Modern Formula 1 is a fascinating and complex sport, in which the success or failure of a weekend-and sometimes an entire season-is played out over a few hundredths of a second. The single-seaters, as well as the drivers, are just some of the ingredients that lead to victory in an elaborate recipe that is not always difficult to synthesize.
Speed of the pit-stops and -above all- goodness of strategy and adaptability of the pit wall are key factors in today’s racing. A call -that is how the order that engineers give to drivers is defined- wrong can ruin a seemingly perfect race, just as a brave and creative decision can turn a Sunday that appeared dark to even the most optimistic into triumph.
The strategy in Formula 1
Strategy in Formula 1 is that set of decisions made by track engineers, drivers and strategists to try to maximize the result in the race and qualifying by optimizing the tools at their disposal such as tire decisions, the timing and amount of pit stops, and the management of the cars in the race.
Typically the strategy in Formula 1 is defined at the beginning of the weekend in a meeting attended by all members of the team and in which some scenarios that might happen are outlined. Usually these scenarios-or “plans”-are christened with letters from A onward, and it is not uncommon for there to be as many as five or six scenarios available per Grand Prix for teams to study and memorize.
Plan A typically represents the main strategy, the one you start with and stick with if nothing unforeseen happens. The driver and track engineer (the link between the driver and the rest of the team) communicate continuously by radio throughout the GP and update the race plan depending on what is happening on the track or any external happenings, from weather to possible information from other opponents.
Strategy: the role of the pit stop in F1
the Pit Stop is one of the fundamental tools in creating the strategy of a race. Deciding when to change tires and how many stops to make is an art that depends on infinite variables. Softer tires have more performance but less durability, while harder tires are slower but have less degradation. To this we must add that in the case of a wet race it is mandatory to change at least one type of tire and therefore it is impossible, for example, to run a race with two medium tires.
There are one-stop, two-stop or-rarely-three-stop races, and this depends on the type of asphalt, circuit temperatures and a driver’s ability to conserve tires.
Further complicating matters is then the possibility or otherwise of overtaking other opponents-or being overtaken-at certain stages of the race. In that case, strategists have the weapon of Undercut or Overcut.
The undercut is the choice to stop a driver earlier than planned, giving him a way to come out with fresher rubber and be able to have a competitive advantage over his opponents in the laps immediately following the pit stop.
In contrast, overcut is the decision to stop a driver after the scheduled stop to allow him to have rubber with more performance at the end of the race.
Tires are the main object of strategy in Formula 1. Choosing them carefully is crucial to ensure performance of the car at various stages of the race. However, the tires one can choose from are not endless. Of the 13 dry sets that Pirelli provides at the start of the Grand Prix, the teams have to juggle between those that can be returned, those that can be re-used, and those that must be kept new.
Choosing which and how many tires to use during the weekend is a puzzle that is not easy to solve. New tires offer greater speed and thus can guarantee qualifying passage, but it is imperative to use sparingly if you do not want to run Sunday’s race on worn tires.
Likewise, the tire you start the race with is very important. Those who start on soft rubber will have an advantage in the first few laps, but will be forced to stop before the competition, while those on hard rubber will have more time to stay on the track, albeit at lower performance.
Living with the weather
Weather is another key variable in racing. More than rain and sunshine, what makes the role of strategists difficult are the extremely variable conditions: races that start dry but then become wet, races that start with a wet track but dry out thanks to heat and wind, and so on.
Mixed conditions are the most difficult precisely because it is not easy to figure out which type of tire you are going strongest with at any given time. While it is indeed true that wet tires are much slower than slicks, it is also true that smooth tires on wet tracks do not offer grip.
In these cases, it is the conversation between the pit wall and the driver that gives rise to the decision about when to change the tire. Some drivers prefer to take risks and mount the tire early for the new weather conditions, hoping to gain advantage over the competition. Instead, others prefer to be patient, and perhaps drive in complicated conditions, rather than waste a pit stop and lose valuable time.
The Role of the Safety Car
The Saftey Car enters the track when there is an accident or something unforeseen has happened that requires the Grand Prix to run under maximum safety conditions to allow marshals and operators to repair the track, rescue some driver or restore order.
Under Safety Car the cars are forced to line up one behind the other effectively resetting the gap with the pursuers or those ahead of them to zero. Not only that, under Safety Car conditions, when the Grand Prix is slower, the time lost during pit stops becomes infinitely less in relation to what happens under normal race conditions.
This is precisely why -and especially on some particularly difficult tracks such as
or Singapore-the safety walls tend to wait for the Safety Car to be called in before making the tire change, with great savings in time and several positions gained.
However, this is also a gamble. Sometimes the safety car is not called into action, or in other cases it enters the track as soon as a stop has been made, not only giving no advantage but rather offering one to the opponents.
Team orders and directions to drivers
The history of team orders in Formula 1-that is, instructions to the driver from the race wall to let a teammate pass-is long and full of episodes. For a few years, from 2003 to 2010, the organizer even considered preventing such behavior, deeming it unsportsmanlike.
In truth, it is very difficult to limit the directions a team gives its drivers during a race, and everyone remembers the famous “Fernando is faster than you” communicated to Felipe Massa during his years at Ferrari.
Nowadays, indications to advantage a driver over his teammate are free and widely used. Although not particularly liked by either the public or the fans, they are important tools by which teams can maximize the end result of a race and register more points for the championship.
Not only that. Directions can also be given during the run in an attempt to overtake a rather tough opponent, with a promise to “give back” the position if the operation is not successful.
The wars of the DRS
The DRS -or Drag Reduction System- is a control that lowers the rear wing of the car, allowing it to gain a lot of speed. You can use it when you are within one second of the car in front of you and only in DRS Zones.
Even to this system-apparently simple-the brilliant minds of the pilots and engineers were able to apply interesting strategic intents. In the case of rampant comebacks from the rear, it may be helpful for the drivers in the lead to keep their opponent immediately behind them in the DRS zone, granting them more speed and thus allowing them to shield the competition roaring in from their rearmost positions. This is what Carlos Sainz did in the Singapore Grand Prix 2023, when he masterfully administered the lead over Lando Norris in second position to protect himself from the Mercedes comeback.
Still other cases have seen drivers avoid overtaking until the DRS Detection point line, so as to prevent the newly overtaken opponent from being able to enjoy the Drag Reduction System. It happened in 2022 between Verstappen and Leclerc on several occasions, when the two dueled on the edge of a thousandth playing every card in their deck.
Finally, DRS Train is when three or more cars are running in each other’s slipstream at a distance of less than a second and thus all (except the first) enjoying the DRS of those ahead of them essentially nullifying its effect.
Increasingly, strategy is the trump card for teams who want to aim for victory. Excellent drivers and excellent cars are of no use if you throw races to the wind with bad calls and bad decisions by the race wall.
All teams today have in remote garages in factories and at the walls at the track a large number of engineers and statisticians intent on analyzing huge amounts of data to make the right decision at the right time. Tires, weather, performance, opponents, safety car probabilities, and fuel consumption are just a few of the dozens of elements that make up an exciting and decisive puzzle.
It is perhaps the most obvious expression, the most striking sign of how much Formula 1 is really a team sport in its own right, even though there is only one man behind the wheel.