Carlos Sainz Jnr admitted his decision to slow down and allow Lando Norris behind him to use DRS could have backfired disastrously.
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The Ferrari driver deliberately reduced his pace to help the McLaren driver defend his position from the chasing Mercedes pair. His tactics worked, allowing Sainz to score his first victory of the season.
Following a Virtual Safety Car period with 17 laps to go, Sainz held one-and-a-second lead over Norris, with his Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc 4.5s behind and Mercedes' George Russell 16s back in fourth.
It took 11 laps for Norris to get within a second of Sainz, but by then Russell was in third and just 1.1s behind. Sainz's mission was to maintain his gap to Norris in a way that ensured he kept a second between himself and Russell through the final five laps.
His logic was that the considerably faster Russell could be denied access to DRS usage if he let Norris get close enough to him to use DRS himself and therefore have a gap to Russell on the straights where overtaking was possible.
The strategy "worked to perfection", as Norris successfully defended his position and thereby protected the race leader. Sainz admitted that pulling away was not an option, particularly if Russell had been able to make it into second place.
Starting from pole on a street circuit with few passing places, Sainz felt his best chance of victory lay in preventing those behind him from exploiting their potentially superior pace.
"It was very difficult to tell before the race whether we would have the race pace to win," he said. "I felt like even if we didn't, by managing and controlling the gaps and controlling the pace and the tyre degradation, I could create myself the opportunity to win."
The first part of that involved holding his lead at the start, which he did, then it became a race of pace management. All of the lead drivers pitted a third of the way through the race while the Safety Car was out, then the chasing Mercedes drivers pitted again during the VSC period, which gave them a tyre advantage to attack Sainz, Norris and Leclerc. They dispatched the latter with little difficulty.
Initially, Sainz was "not so nervous" about the pace of the approaching Mercedes pair as he "felt like I had a lot of pace in hand to push the last 12-15 laps". But that was not the case.
"I felt like as soon as I started pushing, my tyre degradation started to kick in. And I think Lando and I were sliding a lot, then it surprised me quite a lot how quickly the Mercs managed to pass Charles and close the gap on Lando and me. And at that point, I thought okay, it's not going to be easy and these last five, six laps is going to be a fight. And at that point, obviously I had to change a bit the strategy."
Sainz backed off his pace, allowed second-placed Norris to close on him, allowing the McLaren driver to use his DRS. "I had to give Lando a bit of a cheeky DRS boost, and that helped us to keep them behind and win the race and get the win for Ferrari that feels great."
This was a risky strategy, as it gave Norris an opportunity to attack. Sainz admitted he considered that before helping his rival.
"You cannot have a single mistake or a snap because it means that then Lando's going to have a chance to overtake you if he's on DRS. At that point you decide to give him the DRS, hoping that that's going to be enough to keep the Mercs behind."
Sainz said it was a particularly difficult call to slow down significantly at the start of lap 60 to let Norris close back in after he lost time while repelling an attack from Russell.
"There was in particularly one lap that I think Lando defended into [turns] 16-17, and then I had to slow down a lot into [turns] one-two-three to give him DRS again.
"I think that move actually, saved my race, saved also Lando's P2, because I feel like there, if not, I would have been also dead meat. If the Mercs would have passed Lando, I think they could have got past me pretty easily."
Sainz called it a strategy that "is easy to have in mind, but it's a lot more difficult to execute."
"It's all about having that commitment to do it and to put yourself under that extra risk" continually," he explained. "But I felt like that was my only real chance of winning the race and I wanted to win.
"Especially when I heard that 1.3-1.4-second gap up to Lando after he defended into 16, to take the decision to slow down in turns one and three. I was like 'well, I hope this works' because if not it could look really, really bad on me."
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