Free Pit Stops In F1: What Are They?

Pit stops are an essential part of Formula 1, and we see them in every single Grand Prix. They are a vital part of a driver’s race strategy, but they take time to complete. This may leave you wondering what a free pit stop is in F1, and when a driver can get one.

Free pit stops happen in F1 when a driver pits but does not lose position to the driver behind. This usually happens during safety car periods or if they have built up a 20+ second gap to the car behind, allowing them to pit for fresh tires but still come out ahead of the trailing driver.

Getting a free pit stop during a race is a huge advantage to any driver that can pull it off, and there are a few different ways to make it happen. Below, we take a closer look at pit stops in Formula 1, with an emphasis on how drivers can make use of cheap and free pit stops.

How Long Does An F1 Pit Stop Take?

An F1 pit stop can take anywhere from 2 to 3 seconds on average, although the fastest ever was 1.82 seconds. Ever since refueling was banned in the sport, the average pit stop time has gone down to just under 3 seconds. This is the time it takes for all 4 wheels on the car to be changed.

Formula 1 pit stops are incredibly fast and efficient because of how much practice the pit crew put into getting it right. Formula 1 mechanics will be practicing their pit stops throughout the entire off season, as well as throughout the course of every Grand Prix weekend.

Eventually, it becomes muscle memory for the mechanics to change the tires so quickly, which is why they almost always get it right to change the car’s tires in under three seconds. Nevertheless, there are times when things don’t go smoothly at pit stops, and this is when it can really cost drivers their race and all of the hard work that they have put in.

How Are F1 Pit Stops So Fast?

Formula 1 teams can complete their pit stops in under three seconds because of how it’s set up. There are three mechanics on each wheel, which allows them to smoothly transition from one tire to another. One mechanic will use the wheel gun to undo the nut that holds the wheel in place.

Once the wheel is loosened, another mechanic will remove the wheel from the car. The third mechanic will be waiting for the old wheel to be removed from the wheel hub and then put the new wheel in place. The first mechanic with the wheel gun will then fasten the new wheel into place, and then their job is done. Having three mechanics on one wheel is the most efficient way to get the job done.

With enough practice, the mechanics can complete this entire process within a matter of seconds. The fastest pit stop we’ve ever seen was just 1.82 seconds by Red Bull at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix. Faster pit stops can buy the driver much needed time in their battle on track with the other cars, and as we know in Formula 1, every second matters.

NOTE: Changes were made to the regulations in 2021 that mean we don’t see sub-2 second pit stops anymore

Pit Stop To Repair Damage

When heading into the pits, drivers aren’t just limited to changing their tires. Mechanics can repair the car when it’s in the pits if it has sustained some damage out on track. It’s important to keep in mind that the longer the car is in the pits, the more time they would be losing to rivals on the track. So, ideally, the repairs would be quick enough to keep the driver in contention.

However, the repairs would also need to be sufficient at the same time. Any car that poses a danger to other drivers, spectators, and marshals, will be shown the mechanical black and orange flag, which forces them to return to the pits immediately. At the 2022 Baku Grand Prix we saw AlphaTauri use duct tape to fix the DRS on Tsunoda’s car, which was just about enough to keep him from being shown the flag.

For the most part though, teams will be repairing small bits of damage on the car. For example, changing the front wing of a Formula 1 car can be done in about 12 seconds. This allows the team to quickly get the car back out on track again with a brand new front wing which will prevent the driver from losing time while they’re out on track due to a lack of downforce.

Pit Stops For Setup Changes

Pit stops can also be used to change the car setup. While the driver won’t be able to make major changes to their car setup, they can change the balance of the car through basic aerodynamic changes mainly made to the angle of the front wing on the car.

While the car’s tires are being changed, a mechanic can tune the front wing of the car to adjust the angle of the wing. Adding more wing angle will give the car more downforce and grip through the corners, and removing wing angle will reduce the downforce and grip, but allow the car to reach a higher top speed.

You’ll most often see this happen when the weather conditions are changing during a Grand Prix. When the rain starts to come down, drivers often need to have more downforce through the corners to keep the car stable. But drivers can also make these changes if they need to adjust the balance of their car when competing against other drivers on track, or if the car is behaving differently than they had expected.

These changes can be made incredibly quickly. Because of where the front wing is positioned, the mechanics that are adjusting the wing angle will not be getting in the way of the mechanics who are changing the tires. This means that these balance changes on the car often don’t affect the overall pit stop time.

