Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Sameena Khan
The importance of race strategies are underestimated. Often, there are situations where a team and driver have one of the fastest cars on the grid but fail to convert a strong starting position into a strong result due to a poor strategy during the race. This was evident during the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix, as Ferrari failed to convert a 2nd and 3rd starting position on the grid into a race win or even a podium finish.
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen drove a splendid race from 10th on the grid to win the Hungarian Grand Prix. He was later seen praising Red Bull’s head of strategy, Hannah Schmitz, for fitting the right tyres onto his car at the right time during the race. That would’ve got most of us thinking - What makes a great race strategy? Read on to find out.
The basic elements of a race strategy
A driver’s race strategy doesn’t just comprise the pit stop stage. It begins right at the start of the race when drivers make their way to the grid. It is determined by the tyre compound the driver uses at the race start. For example, suppose the driver decides to start on the red-walled soft tyre compound; this will see him get better drive off the line, but his tyres will wear out quicker, and he will have to make a pit stop sooner than his rivals. Due to his short first stint on the soft tyre, he might even have to make an additional stop to maintain the same pace as his rivals.
Conversely, a driver who starts on the white-walled hard compound tyre will have a slower launch off the line, but he will have more pace as his stint goes on, thus leaving him in a position to be on the faster and fresher tyres compared to his rivals at the end. Hence, this is how a driver’s starting set of tyres for the race will determine his strategy.
Furthermore, teams must adhere to the rule of using at least two compounds of dry tyres during a dry race. If the race has a lap when DRS is disabled due to wet weather, this rule doesn’t apply. If teams don’t adhere to the two-compounds rule during a dry race, their driver will be disqualified from the race results.
The pit crew must also ensure that they fit the designated driver’s tyres on that driver’s car. If not, they will be accountable for receiving a penalty from the stewards and being forced to make an extra stop to put on the correct tyres. For example, suppose a driver gets a time penalty from the stewards during a race; he is obliged to serve the penalty during any additional pit stops. He will not be allowed to serve the penalty under Safety Car conditions. These are some of the essential elements that comprise a race strategy.
Factors that can make a great race strategy
Many factors can influence the strategy a team can choose for its drivers during a race. For example, track temperature, weather conditions, drivers getting into an incident on lap one, the working of a particular tyre on a car, overcut and undercut strategy, length/speed limit of the pit lane, [virtual] Safety Car periods, red flags are just a few. Here is a brief on the influence of some of these factors on a driver’s race:
Track and Tyre Temperature: This factor is more critical in the teams’ race strategies for the ongoing Formula 1 season. As seen in most of the races so far, the hard compound tyres take much longer to bring up to the optimum temperature. As a result, drivers must drive much slower than they used to on the new hard tyres last year. This can affect the strategic plans of various teams during the race too. For example, suppose a driver manages to go for an extra lap on older tyres before switching to the hard tyres and comes out onto the racetrack ahead of his rival. In that case, he is still at risk of being passed by his rival, as his tyres won’t be up to temperature compared to the warmer tyres on his rival’s car.
Also, if the track temperature is high, it might be easier to bring the tyres up to temperature. Still, the tyres used towards the end of the stint can have a chance of overheating and not giving the driver adequate grip and traction off the corners, thus leading to sliding. Furthermore, drivers can also experience tyre degradation and blistering tyres due to extreme track temperatures. Conversely, if the track temperature is low, it will be harder to bring the tyres up to temperature, and sometimes, drivers may experience graining on their front tyres. This would make the hard tyre a nightmare for various drivers to use, as was the case in the recent Hungarian Grand Prix.
Weather Conditions: “It is important to be on the right tyre at the right time.” This saying carries the utmost importance during the changing weather conditions in a race. Strategists and drivers must relay messages regarding the prevailing weather conditions and whether it is the right time to change onto dry/wet tyres to gain track position. There have been numerous instances of a team getting a strategy call during changing weather conditions wrong and losing several positions to their rivals. One driver who was very good at gauging the conditions was the former McLaren driver Jenson Button, who won a few races just by being on the right tyres at the right time.
Safety Cars/Virtual Safety Cars and Red Flags: These variables cannot be considered when discussing race strategy. They are highly unpredictable and can occur at any point during the race. Strategists must act on their feet here and make a quick call to come into the pits and change tyres, thereby gaining track position over their rivals, or to stay out and maintain track positions over their competitors. The latter would be a better option on street circuits where it is harder to overtake. Red Flags can change the outlook of a race. They give drivers ahead at that point a chance to change tyres without coming into the pits. As a result, they would gain track position over their rivals.
Overcuts and Undercuts: These are a couple of essential terms that the commentators and the Formula 1 Paddock mention during every race weekend. An undercut is when a driver pits earlier than his rival and puts on fresher tyres to close the gap to his rival and overtake him after both have made their pit stops.
Overcut occurs when a driver decides to stay out when his rival pits and, despite pitting later, manages to come out ahead of his rival. The overcut has usually worked at Monaco in previous years due to the track surface being less abrasive and not wearing the tyres out very quickly. However, the undercut was more prevalent at last year’s French Grand Prix when most midfield drivers could jump other drivers in the pit stop phases by stopping earlier. This year, the undercut hasn’t been as powerful due to the hard tyres being very difficult to warm up on the out-laps after the pit stops.
Lap One Incidents: When drivers get involved in incidents on the first lap of a race, they may have to pit for repairs and go on an alternative strategy compared to others. They have to go for damage limitation rather than getting high points finishes. In this case, a driver usually comes out behind the pack due to the grid being very close together at the start. Their race can suddenly be turned on as they’ll have to switch from a one-stop race to a two-stop race, which can affect their finishing position.
Length of the Pit Lane and Pit Lane Speed Limits: The length of the pit lane on a racetrack also plays a vital role in determining the team’s race strategies. A more extended pit lane or a slower speed limit for a pit lane usually results in fewer stops being made during a race. For instance, the time spent in the pit lane at Imola is 27 seconds. In this case, drivers will want to spend less time in the pits.
On tracks such as Monaco and France, the pit lane speed limit is slower than usual, at 60 kph (37 mph), compared to 80 kph (49 mph) on most tracks. This can also influence a team’s strategy during a race.
There are many key variables that any team has to take into account while preparing a strategy for the race. They have to be flexible in their plans and have situational awareness to make crucial strategy calls to get the highest finishing position in a race. It will be difficult for a team to win races consistently without a good strategy for the main race.