.e. reducing his net deficit). The lines then flatten off, suggesting that Alonso would never get the gap to pit and come out ahead of Rosberg/Petrov. However, this was during the graining phase of the tyres. Shouldn’t Ferrari have known that was would be temporary, and that afterwards he’d subsequently continue to eke out a gap? The answer is “yes”, but it’s not clear the option tyres would have lasted long enough for this to be relevant.

Predictions going into the race suggested the option tyres would last around 15 laps total, probably including the laps completed in qualifying. This means that Ferrari (and other teams too) only expected the tyres to last around 5 more laps after Alonso’s stop. Given this, it’s not obvious whether Alonso would have cleared these cars in time. For example, after another 5 laps Button would have been neck-and-neck with Rosberg had he pitted, as we can see from the graph of Button’s (net) position relative to Petrov and Rosberg:

Graph showing that it took Button several more laps to clear a gap to Rosberg behind.
Negative values indicate Button would still be ahead once he pitted

How Long Would It Have Taken Alonso To Clear Rosberg?

It would have taken even longer to clear Rosberg. This is because he was running behind Button and suffering from worse graining than the McLaren. We can use Button’s times to estimate how long it would have taken Alonso to clear Rosberg. This assumes his graining lasted a couple more laps, before matching Button’s pace for the rest of the stint.

Graph predicting how long it would take Alonso it clear Rosberg if he stayed out. It suggests he wouldn't be comfortably clear until lap 25, which is beyond the expected lifetime of the tyre.

The estimate suggests that Alonso would have had to keep going to lap 25 to comfortably clear Rosberg and guarantee himself a title without on track overtakes. Whilst this was totally possible (it is exactly when Vettel pitted) it is much longer the predicted lifespan of the option tyres going into the race.

It’s therefore pretty reasonable for Ferrari to think they would probably have had to pass at least Rosberg on track anyway. Given this, the title appeared to be slipping away from Alonso regardless of whether he pitted or not. It was only the surprising length of the opening stint that cemented their decision to pit as a mistake.

Ferrari’s Communication And Race Reading

The conclusions so far have been quite generous to Ferrari. Alonso’s quote from after the race summarises the predicament quite well:

“If we didn’t stop Webber probably would have overtaken us. If we stopped we cover from Webber but let Petrov and Rosberg in front. It was a very difficult call I think.”

This conclusion was false (they wouldn’t have been overtaken by Webber, as the Australian would have been stuck in traffic), but Ferrari couldn’t be sure of that at the time. However, when inspecting how Ferrari understood the race, it becomes clear that the team were were fundamentally unaware of this conundrum around the time Alonso pitted.

At the time they thought they’d done enough, because overtaking slower cars was not believed to be an issue. They didn’t even inform Alonso that he needed to overtake Petrov until he specifically asked about it two laps later. (They also neglected to mention Rosberg). Even six laps after the stop, the reality had hadn’t dawned on them, as discussions were focused on undercutting Button by clearing Petrov quickly.

This is the real blunder of Ferrari. After the initial safety car, you would have expect them to closely consider where they would feed out relative to Petrov/Rosberg and how hard it would be to overtake them on track. Instead their whole analysis was fixated on the “fact” that only Webber could deny Alonso forth place, with little consideration of other cars.

For Massa the communication was even worse. After being stuck behind Alguersuari for over half the race, he was somehow still unaware that the Toro Rosso wouldn’t be stopping again and he needed to overtake him on track!

Should Ferrari Have Known How Hard Overtaking Would Be?

Ferrari failed to factor in how hard it would be to overtake Petrov and Rosberg. Should they have known better?

Data From The Circuit

The track had only hosted one previous race in 2009. Direct comparisons are tricky (2009 featured fuel strategy, for example), but there were only four on track overtakes that year. The race did feature a late on track battle between Button and Webber for second place, with the wheel-to-wheel racing suggesting that overtaking was possible, but not easy.

The 2010 Abu Dhabi race had also featured some moves. Rosberg and Petrov had both easily cleared a much slower car early in their stint, and later Rosberg also overtook the Williams of Hülkenberg on track. This suggests that Ferrari should have known overtaking would be necessary and difficult, but not impossible.

However, there are a couple of vital pieces of evidence Ferrari had just before Alonso’s stop to indicate how hard overtaking could be. Firstly, Webber had been unable to clear Alugusauri before the Toro Rosso driver let him by. Massa then had the exact same problem with Alugusauri after his stop too. Whilst there was just a couple of laps between this situation unfolding and Alonso’s stop, the feedback from the second Ferrari car should have been invaluable.