Slow Pit Stops

Not all pit stops are quick though. As with anything else in the sport, human error is another factor to consider in pit stop times. Mechanics can make mistakes and take longer to remove a wheel, put a wheel in place, or even fasten and loosen a wheel. This can lead to longer pit stop times, which could hurt the driver’s race.

Even one mishap on one of the wheels could cause a pit stop to go from 2 seconds up to 5 seconds or more. That’s a 3 second difference, which is a big margin out on track. If the driver loses that much time, they could find themselves being overtaken by a rival, or further back if they were the trailing car.

Even at the pinnacle of motorsport where the mechanics are practicing pit stops all the time, we often see mistakes happen under the high pressure environment they have to work in. We’ve even seen some mechanics bring out the wrong tires, or head out without any tires at all!

Of course, it’s not always down to the mechanics. Mechanical failures can also cause slow pit stops. Formula 1 cars are sensitive machines, and a wheel nut could easily fail or become stuck. Wheel guns can also be prone to failing, and there have been several scenarios where a car has been sent out onto the track with a wheel that has not been properly fastened, forcing another stop or a retirement.

Total Pit Lane Time

When looking at pit stops and how they will affect the race, we’re often looking at the total pit lane time. The total pit lane time is the time it takes for the car to enter the pits (the speed limit line at the pitlane entry), make their pit stop, and exit the pits again (the speed limit line at the pitlane exit).

This helps us gauge how much time the driver will lose when they go into the pits. For example, if a driver wants to pit and come out ahead of the car behind them, they might need to have an 18 second gap to pit at the Circuit of the Americas (total pitlane time loss), but at Silverstone, they need a 27 second gap to pit and comes out ahead of the car behind them.

There are several different factors that influence the total pitlane time loss in a Formula 1 race. These include things like the length of the pit lane and the pit lane speed limit. The deciding factor is how fast the team can complete the pit stop, since everyone is subject to the same total pitlane time loss (excluding cheap and free pit stops – more on them soon).

Pitlane Speed Limit

The pitlane speed limit is a variable encountered at every race track on the F1 calendar. It exists to keep the drivers and crew members safe in the pitlane. Whenever there are people in an area where Formula 1 cars are driving, a speed limit will be imposed. Surprisingly, the speed limit rule has only been in place since 1994!

Some pitlanes are tight and don’t have much space for Formula 1 cars. Combined with crew members running up and down as well as pit equipment lying around, it’s a recipe for disaster if drivers are allowed to go at full speed through the pitlane. Safety is the main priority in Formula 1, so the pitlane speed limit is a very strict rule.

The pitlane speed limit is usually either 60 kilometers per hour (37 mph) or 80 kilometers per hour (49 mph). The speed limit is decided based on the characteristics of the circuit, the space available in the pitlane, how crowded the pitlane is, and how long the pitlane is. Compared to the cars out on track going full speed, this is a crawling pace for a Formula 1 car.

Losing Time To Rivals

Clearly, no matter how long the track is or how fast the cars can go on a racing lap, the time lost in the pit lane stays the same. If a driver loses 24 seconds in a pit stop in Singapore it’s the same amount of time they lose from a 24 second pit stop in Bahrain. However, what’s important to consider is the proportion of a lap that pit stop loss is equal to. 

F1 Time Lost During Pit Stops 

TrackPit Lane Speed LimitAverage Time Lost (seconds)Percentage Of Fastest Lap Time
Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari (Imola)49 mph / 80 kph31.742%
Silverstone Circuit49 mph / 80 kph  27.832%
Circuit Paul Ricard49 mph / 80 kph 24.927%
Marina Bay Street Circuit37 mph / 60 kph24.324%
Bahrain International Circuit49 mph / 80 kph 24.327%
Circuit de Monaco37 mph / 60 kph23.833%
Autodromo Nazionale Monza 49 mph / 80 kph 23.733%
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve49 mph / 80 kph 23.132%
Jeddah Corniche Circuit49 mph / 80 kph 23.025%
Suzuka Circuit49 mph / 80 kph 22.625%
Autódromo José Carlos Pace Interlagos49 mph / 80 kph 22.632%
Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps49 mph / 80 kph 22.321%
Shanghai International Circuit49 mph / 80 kph 22.124%
Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez49 mph / 80 kph 21.828%
Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya49 mph / 80 kph 21.427%
Hungaroring49 mph / 80 kph 21.328%
Yas Marina Circuit49 mph / 80 kph 21.125%
Red Bull Ring49 mph / 80 kph 21.028%
Albert Park Circuit37 mph / 60 kph 21.025%
Circuit Zandvoort37 mph / 60 kph19.828%
Baku City Circuit49 mph / 80 kph 19.719%
Miami International Autodrome49 mph / 80 kph19.621%
Circuit of the Americas49 mph / 80 kph 18.619%

As the table above shows, drivers lose the most time at Imola, at more than 30 seconds for a pit stop. That’s a shockingly high 42% of the fastest lap time at the circuit, which illustrates how important it is to minimize the number of pit stops required. Taking one more pit stop than everyone else at Imola is almost like racing for an extra half a lap. 

