Seeing that Formula 1 is a sport completely designed around speed and determining the fastest driver behind the wheel, there is oddly a vast amount of strategy from the team that goes into making the driver a winner. Mistakes in race strategy can cost the team and driver race wins and even championships. Ferrari arguably, through poor race strategy, threw away a strong chance to win in 2018.
In this post, we are therefore going to look at two common strategies regarding the use of pit stops in order to gain an advantage over another driver. We will dissect each strategy and outline its use, benefits and even where it can go wrong.
Strategy 1 : The Undercut
The undercut strategy is the most common pit strategy in modern F1. This strategy involves two drivers, Driver 1 and Driver 2 (for simplicity sake) involved in a race for a position. The gap between the drivers being very small of anywhere between 1-5 seconds. Driver 2 may be unable to overtake Driver 2 and therefore can look at using an undercut.
To initiate an undercut, Driver 2 (the driver behind), will pit for new tyres before Driver 1 (the driver ahead). Driver 1 will remain on track while Driver 2 will fall a bit further back due to the lengthy pit stop time. Driver 2, now being on newer and faster tyres will then attempt to put in lap times that are faster than driver 1, who is still use old and degraded tyres that slow his times down. A few laps later driver 1 will then pit for new tyres. If the undercut works, Driver 2 (driver behind) will overtake Driver 1 (Driver ahead) while he is in the pit stop.
This occurred all due to the few laps Driver 2 could do on new tyres which were faster than driver 1 on old tyres. Practically speaking, let’s say both cars are setting laps of 1 minute 30 seconds and a gap between the drivers of 2 seconds exists. When Driver 2 pits for new tyres, he can set times of 1 minute 29 seconds while driver 2 is still setting laps of 1 minute 30 seconds. Driver 2 thus is earning 1 second per lap on driver 1. If driver 1 then pits 3 laps later, driver 2 would then have gained 3 seconds on driver 1. The initial gap being 2 seconds, therefore, Driver 2 will come out 1 second ahead when driver 1 has completed his pit stop
Advantages of the undercut
- Lower risk than overtaking : Attempting to overtake a leader car will be tricky in all circumstances. The leader car can attempt to block the overtake or not see the chasing car attempt to overtake and cause a collision. Therefore, the undercut allows for a driver to overtake while the other car is in the pits and thus less risk of a collision.
- Force other team/driver strategy: Teams generally set out a pre race strategy for their drivers that will get them the quickest time to the end of the race. However, if a driver is attempting an undercut, the team of the leader car may have to change their strategy to cover that undercut and retain their position. An example of this happened at AusGP 2019. Hamilton was forced to pit early to cover the attempted undercut of Vettel. His teammate, Bottas was only pitted much later and thus had a favorable strategy to the end of the race. From Ferrari’s perspective, they forced the changed strategy to Mercedes and although did not benefit that race, they did put Hamilton under pressure and on weaker tyres towards the end of the race.
Disadvantages of the undercut
- Leader driver responded: The team of the leader driver may identify the undercut attempt and thus pit their driver the next lap. The chaser can thus not gain any advantage on new tyres and the under cut will fail.
- Accidents or pit mistakes: The undercut is timed based on perfect circumstances. A delay in the pit stop can widen the gap and cause the undercut to fail and possibly lose further positions. Secondly, accidents that trigger the safety or virtual safety car slow the race down and will allow the leader driver to pit at a reduced time loss and maintain the lead.
- Returning to track in traffic: If the race is still in an early stage and the field has not spread out enough yet, there is a risk that a driver could get caught up in a pack of slower drivers. This allows the leader driver to then stay out longer before pitting without losing any time.
Strategy 2: The Overcut
The Overcut is not as popular in modern F1 but still has it’s use and successes in recent seasons. The Overcut can be seen as similar to the opposite of an undercut. The Overcut using the same drivers (1 and 2), occurs when Driver 2 allows Driver 1 in front to pit first. Driver 2 will then stay out for longer and attempt to put in faster laps on an open track. Driver 1 will fall further back due to the lengthy pit stop. Driver 2 will then pit a few laps later and hopefully with the clean track, he was able to put in enough fast laps to then re-emerge from the pits ahead of Driver 1 that pitted earlier.
The Overcut showed more dominance in the years of refueling. When having to stop to refuel, the cars gained significant weight and thus staying out for a few laps with a lower weight car allowed for some faster times compared to the heavier cars that just pitted. Drivers that start on harder tyres can also stay out longer and possibly only have 1 pit stop to save time over drivers that use softer compound tyres that degrade quicker and requires more lengthy stops.
Advantages of the Overcut
- Fresh, fast tyres for end race: By staying out longer on a set of tyres, the driver attempting the over cut will have fresher tyres for the end of the race, allowing him to push harder and possibly overtake drivers that are struggling on worn tyres.
- Clear track: By pitting later, the chasing driver has clear track an minimal risk of traffic if still early in the race. The strategy thus gives a strong opportunity of passing the leader once both drivers have pitted.
Disadvantages of the Overcut
- Leader driver on quicker tyres: While the chasing driver stays out on track on older tyres, the leader driver has the advantage of putting on newer tyres and putting in fast laps that prevent the chasing driver from gaining a gap out front. It is thus very difficult to perform an Overcut.
- The safety car, accidents and pit mistakes are also disadvantages for the Overcut as with the undercut.
- Risk of backmarkers: If the top teams are performing way above the rest of the pack, later in the race, the top drivers will need to lap the slower cars. Staying out longer could thus hinder open track opportunities and minimize the Overcut impact.
The undercut is the more dominant strategy and every race witnesses an attempt at this strategy. The Overcut is still an option but it still not commonly discussed. Be sure to be on the lookout for the undercut in upcoming races and how the end result turns out. Each team has their own plan that can either pay off or cost them the race.