Overtaking Renault and Mercedes

Petrov and Kubica both had high top speeds during this race, due to their set ups and new Renault engines. It’s regularly referenced as a reason why Alonso could not overtake and definitely would not have helped. At one point during the race, Kubica was on old tyres and artificially ahead of Hamilton due to still needing to pit. The Renault driver was told to not fight Hamilton, and yet still Hamilton couldn’t get through. This was partly due to their straightline speed advantage.

However, a much larger factor was that overtaking a Renault and Mercedes would be difficult in general. This is an era with no DRS at a track with no significant tyre wear for the harder tyre. The two teams were also semi-competitive in 2010, lying 4th and 5th in the constructors championship. In addition, both Rosberg and Petrov made Q3 on merit in Abu Dhabi. Even without the top speed advantage there’s no reason to think Alonso would have sailed through. Mercedes were convinced that Alonso would also have been unable to overtake Rosberg, for example.

To counter this, even if overtaking were theoretically impossible, it would still require a staunch defence from the lead car. It’s reasonable to conclude that Alonso would probably be able to force a small error or car misplacement at some point. This is especially true for Petrov, who was finishing a rookie campaign that had not exactly been error free.

Were Ferrari Expecting “End Of Season Benefits”?

Another factor is that drivers do not always fight against championship contenders in the final race. Notable examples throughout F1 history include Schumacher letting Vettel through in 2012 and Ralf Schumacher jumping out of his brother’s way in 1998.

However, these examples often involve either a political motive (e.g. a team with the same engine supplier) or a personal motive (a friend or relative that the driver wishes to assist). Many cases also have the caveat that the driver does not expect to be racing the championship contender at the end of the race. (If they’re going to get through at some point anyway, why bother holding them up or potentially taking them out of the race due to an incident?).

None of these were true for Alonso. However, there was one car with a Ferrari engine that could have assisted Alonso (apart from himself and Massa). Unfortunately, it was the Alguersuari, whose loyalties lay elsewhere. Coincidentally, Red Bull’s engines were Renaults, the same as Petrov’s.

If Ferrari were expecting any assistance from rival teams, it was incredibly misguided.

Massa’s 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Massa began the race in 6th place, just behind Webber. A major question that Ferrari should have been considering was how to make him strategically useful to Alonso. This would probably involve giving him track position, ahead of Webber and others. Other than simply overtaking Webber at the start/safety car restart, there were four ways they could have done this:

  1. Pit Massa at the lap 1 safety car.
  2. Pit Massa before Webber to allow him to undercut.
  3. If Webber is stuck in traffic after his stop, pit Massa directly afterwards to leapfrog Webber.
  4. Go as long as possible on the option tyres and hold up cars behind.

Ultimately Ferrari unsuccessfully tried option 3 after failing to overtake Webber at the start. Let’s analyse these options one by one and see how they hold up to scrutiny.

1) Safety Car Stop

Ferrari should have seriously considered pitting Massa under the safety car. This would have given him a net lead over Webber et al., potentially allowing him to stay in front after his stop. Even if his tyres were too old to function at the end of the race, he could still achieve his objective of undercutting drivers and then hold them up.

However, a concern is that he could be stuck in traffic, which is a significant factor. Whilst we know this strategy worked for Rosberg and Petrov in the end, it was definitely possible that Massa would have been stuck behind another car (e.g. Hülkenberg) for too long for this strategy to work. This makes the strategy a calculated risk. In hindsight it’s a missed opportunity, but given Massa was directly behind Webber, Ferrari may have concluded he could still be useful on a more conventional strategy.

2) Undercut Webber with Massa

The idea of pitting Massa before Webber to undercut him sounds very appealing. It would almost certainly have been considered by Ferrari pre-race. However, it has a few points against it. Firstly, Webber pitted very early, meaning an even earlier preemptive stop is probably unreasonable. (If Ferrari had planned to pit Massa in the first few laps of open air racing, it would have made far more sense just to pit him under the safety car.) The second problem is again traffic. Massa would need to be able to do fast laps inbetween his and Webber’s stop, which may not have been possible. In short: It is a good idea in theory, but not in practice.

However, it is questionable whether Webber (and therefore Alonso) would have pitted if he’d knew he’d exit behind Massa. This strategy could therefore have handed Alonso the title, albeit for unexpected reasons.

3) Overcut Webber

The fourth proposition was to use Massa to overcut Webber if the Australian were stuck in traffic. This is what Ferrari ultimately attempted. It works on paper, but Ferrari shouldn’t have tried it based on the data they had. Massa lost around 1.4s in the pitstop phase relative to Webber, and it is sometimes suggested that this cost Massa the position. However, he emerged from his stop at least 2s behind Webber!