The track where drivers lose the least time is COTA in Austin. With a fairly short pit lane and the highest possible pit lane speed limit, drivers are only in the pits for less than 20% of the fastest lap time. That means when a driver pits at COTA, their rivals can only do about 20% of a lap before they’re back out on the track hunting them down with fresh tires.

Minimizing Pit Stops

It should be noted that this percentage figure is purely for illustration purposes, as in an ideal situation, you wouldn’t pit any more often than your rivals. So, while you pit and they make up 20% or more of a lap on you, you get to make up (about) 20% of a lap on them when they pit, so it all roughly balances out. 

That’s why the differences are really made in the time it takes the mechanics to change the tires. Adding any time on to your pit stop eats into any advantage you have over your rivals, and it could mean that even after they pit, they end up ahead of you. But there are even bigger gains to be made when there is a safety car or virtual safety car (which we’ll discuss soon). 

NOTE: Clearly there is more to staying ahead of your rivals than just having a fast pit stop. How fast the car is, how it performs on different tire compounds, and myriad other factors all play a role in where a driver finishes a race. But pit stops are still absolutely vital to get right. 

How Do Free Pit Stops Work In F1?

Free pit stops in F1 allow a driver to make a pit stop without losing track position to the cars behind. This usually happens if a driver has built up enough of a gap to those behind by being faster, but a free pit stop can also occur if there is a safety car or even a red flag.

Building A Gap

The most common way to get a free pit stop is to simply be faster than those behind you. If you’re at a track where the average time lost in the pits is about 25 seconds (such as Paul Ricard in France), you know you need to get at least 25 seconds ahead of the car behind in order to make a free pit stop.

Drivers can do this by simply being faster, either as a result of skill, car performance, or tire choice. But if the car behind is suffering from damage or the trailing driver makes a few mistakes, the lead driver can build up a big enough gap to allow them to make a pit stop and still come out ahead of the trailing driver

If the trailing driver is a few seconds behind and then makes a pit stop, the 2 second gap could become 27 seconds, allowing the driver in front to technically get a free pit stop. However, the trailing driver will be pushing on their fresh tires while the lead driver pits, eating into that time difference. This is where strategies like undercuts and overcuts come into play.

Other Ways To Get Free Pit Stops

Safety cars, virtual safety cars and red flags can also provide opportunities for free pit stops, and we’ll go into each of these in more detail below. These are more luck dependent situations, rather than being skill dependent.

Free pit stops are not something that can be predicted before the start of a race, or even during it. A safety car could be deployed at any time, a big crash could cause a red flag, or a driver could have damage and be forced to retire, and each of these things could lead to another driver gaining a pit stop advantage. 

Why Does Everyone Pit Under Safety Car?

Lots of cars tend to pit under the safety car because it offers a cheap or even free pit stop. With the cars behind the safety car going slower than racing speed, the relative time lost in the pits decreases. This means many drivers will take advantage of the safety car and pit. 

The safety car will be deployed whenever there is a serious accident on the track and marshals need to be brought on to remove a car or debris from the track. The cars need to reduce their speed and follow the safety car. Cars are not allowed to overtake during this time either.

You may have noticed that several cars will also dive into the pitlane when the safety car comes out. This is because it’s the perfect time to pit for a new set of tires. Pitting under the safety car is considered a “cheap pit stop” because the rest of the cars will also be going slowly, so the cars in the pitlane are not losing as much time to the cars out on track.

Why Is A Safety Car Pit Stop Cheap?

Essentially, when the safety car is out, the cars on track can be going up to 60% slower around a lap. While the pitting car still takes the same amount of time to go down the pit lane and get their tires changed, the proportion of a lap that the pit stop equates to is up to 60% smaller. 

Let’s say they are racing at Zandvoort, for example, where a pit stop takes just under 20 seconds and equates to about 28% of a lap. Under the safety car, let’s say the cars are going 50% of their usual pace around the lap (it varies depending on many factors, but 50% keeps it simple for this example). This means the 20 second pit stop is now only worth 14% of the now twice as long lap time.

