By Stefan Kristensen
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July 18, 2022
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How Does the Pit Stop Strategy Work in F1 Racing?

F1 racing is all about going fast and trying to finish the race before all of the competition. That being the case, from the perspective of the uninformed, it might seem like a bad idea to make a pit stop unless absolutely necessary during a race. After all, pit stops take time, and time is a precious resource in F1 racing.

And yet, the pit stop strategy, in which drivers intentionally make pit stops even though they don't strictly have to, is very popular in F1 racing, and even has a high chance of success when it comes to racing. Needless to say, this seems counterintuitive on the surface, but it actually makes a fair deal of sense when you get down to it.

How does the pit stop strategy work in F1 racing? Today, we're going to tell you everything you need to know about it, and why it is such a powerful tool for teams competing in the sport.

Why Do Pit Stops Exist At All?

Before we even get into the pit stop strategy, one needs to understand why pit stops are necessary in F1 racing in the first place. After all, to a layman, it might seem like a bad idea to come to a complete stop for an extended period of time during a race where the goal is to finish in first place. So why are pit stops needed?

Well, most people don't know this, but pit stops exist because the rules say they have to. There was a time in F1 racing when pit stops weren't compulsory. The rules now state that drivers have to make at least one pit stop and are even required to use more than one type of tire throughout the race. The reason for this is not what most think.

F1 racing is very intense, so one could be forgiven for assuming that tires have to be exchanged during a race because they wear out. Well, this is true, but the reality is that tires used in F1 are designed to wear out quickly. It would actually be very easy to make tires capable of lasting the entire race, but such tires are not used.

That's because F1 is a spectator sport, above all else. Pit stops add drama and excitement for the audience, and the switching of tires to different types throughout the race adds an element of strategy that is readily visible to the audience, allowing them to speculate on it. This all adds to the audience's enjoyment of the sport.

In short, F1 racing doesn't need pit stops strictly for car maintenance. It is required in order to add to the spectacle. But in requiring such pit stops, strategies surrounding them have been born. So, how does the pit stop strategy work in F1 racing?

The Core of the Pit Stop Strategy

OK, so if they wanted to, the people in charge of F1 racing could allow tires that last the whole race. But instead, they intentionally require tires that wear out pretty quickly. This reality is at the core of why the pit stop strategy exists. It might not seem all that important, but a slightly worn tire could be the difference between victory and defeat.

F1 racing is some of the fastest in the world. The drivers are some of the most skilled out there. It's not an exaggeration to say that the difference between first and second place can come down to mere seconds or less. That means that every second counts, and contrary to what some people might think, pit stops can actually save you seconds.

The fresher the tires on an F1 car, the better the grip and overall performance, and the faster you will be able to go. As the tires wear out, the car's performance is going to suffer more and more. So, the pit stop strategy focuses on weighing the benefits of getting new tires versus continuing on ones that have been worn down already.

Do you want to go for five laps on slower, worn-down tires, or make a pit stop before those five laps and take them on with brand new tires at peak performance? A pit stop might sound like a big detriment to time, but the difference in tires might actually pay for the time it took to put them on and gain you a few seconds along the way.

A Little Bit of Math on the Pit Stop Strategy

While it's not nearly as simple as the example we are about to provide, this is the core logic behind the pit stop strategy. Let's say that a driver makes three pit stops throughout the entire race, with each one taking thirty seconds total. This means a total of ninety seconds was lost during pit stops. However, the driver gets new tires each time.

Thanks to these new tires at regular intervals, the driver manages to shave a total of ninety seconds off of the finishing time they would have if they had continued to use worn-out tires throughout the race. This means that they sacrificed ninety seconds in order to gain ninety-one, and ultimately, they finished the race one second faster.

That one second can make or break a victory, and depending on the skill of the pit crew, the gains can actually be much greater. A good pit crew can replace tires very quickly, giving the car better performance for another leg of the race without sacrificing much time at all. The gain could be as good as ten or twenty seconds.

The logic is not all that different from something like investing. Maybe you put five dollars into stocks, which is a sacrifice. But ultimately, it gains you seven dollars, meaning you've come out two dollars richer even though you had to put money in first. The pit stop strategy is all about investing a little time for big gains.

How Does an F1 Team Know When to Make a Pit Stop?

In the old days, making a pit stop was mostly about gut instinct. You just had to estimate the right time to do it. Nowadays, the game plan is often managed by computers. Finding the ideal time to make a pit stop is mostly solid math. Researchers build mathematical models that compute all types of data, from weather conditions to fuel consumption.

These mathematical models take all of the factors into consideration and run millions of simulations to come up with the best times to make a pit stop and how much benefit that pit stop will offer overall. They account for just about everything: what if you make a pit stop, but afterward, you get stuck behind slower racers?

In such a scenario, even if the pit stop is quick you might still lose time. The computer simulation may conclude that it would be better to make a pit stop one lap later when such an issue won't pose a problem. The simulations provide many possible strategies for teams to use during a big race.

Having all of these strategies available, with both the risks and rewards laid out plainly, gives the team a better understanding of when they should or shouldn't make a pit stop in order to gain the time that new tires could provide to them.

Summary

How does the pit stop strategy work in F1 racing? Well, as the car goes around the track, its tires wear out, which affects its performance. By making a pit stop, the car can get new tires and perform better for a time. While the pit stop takes some time, the amount of time gained by the better performance on the next few laps makes up for it.

Written by Stefan Kristensen
Passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many stories behind racing that make it so interesting.
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