Teams spend a significant amount of time discussing strategy during an F1 grand prix weekend, as they carefully prepare their initial plans before reaching the track.
Strategy is ultimately dictated by tyre life, with each driver limited to 13 sets of dry rubber to last the three days. This number is made up of eight sets of the designated soft compound, three of the medium, and two of the hard.
When determining the most efficient way to finish a race in the shortest amount of time, several factors are considered. This is when the strategies of undercutting and overcutting become significant.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, makes a stop
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Can you explain what an undercut is?
An undercut is where a driver pits before the car(s) in front to try and gain a position.
This occurs when a team believes fresher rubber will yield more pace and create a net gain over remaining on the track by the time the other car(s) has pitted. Depending on the overarching strategy, the team may fit the same compound again, or one of the other two that are available.
This tactic is often used at tracks where overtaking is more difficult, like the Hungaroring and Singapore, and strategy is the only likely method of progressing. It is also one of the most common strategy tools for overtaking.
In the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix, an illustration of this situation occurred when Sebastian Vettel made a pit stop from third position, prior to Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton who were ahead of him. Vettel had the advantage of fresh tires, allowing him to complete a fast outlap while those ahead of him had slower inlaps. As a result, when Leclerc finished his pit stop and returned to the track, Vettel managed to overtake him and take the lead in the race. This lead ultimately led to Vettel securing his 53rd and final victory in Formula 1.
The undercut can contain risks, given it usually involves conceding track positions to car(s) behind and requires coming back out on a clear part of the track after the pitstop without being held up behind slower cars.
Can you explain what an overcut is?
An overcut is where a driver remains on track longer than an immediate rival in order to try and gain a position.
Two factors can be exploited using this strategy. Firstly, if the driver remaining out on track can maintain or increase their pace compared to a rival who has pitted, they may be able to get ahead of them when they eventually take their pitstop.
Secondly, if a rival that has pitted first is unable to quickly generate tyre temperature and is slower on their out-lap, the driver yet to pit can take advantage of this by increasing the gap between the two before pitting.
This strategy is also frequently used in Monaco, where passing other cars is highly challenging and giving up one’s position on the track poses a considerable danger.
In the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix, there was a notable instance of this strategy. Hamilton made a pit stop on lap 29 in an attempt to gain an advantage over Pierre Gasly, but he encountered difficulties in warming up his tires. As a result, Gasly, who was using older tires, was able to maintain a faster pace than Hamilton, widening the gap between them and staying in front on the racetrack. Vettel executed this tactic even more successfully by making his pit stop two laps later and overtaking both drivers.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
Can you explain what a DRS train is?
A DRS train occurs when a group of cars are stuck in a situation where, except for the leading driver, all cars are within DRS range of each other and cannot move forward. This happens because the cars in front also have DRS, which prevents the following drivers from receiving the usual advantage provided by DRS.
These trains are often what will spark teams into trying the undercut, so that drivers can lap in clean air and try to make a net gain once the cycle of stops has been completed.
The Safety Car Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Patrick Vinet / Motorsport Images
What impact does the safety car have on strategy?
The presence of the safety car and virtual safety car can have a significant impact on strategy as slower lap times decrease the expense of making a pitstop.
Under the VSC, the field must lap to a strict delta which is set by the FIA. This delta governs how quickly a car can arrive at certain points of the track, ensuring that the entire field slows down equally and gaps between cars are maintained. With everyone on track slowing down, the margin between the speed of those pitting to those remaining on track is smaller, meaning less time is lost in a pitstop and potentially more positions can be gained as a result.
During the 2022 United States Grand Prix, drivers experienced a difference in lap time when making a pitstop. Specifically, a pitstop under green flag conditions resulted in a loss of approximately 20 seconds per lap. However, if drivers opted to pit during safety car conditions, the time loss reduced to around 12 seconds per lap. This essentially meant that those who chose to pit during the safety car period gained an advantage of eight seconds without any cost.
Teams are prone to quickly change their race strategies if a safety car or VSC is deployed, as the advantage of pitting during these circumstances is greater than the potential advantage of pitting under normal conditions or after the race suspension period.
Fernando Alonso, driving the Aston Martin AMR23, overtakes a marshal signaling red flags.
Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images
What is the impact of red flags on strategy?
During a pause caused by a red flag, drivers have the freedom to replace their tires and repair their cars using equivalent parts. This allows them to meet the requirement of using two different tire compounds without wasting any time.
This eventuality can severely alter the order with those that have already stopped, losing out as there’s no way for them to get the time lost in a pitstop back.
During the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, Gasly demonstrated his ability to improve his position through a strategic move. He made a pit stop right before an early safety car period, allowing him to jump from a position outside of the points to third place when other drivers also made their pit stops during the safety car period. Additionally, Gasly was fortunate to receive a second opportunity for a free pit stop when a red flag was triggered due to Leclerc’s crash.
Hamilton was penalized and overtook Lance Stroll during the restart, allowing Gasly to take the lead and secure his first-ever win.
The topic of a driver’s capability to perform their required tire change under these circumstances continues to be a subject of debate.