Graph showing Massa was always due to emerge behind Webber at Abu Dhabi.

The choice of stopping him early to block Webber was therefore not backed up by data. Perhaps Ferrari considered Massa to be their “joker card”, and pitted Massa anyway knowing there was a high chance of failure. Regardless, this mistake ruined any chance of the second Ferrari driver coming into play during the race.

If Ferrari noticed that Massa would come out behind Webber, then the obvious choice would have been to keep Massa out as long as possible on the option tyre.

4) Stay Out

The last option Ferrari had was to keep Massa on track and extend the tyre stint. Once Webber pitted this was the only realistic option, and one that Ferrari ignored. There are a few different ways could have played out. The first is that Massa effectively follows Button. This would conclude with Massa ending up a net 4th after his stop. He’d then probably aim to back Kubica, Rosberg and Petrov into Alonso. (Assuming that Alonso still stopped to cover Webber.) Whilst this is not a decisive shift, it does increase the chances of mistakes/crashes for those drivers that Alonso needed to overtake.

A second scenario involves Massa dramatically slowing his pace after Webber’s stop. By doing this they would effectively peg the entire field behind to Massa’s pace, whilst Alonso built a gap in front. This would make it impossible for Webber to jump Alonso in the stops, whilst also allowing Alonso to clear Petrov and Rosberg (and possibly Kubica) before his pitstop.

This plan would work best if overtaking were extremely difficult (as it turned out to be). It would also require Massa to lose at least 15s in just a few laps, whilst preferably preventing other cars getting past. Finally, it would be incredibly controversial. Just a few months prior there was uproar at (inferred) team orders by Ferrari in Germany. The idea of Massa ruining his entire race (and the race of several other drivers) just to serve Alonso may not have gone down well.

Overall, the option Ferrari chose was poor, with several superior strategies available. The main benefit of their choice was that a successful execution would have been an effective “checkmate”. Unfortunately that’s irrelevant when it was never going to work in the first place.

Webber’s 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The Need To Do Something Different

Most of the race discussion focuses on Ferrari, with Webber only being brought up in the context of Alonso. However, the Australian was the lead Red Bull driver going into the race. Whilst it’s not wrong to say his issues in the race were self-inflicted, it could also be argued that Red Bull strategists failed him too.

Starting in 5th place, Webber probably needed to win to get the title. How could this have been achieved given Webber’s poor qualifying position and struggles on the option tyres? One method that could have worked is starting on the harder tyre, as Kubica did. However, this would have required Webber to also complete Q3 on the harder tyre, compromising his starting position further. In addition, Red Bull would have had to make this decision before Q3, without knowing that Webber would qualify poorly. Due to this, the idea only makes sense in hindsight.

Photo of Webber sandwiched between the two Ferrari's at the start of the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Starting in 5th and needing a win, Webber had to try something different.

What Webber needed was something to shake the race up. This would allow him to do something unconventional that might allow him to overtake the four cars ahead and take the title. Without this, there was no hope given that everyone ahead of him had the same basic race strategy. He was given this opportunity when the safety car came out. Pitting so early would have been a gamble that may not have paid off. But the fact is that his actual strategy would have never given him the title unless both Vettel and Alonso had reliability issues.

Poor Strategy

So why didn’t Red Bull pit him on lap 1? The most obvious answer is that they dropped the ball. This is understandable given that their strategists were (uniquely) working out how to win the title for either driver. However, an explanation given at the time by Red Bull was that they wanted Webber to try to overtake Alonso at the restart. There is a logic to this given the Red Bull could heat up its tyres faster than the Ferrari that year. However, from Webber’s perspective it makes no sense whatsoever. Passing Alonso would give the title to Vettel instead of the Ferrari driver, but it would be of almost no help to Webber.

To suggest Red Bull intentionally sabotaged Webber to aid Vettel is perhaps a step too far. However, it does appear that the team had concluded that Vettel was their best bet, and wanted to focus on their most likely candidate. This of course feeds into the narrative that the team preferred Vettel over Webber.

Regardless, for Webber it was a major mistake, and one arguably less forgivable than Ferrari’s championship costing early pit stop. Despite this, the error is barely mentioned in discussions of the race. This is probably because Red Bull won the title anyway with Vettel, and winners are less likely to have their mistakes scrutinised. In addition, Webber only needed to try something so radical because of his poor qualifying, meaning his team’s mistakes are largely forgotten.