So, the time lost during the pit stop might be said on the broadcast to be just 10 seconds, rather than 20, because while the cars that are still on track are still going faster than those in the pits (50% pace is still mighty fast), the speed difference is much smaller than it was before. This is essentially the relative time lost, as the true time spent in the pits remains unchanged.

This can allow a driver to make a pit stop and only lose one position behind a safety car when they would otherwise lose 2 or 3. For example, if there were 3 cars within 20 seconds of the leading car before the safety car was deployed, but only 1 of those cars was within 10 seconds, pitting under the safety car would allow them to only lose that single position, making the pit stop ‘cheap.’

Getting A Free Pit Stop

At Zandvoort, any car that is within about 20 seconds of the car in front is said to be within the leading car’s pit window. If that leading car pits, it’s going to take about 20 seconds, and so they are likely to be overtaken while they’re in or exiting the pits if they make a stop now. If the car behind is 25 seconds back, then it’s likely the lead car can pit and still come out ahead.

If the gap is 20 seconds but then the safety car comes out, both cars must slow down and stick to a minimum lap time, often referred to as the delta. If the lead car pits now, they know the car behind needs to be within 10 seconds, rather than 20, if they are going to overtake, so they essentially get a ‘free’ pit stop that they otherwise wouldn’t get. 

Drivers must stick to this delta for about two laps after the safety car is initially deployed in order to ensure every driver sufficiently reduces their speed (the sporting regulations define it as being enforced until each car has crossed the first safety car line for a second time). This means drivers need to decide quickly if they’re going to pit before the delta restriction is removed.

Catching Up To The Safety Car 

This is because the cars that have been into the pits for a change of tires will eventually need to catch up to the safety car again, as each driver needs to keep within 10 car lengths of the car in front for the restart. This means that there will be essentially no significant gap between each of the cars by the time the race restarts, even if a driver pitted and ended up tens of seconds back.

Staying Out Under The Safety Car

There are some drivers who do not pit under the safety car. In some scenarios, it’s not an option for a driver to take a free pit stop. This is usually the case if the car behind is within the leading car’s pit window, meaning if the leading car pits they will lose track position to the car behind if the trailing car does not pit.

At some tracks, such as Monaco or Singapore, where overtaking isn’t particularly easy, drivers might prefer to have track position over their rivals than a fresh set of tires. At other tracks, such as Brazil, where overtaking isn’t normally that hard, the driver can usually regain time on their fresh tires even if their rival behind gains a position in the short term. 

They Recently Pitted

Another reason a driver would choose not to pit under the safety car is if they had just been into the pits a few laps before. This would benefit the driver as they could potentially regain track position ahead of their rivals when they head into the pits to change their tires.

No New Tires Left

Some drivers use up all of their tires throughout the race weekend, which means that they sometimes can’t pit for new tires when the safety car does come out. In this case, the team would need to assess whether it’s worth pitting the driver for a set of used tires or continuing on their current set of tires.

Already Passed The Pit Entry

It also might not be worth pitting under the safety car if the driver has already passed the pit lane by the time the safety car is deployed. This can mean they miss out on a chance to pit before their rivals behind, and need to wait until they have completed another lap. Under a full safety car, the minimum delta is still usually enforced for another lap or so.

This means they can usually just pit when they get round to the pit lane once again without losing much time. However, if it’s a virtual safety car (VSC), this is a bit riskier. The reason is that, while a physical safety car can only come into the pits after the drivers are warned it will do so at the end of that lap, a virtual safety car can end within about 10 seconds of the drivers being notified.

If there is a virtual safety car, and a driver has to do almost a full lap to reach the pit entry, there is a risk that the virtual safety car could end while they’re pitting, taking away a chunk of, if not all of, the time they were going to gain by pitting under the VSC. We’ll go into more detail about this below.

Too Close To The Start Or End Of The Race

Finally, a driver might choose not to pit under safety car if the race has just started (and they still have fresh tires) or if it’s close to the end (and there’s a chance the race could finish under safety car). 

The most famous recent example of this was at the 2021 Abu Dhabi title decider, where Mercedes chose not to pit Lewis Hamilton, who was leading the race, as they thought the race would likely finish under safety car. This would make sense, as the late safety car combined with the many lapped cars between him and Max Verstappen made it likely he would win.

Verstappen pitted for fresh tires as he didn’t have anyone close enough behind to lose track position to, and then when some of the lapped cars were allowed to unlap themselves, it meant Verstappen was right behind Hamilton (on old tires) at the restart. This was one example of how judging the safety car just didn’t work out well for the leader.

