F1 Strategy - What teams do to gain a racing advantage

Jim K 5/13/2023
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What you need to know about F1 Strategy

Image: Red Bull Racing

At its simplest, motorsport is a competition about being the fastest to complete a race, and Formula One is no exception. However, the reality of F1 is far more complicated than that, and the teams spend millions of dollars on getting the best strategy to get their cars to the checkered flag first.

The F1 strategies can seem intimidating for a new viewer or fan who has just started tuning in expecting to see the world's fastest cars simply battle it out. When words and expressions like undercutting, overcutting, pit windows, and free pit stops casually drop into the commentary, it can seem overwhelming to wrap your head around them all.

Pit Window

What you need to know about F1 Strategy

Image: Williams Racing

Although it may sound like a hole around the pit lane to look out from, the pit window is not a literal window. Instead, it refers to the laps in a grand prix that the teams calculate as the most opportune time to make a pit stop. If the driver pits before this, they won't maximize the longevity in their original tire and may run their next set's life too early. However, if they pit after the pit window, the tires might lose their peak performance, and the driver ultimately runs a slower race.

The laps that are the best time to pit represent the pit window, but they are a guide rather than a rule. While other championships have some laps when a driver cannot pit, that's not the case with Formula 1. The teams and drivers will provide feedback to one another about how the tires are performing and how that compares with pre-race expectations.

The aim of the strategy is to finish the race in the shortest amount of time, and being flexible when new data appears is key to that goal. Say the original tire lasts longer than any simulations expected, or other drivers ahead might slow progress far more than aging tires. In these instances, choosing to pit later or earlier, respectively, than the pit window might be optimal.

What you need to know about F1 Strategy

Image: Red Bull Racing

In the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton extended running on medium tires for longer than his nearest competitors, switching to softs later than they did. This gave him a speed and grip advantage later in the race that helped him in overtaking, and he reached second place from a P7 start.

What is an undercut in F1?

Generally speaking, switching to a new set of tires at the right moment means that the lap times after pitting will be faster than the times set before. An undercut in F1 is when a driver pits earlier than the cars they are racing, then benefits from the fresh tires' grip to go faster than the others still on the old tires.

A successful undercut has the earlier-stopping driver gain one or more positions without needing an on-track pass. Although they still overtake the other drivers, they do so by driving faster without anyone around them rather than having to compromise the optimal racing line or risk damage by going wheel-to-wheel.

What you need to know about F1 Strategy

Image: Williams Racing

In the tense 2021 title fight, Max Verstappen's undercut on Lewis Hamilton in the US Grand Prix made all the difference in his victory. Hamilton took the lead on the opening lap, but because Verstappen pitted three laps earlier in the opening stint, the Dutch driver used the extra grip to emerge ahead of Hamilton by six seconds. That turned into a vital victory, even though Verstappen didn't overtake Hamilton on the racetrack.

What is an overcut in F1?

Similar to an undercut, an F1 overcut works on the same theory of running on one set of faster tires while competitors are going slower. However, the overcut sees a driver running on a set of tires longer and faster after a rival has pitted.

Overcuts are far less common than undercuts because teams generally won't pit their racer if they think they'll be slower on the second set of tires. However, they may not always know that the second tire compound is slower. Equally, a chasing driver may hide their pure pace until their rival pits, at which point they drive faster on the original tire set before stopping themselves to overtake via an overcut.

Lewis Hamilton made the most of this approach in the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix when he ran P7 through much of the opening laps, then remained on track while the cars in front of him pitted around Lap 15. By the time Hamilton stopped on Lap 28, he reemerged to track in P4, eventually finishing on the podium.

Free Pit Stops

Everything in F1 is about speed, but pit stops require the car to be stationary to change tires — that's quite the opposite, in case you didn't know! F1's pit crews spend hours practicing how to minimize that stopped time, with the fastest pit in the sport clocking in around the two-second mark. Regardless, the process of driving down the pit lane, stopping, leaving the pit box, and reemerging on the track can take anywhere from 20-30 seconds, depending on the circuit. If a lap takes 75 seconds, that's a significant relative loss.

What you need to know about F1 Strategy

Image: Mercedes AMG F1

However, that calculated time loss is compared to the cars going at full speed around the circuit. During a safety car session, where the on-track drivers must slow down because of an on-track incident, the lap times are far lower than usual, and the relative lost time during a pit stop is far less. A 75-second lap time may become 140 seconds, and 20-30 seconds lost when pitting means far less.

If the safety car comes on track during or near the pit window, taking the pit stop while other racers must drive slower is often called a free pit stop. Although they aren't technically free, they lose far less time relative to drivers who don't pit.

Max Verstappen made a pit stop from the lead in the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix right before a safety car's emergence and fell behind others who hadn't pitted when he returned to the track. However, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc pitted when the safety car was out, meaning Verstappen had to drive slower than they were during his pit stop. The Dutchman lost the lead, and eventually the win.


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