As Lewis Hamilton struggled vainly to make his fourth set of tyres last to the end of Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix, one recalled his pre-season complaint, "It's not racing, it's just driving around." However, to understand why Lewis finished eighth in the race, one has to go back to Q2 on Saturday afternoon.
Recall that from the beginning of qualifying to the end of a dry race, the teams have only six sets of tyres to play with: three sets of hard tyres (the 'primes'), and three sets of soft tyres (the 'options'). Now, all of the contenders for pole position - Vettel, Webber, Hamilton and Button - used a set of hard tyres in Q1. At the beginning of Q2, however, Hamilton alone tried to set a time on hard tyres, presumably in the hope that this would be sufficient to get him into Q3, thereby saving a set of fresh soft tyres for the race.
Unfortunately, Hamilton's time on the hard tyres, a 1m37.339, wasn't quite fast enough, and as Q2 progressed, he dropped out of the top ten, and had to make a late run on soft tyres. This might perhaps have injected an element of anxiety into his driving, for whilst he got into Q3 with a 1m35.852, he locked the right-front into turn 1, badly flat-spotting the tyre. Each of the Red Bull and McLaren drivers now had two sets of fresh soft tyres available for Q3, and all four decided to make one run at the beginning of the session, and one at the end.
The ideal strategy for the race consisted of four stints, punctuated by three-stops, with the first three stints on the three sets of slightly-used softs, and the final stint on one of the fresh sets of hard tyres. Unfortunately for Hamilton, it seems that his flat-spotted set of softs was not a viable option for the race, hence he was forced to do the first two stints on his remaining sets of soft tyres, and the final two stints on the hards. Given the second-a-lap deficit of the hard tyres, this was a significant disadvantage, compounded by the fact that Lewis had also used two sets of hards, leaving only one fresh set for the race.
Lewis's race therefore consisted of two strong stints on his soft tyres, a less competitive stint on the fresh hards, and a terrible stint on one of his sets of used hards. Even worse, Hamilton had lost second place to Heidfeld going into the first corner, and was unable to overtake during the first stint. As a consequence, McLaren brought Hamilton in for an early first-stop, on lap 13, to jump Heidfeld. Whilst this released Hamilton into clear air, the timing of the stop was too early for a three-stop strategy, and Lewis became a sitting duck later in the race. Hence, Hamilton's spat with Alonso, which earned him a penalty from the stewards, was ultimately a consequence of trying to save a set of soft tyres in Q2.