Formula 1 is a team sport, and there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that fans and casual observers don’t always know much about. Each team needs to ensure their strategies (or strats) are in place during the race, otherwise they could lose out on a race win.
‘Strats’ in F1 is short for strategies. Strategies are incredibly important in F1, and they’re much more complex than you might expect. It’s not as simple as choosing a lap for the driver to head into the pits to change their tires. In Formula 1, a strategy can make or break a driver’s race.
Strats are decided before the race, but there are many variables that come into play and the teams often have five different strats or more. The weather, safety cars, and even a poor start must be accounted for. In the article below, we’ll go over everything you need to know about strats in F1.
While many people are focused on the two team drivers that are out on track, there’s an entire team of people sitting behind them, from the pit crew to engineers, working on different strategies that can help them to make up position during the race if they get it right.
However, not all strategies are good, and a wrong call can cause a driver to lose position towards the end of the race, and it can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing. However, as there are so many variables to consider, a strategy will rarely ever be perfect in Formula 1.
No matter how carefully the team plans their strategy, anything can happen in this sport that could derail even the best of strategies. That’s why it’s just as important to be flexible during the Grand Prix and have the ability to make those crucial calls while under pressure.
Strategy has always played a pivotal role in Formula 1, perhaps more so during the refueling era. However, with the ban on refueling during the Grand Prix in place, strategies only focus on tires in modern Formula 1.
How Do F1 Teams Plan Their Strategies?
F1 teams take many different factors into consideration when planning their strategies. It’s not just about sitting down with the driver on Saturday and deciding which lap they will be making their pit stops on. In fact, teams begin preparing their strategies at the start of the race weekend.
Teams use Free Practice sessions to gather data for the strategies they will implement on Sunday. During the Friday Free Practice sessions, the teams tend to use race simulations to determine how the tires wear out on the track they’re on. Tires will wear differently based on weather conditions, track surfaces, and the amount of fuel that the car has onboard.
During race simulations, the drivers are often sent out onto the track with heavy fuel loads and are told to complete several laps in a row on one set of tires. The team then monitors the data, which can include lap times, sector times, and the speed the car travels at.
Formula 1 teams have different strategies, and they often use coded terms to inform their driver of what the plan is. Many teams will use “Plan A” or “Plan B,” all the way down the alphabet depending on how many different plans they have in place. This is because other teams can listen in on radios broadcasted onto the live feed, and it’s not ideal to tell other teams what your plan is.
At the same time though, there is a basic framework that many teams use when it comes to strategies. Without refueling, different plans can only influence the lap on which the driver will pit for fresh tires. Since refueling has been banned, it’s all about keeping an eye on the tires.
One of the strategies that teams use is longer stints. This is often used when the driver starts further back on the grid. A longer stint means the driver starts on a harder compound tire. The harder compound tire will be slower, but it will last much longer than the softer compounds used by the frontrunners. This will allow the drivers to run much further into the race without pitting.
If the drivers can keep up with the midfield or some of the cars ahead of them, they will gain a huge advantage when the rest of the field on softer compound tires head into the pits by overtaking them. They will eventually switch to softer compound tires as well, which will make them faster towards the end of the Grand Prix.
In addition, running on a longer stint opens up more opportunities for the driver to take advantage of a safety car later in the Grand Prix, which would essentially give them a cheap pit stop. This is because drivers lose less time to those on the track when pitting under safety car, as cars on the track must go much slower than normal.
Shorter stints are used by the drivers who start at the front of the grid. These drivers start on the softest compound available to them for the Grand Prix weekend. The faster tires will allow them to sprint ahead of the pack and build a lead.
However, these tires might not last more than 20 laps, depending on the amount of tire wear, the track temperatures, and how the driver is able to manage their tires. Drivers are often able to pull out a big enough gap over the rest of the field simply by driving faster.
If they’re able to build up a significant gap to those behind, they can head into the pits, change their tires, and still come out ahead of many of the midfield cars. In many cases, the leading cars will exit the pits in the top 10 positions using this strategy.
However, there is a risk to this strategy as well. The drivers on the hard tires running longer stints will be in the mix since they will pit later than the front runners. After pitting, the drivers on shorter stints could get stuck behind the drivers running longer stints.
Even the best strategies can be compromised by unexpected events that could happen during the Grand Prix. Anything can happen during a race, which could sometimes play into the hands of some drivers, and it could compromise the race for other drivers.
Teams need to be able to change and adapt their strategies on the fly. If a pit stop opportunity presents itself, there’s an immense amount of pressure on the team to do their calculations and decide whether to bring their car into the pits.
It’s not just about specific events happening out on track, either. If a driver gets stuck behind traffic or struggles to overtake another car out on track, they can head into the pits in an attempt to overtake the car ahead of them in the pits. This is referred to as “box to overtake” by teams.