“Webber Is Faster Than You”

A sometimes forgotten aspect of Webber’s race is that after his early first stop he emerged behind the Toro Rosso of Jamie Alguersuari. At first he lost time and struggled to overtake, before being asking the team what was going on. At this point Alguersuari was told that “Webber is faster than you”, and he quickly moved aside for the Australian.

Given the uproar over Ferrari’s team orders in Germany earlier in the year, it’s a wonder that a bigger issue was not made of this. (Team orders were still illegal at this point.) Of course Toro Rosso and Red Bull are two separate teams, but collaboration between two (supposedly independent) teams is surely a greater offence than cooperation within a team. This type of inter team cooperation in a season finale is not unprecedented, and not given the attention is deserves.

The importance of this move cannot be overstated. Massa spent the entire race behind Alguersuari, unable to pass, and there’s no reason to think that Webber would have found it easier without assistance. Without it, Alonso would have never pitted early, and Red Bull would have surely lost the championship.

This is one reason why Red Bull owns more than one team. It was never just about the driver program.

Further Context For The Race

Finally, I’ve added a few other bits of information on the 2010 Abu Dhabi race that didn’t quite fit into any category, but might help you reach your own conclusions.

  1. Both Rosberg and Petrov questioned the decision to pit on lap 1. Renault’s response indicated they also weren’t 100% convinced they wouldn’t need to stop again.
  2. Webber hit the wall on lap 8, and his pace on the option tyres was generally poor.
  3. Vettel’s drop in pace due to graining was worse than that of Button and Alonso (and around the same as Hamilton’s). Red Bull should receive credit for holding their nerve during this phase.
  4. Webber and Alonso had good pace after pitting (before they hit traffic). Martin Brundle concluded that Button, Hamilton and Vettel should also pit early to prevent an undercut. He changes his mind less than 2 minutes later, after the option tyres began to recover and Alonso caught Petrov.
  5. At earlier races in the year we had seen early pitstops work and drivers make crucial passes on slower cars. However, they all featured bigger tyre offsets than were present at Abu Dhabi.
  6. Barrichello ran a similar strategy to Webber and Alonso. He ran 7th in the early stages (and 4th once Massa, Alonso and and Webber had pitted). It didn’t work out well for him either.
  7. However, the Brazilian did manage a genuine overtake shortly after his pitstop, suggesting that overtakes were not impossible under the right circumstances.

The Fate of the Gods

There are so many ways the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix could have played out that would probably have given Alonso the title. These include:

  • Alonso retaining 3rd place at the start.
  • Hamilton managing to get past Vettel at the start or during the pit stops.
  • Liuzzi and Schumacher not colliding on lap 1, meaning they’d be no safety car.
  • The option tyres recovering from graining few laps earlier, meaning Alonso wouldn’t need to respond to Webber.
  • Conversely, the option tyres dropping off sooner, meaning Vettel et al. would have been stuck behind Rosberg.
  • Massa passing Webber in the pit stop phase.
  • Webber coming up behind any car except a Toro Rosso after pitting.
  • A driving error from Petrov and Rosberg, allowing Alonso to get through.
  • Any reliability gremlins for Vettel (not uncommon in 2010).

Vettel can therefore be considered very lucky on the day that it worked out well for him. Of course, a championship is fought over a season, and he had his fair share of bad luck in other races. All the contenders made significant mistakes throughout the year, and Vettel was as worthy of winning the title as anyone.

Vettel celebrates on the podium with Hamilton and Button after being crowned the 2010 world champion
Vettel celebrates a well earnt championship, despite some luck on the day.


-Everyone on option tyres should have considered pitting under the safety car on lap 1. Vettel and Alonso may have had natural reservations, but pitting was Webber’s only hope of winning the title. The fact they didn’t pit him was either a major blunder or an attempt to sway things towards Vettel.

-Ferrari underutilised Massa. The plan to pass Webber in the stops was based on wishful thinking, not data. They should have kept Massa out for much longer and used him to hold up cars behind.

-In hindsight, there were some hints that Ferrari’s choice to pit Alonso early was a mistake. Despite this, it was not obviously incorrect given what was known at the time. It’s reasonable that Ferrari didn’t know quite how far the soft tyres would last or that overtaking would be impossible as opposed to merely difficult.

-However Ferrari’s perception of the race at this critical point was completely wrong, and their communication was poor. After pitting, the team felt confident they’d done enough to win. It only slowly dawned on them later that the “formality” of passing Petrov and Rosberg was anything but.

-Vettel was quite lucky with how the race played out. Any number of small changes could have handed the title to Alonso.

Further Reading

Autosport Review

Text Commentary of the race