Even if the race hadn’t ended under safety car but the lapped cars weren’t allowed to unlap themselves, it was likely that they would have posed enough of an obstacle to allow Hamilton to build up a big enough gap over Verstappen to keep the lead and win the title. However, it was not to be, and Verstappen’s tire advantage made easy work of Hamilton on the final lap.

NOTE: Clearly this is a controversial example, as the rules used to allow this to happen were perhaps not enforced as clearly as they could have been. Nonetheless, it’s a good example of a team choosing not to pit under safety car because they assumed the race would end behind it. 

Pitting Under Safety Car vs Virtual Safety Car

The virtual safety car requires the drivers to reduce their speed by about 30-40% all around the track, making use of a similar delta system to the first few laps of a full safety car. This inherently means the virtual safety car provides a smaller pit stop advantage than the full safety car, as the full safety car can slow the drivers down by up to 60%.

This will still allow for cheaper pit stops, and sometimes free ones depending on the gaps between the cars, but it’s not quite the advantage they would get when pitting under a full safety car. The cars also don’t bunch up behind the VSC like they do behind the full safety car, meaning you don’t get any closer to the cars in front after you make your stop.

Still A Cheap Stop

This makes pitting under the VSC cheap, but it’s not as lucrative as pitting under the full safety car. Of course, a VSC period still reduces the relative time lost in the pits. While a driver might lose 10 seconds pitting behind a full safety car, they might lose 15 behind a VSC, which is still less than if they pitted under green flag conditions (which could be 20 seconds or more).

This means the virtual safety car can still present the opportunity for a free pit stop if the gap between the two drivers is big enough.

Another reason it’s less lucrative is that a VSC can end far more abruptly than a full safety car, as we discussed in the previous section. This makes timing pit stops with a VSC incredibly important, as getting it wrong could result in no time being gained by pitting, and it being better to stay out.

KEY FACT: If a driver is in the wrong part of the track when the VSC is deployed, they can lose out to their rivals who might be able to get a cheap pit stop

Virtual safety car periods can be far shorter than full safety car periods, meaning drivers don’t have as much time to make the decision to pit. Overall, pitting behind a full safety car usually offers more of an advantage than pitting behind the virtual safety car, but drivers don’t get to control when they’ll be deployed or where they’ll be on the track at the time.

Free Pit Stops During Red Flags

Red flags give all the drivers free pit stops in Formula 1. Red flags are brought out when the race needs to be stopped. This can either be because of a crash, weather conditions, or if the track is unsafe to use and needs to be repaired or maintained in some way. The race will only be restarted when the track safe for the drivers to race on again.

However, during this time, the mechanics can work on the cars while they are sat in the pitlane waiting for the race to be restarted. Not only can the mechanics change the tires on the car, but they are also allowed to repair minor damage and change some setup elements during the red flag period. This has saved several drivers from retiring from a race over the years.

FIA officials will carefully monitor the mechanics while they’re working on the cars to ensure that all the changes they make to the cars are completely legal and that no additional parts are used that have not been approved by FIA officials.


• Free pit stops are when a driver can pit without losing track position

• Safety cars and virtual safety cars can give drivers cheap and free pit stops

• Red flags provide all drivers with a free chance to change their tires

Free Pit Stops And The Fastest Lap

In 2019, Formula 1 brought back the rule that allows the driver with the fastest lap to score an extra World Championship point as long as they’re in the top 10. All points matter in Formula 1, and we’ve seen championships decided by just one point in the past. So, scoring this single point is incredibly important in Formula 1 and we’ve seen teams going to extreme lengths to get it.

If the race leader is dominating a race and has built up a significant gap over the car behind them, they could get a free pit stop. If the time lost in the pitlane is 25 seconds and the lead driver has a 30 second gap, it’s relatively safe to go for the pit stop and fit the softest compound tires.

This would allow them to push for the fastest lap of the race in the closing stages of the Grand Prix. We’ve seen drivers using this strategy when they’re further down, as long as they are in the top 10. Some teams will even use their drivers to ‘steal’ the fastest lap off another driver to make sure that they don’t score the extra point, even if they’re outside the top 10.

But we’ve also seen this strategy backfire in the past. At the 2022 Belgian Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc pitted on the second last lap to go for the fastest lap only to be overtaken by Fernando Alonso for fifth place. Leclerc had to fight to get his position back, but then lost it again as he was later given a penalty for speeding in the pitlane.

Final Thoughts

Free pit stops in F1 allow drivers to change their tires without losing track position. They can arise from pace differences between the drivers, or as a result of safety cars, virtual safety cars, or red flags. Drivers can also get cheap pit stops, which allow them to pit without losing much time.