While teams will have their planned pit stop strategies in place, they often use different tactics when they need to make a quick decision on whether to pit their car or not. Sometimes, the team will consult the driver to see whether they are comfortable to continue on their current set of tires or not. The biggest risk of pitting the car is losing track position and having to overtake other cars.
If a car is stuck behind a rival driver, the first strategy they can use is an “undercut.” An undercut is when the driver behind heads into the pits first and puts on fresh tires. This puts a lot of pressure on the driver as they need to ensure that they have the perfect in lap and out lap.
However, the benefit is that they will have much more pace on their fresh tires, and if the driver ahead of them responds too late, there’s a good chance they will be overtaken. The driver who pits first will have a powerful advantage, as they can begin to close the gap on their fresher, faster tires.
The effectiveness of undercutting depends on the circuit. Some tracks wear tires out faster than others, in which case an undercut with fresh tires could allow a driver to go up to a second or more faster per lap than those on old, worn out tires. This can allow them to make up the gap to the car in front while the lead car then needs to pit, coming out behind the car they were just in front of.
Undercuts are the most common strategic element that can be used on the fly during the race. However, it does need to be timed well. If the team gets the timing of an undercut wrong, they won’t be able to overtake their opponents in the pits and they’ll simply be stuck in the same position.
It’s far less common to see an overcut in Formula 1. An overcut is the opposite of an undercut and these involve running longer stints. However, there’s also a little bit of luck and guess work involved in pulling off a successful overcut move, which is why it’s so rare to see in F1.
In an overcut, the trailing car will wait for the car ahead of them to head into the pits. Instead of reacting and pitting the next lap, the trailing driver will go for a much longer stint in an attempt to extend their gap to the car ahead of them. If they are fast enough, they will be able to pull a big enough gap and overtake their opponent in the pits.
In order to pull off this move, the trailing car either needs to have harder compound tires fitted, or the driver needs to have excellent tire management skills. As soon as the car ahead of them heads into the pits, they will need to improve their pace and push their tires harder.
If they are not able to go faster than the car that pitted for fresh tires, they will simply be caught again and an overtake in the pits will become impossible. While it’s rare to see an overcut strategy work, it has worked well for some drivers in the past.
One of the biggest triggers for pit stops is the safety car or the virtual safety car. With a full safety car, the entire field will bunch up and get ready for the restart. This means that any driver that pits will essentially get a cheap pit stop because they won’t lose as much time to their opponents.
Safety cars present the best opportunity for those drivers who have not pitted yet. Instead of losing 25 seconds in the pit lane, the drivers will lose no time because of the reduced speeds and the fact that the entire field is bunched up together.
However, this strategy depends on track position. If the safety car is released just after the driver has passed the pit lane entry, then it creates a difficult situation for them as they need to complete an entire slow lap before they can go into the pits, whereas everyone else can head straight into the pits and rejoin the safety car.
The virtual safety car (VSC) is a cheap pit stop opportunity as well, although it’s not as powerful as pitting under the full safety car. For example, instead of losing 25 seconds in the pit lane, the driver might only lose 14 seconds. It’s not always advantageous to pit under the VSC, so this option takes a lot more consideration and debate for the teams.
Weather is another factor that can throw a team’s strategies out of the window. The teams have incredibly powerful weather radars that can predict when rain will hit the track. This allows them to estimate how many laps they can do before having to pit for intermediate or wet tires.
However, the weather radar is never 100% accurate, and until the rain starts falling, it can give teams a slightly inaccurate prediction. Drivers are often the first ones to make the call for when to pit for intermediate or wet tires because they are physically out on the track and have the best view.
Sebastian Vettel once said that he looks out for the crowd in the grandstands to see if they put their umbrellas up. The more umbrellas there are in the crowd, the more slippery the track will be in that section. Some circuits like Spa are so big that it can be wet in one corner but dry throughout the rest of the lap.
The opposite is also true. If the race starts in wet conditions but begins to dry out, there’s a fine line between switching over to slick tires and going faster or switching to slick tires and ending up in the wall. It usually takes one brave driver willing to make a gamble for the entire field to find out if the drying track is ready for slicks yet.
F1 Strats On The Steering Wheel
F1 strats often refer to the various settings drivers can choose on their steering wheels. These change things like power unit modes under safety cars or at the end of the race, and they can also change the battery deployment. Different teams use different strat buttons on their steering wheels.
Strats is short for strategies in F1. Strats are important and should never be overlooked. F1 is a team sport, and the driver does play a pivotal role. However, many races are won using strategy rather than pure pace, and pit stop strategy is usually extremely important.
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