If you're new to the world of Formula 1, you might find the technical jargon used within the sport to be a little confusing at first. There are a lot of terms to remember, and while we won't talk about all of them today, we will be talking about one term in particular: sandbagging.
Sandbagging isn't exclusive to Formula 1, but it is certainly something that the sport sees sometimes. The term "sandbagging" refers to deliberately underperforming during an event, usually to throw off the other teams.
In this article, we'll be sharing with you everything you need to know about sandbagging in Formula 1, including how it's done and why exactly some teams do it.
As we've mentioned, sandbagging is when a team deliberately underperforms during a race, usually as a means of deceiving the other teams in some way.
The origins of the term aren't clear, but it's thought that it refers to horse racing; racing teams would sometimes cheat by using very lightweight jockeys, but hiding sandbags under the saddle to fool race officials into thinking that they had met the minimum weight requirements for the race.
In Formula 1, however, sandbagging doesn't involve modifying the car in any illegal way prior to the race; it just involves pretending to be slower than you actually are. While this does make sandbagging a somewhat deceptive practice, it isn't technically cheating (as defined by the official Formula 1 rules at least), so teams are allowed to do it.
In practice, sandbagging in Formula 1 usually occurs well before the actual race season begins, during the pre-season testing period. Famously, the Mercedes Formula 1 team has been accused of sandbagging on multiple occasions, particularly during the 2019 season; they performed somewhat poorly during pre-season testing, but then went on to win 15 of the 21 races that year.
In theory, sandbagging seems like it would be pretty easy to pull off; you just have to drive slower than you normally would. But in practice, it's a little harder than that. You can't make it too obvious that you're driving below your limits, because then it'll be obvious to the other teams that you're sandbagging. So what can you really do?
There are a number of different tactics teams use for the purpose of sandbagging; while the teams don't tend to readily share this information for obvious reasons, there are a few tricks that are known.
One of these tricks is to use a little more fuel than necessary during pre-season testing. Generally, for every 10 kg of weight you add to a Formula 1 car, lap times increase by about 0.3 seconds. So, by adding just a touch more fuel to the tank than needed, teams can make their cars drive slower while still going full-throttle.
The other tactic is to avoid driving totally flat-out for the entirety of each testing lap. These days, it's not really possible to do this anymore because of the introduction of sector timing during the testing period, but basically, some teams would drive flat out for most of the track and then slow down for one sector.
With each sector of each track having a time limit, teams now have to look for more creative ways to drive slowly during testing. For example, in 2017, Sebastian Vettel was noted to be lifting off his Ferrari's gas on the starting/finishing straight of his testing laps, but otherwise driving normally.
While this doesn't seem like it would make a huge difference, those lost fractions of a second add up fast, especially when everyone else is driving as hard as they can.
Russell during pre-season testing in 2020, Artes Max from Spain, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
You might be wondering why Formula 1 teams engage in sandbagging to begin with. After all, when you're talking about teams like Mercedes and Ferrari, it's generally considered common knowledge that they're the fastest teams in the sport already. So why bother hiding what's already known?
Well, as it turns out, a lot of practices in Formula 1 are based around deceiving the other teams, and sandbagging is no exception. Even though the other teams might be generally aware that Mercedes and Ferrari have the fastest cars in any given year, sandbagging can make it way more difficult for the other teams to figure out which benchmark they actually have to hit.
For example, let's say Ferrari happens to design a car that is 5 seconds quicker around a circuit than all the other cars. If the other teams knew the Ferrari was that fast, they would probably do whatever they could to try and get their cars up to that level.
So instead, Ferrari sandbags during the testing period, and sets lap times that are only, say, 1 second faster than the competition. If Ferrari were to keep this up consistently, the other teams would likely assume that they need to make their own cars just 1 second faster to stay competitive.
In a situation like this, the other teams would likely spend most of their time trying to tweak a bunch of little things to make up that 1-second difference, instead of trying to implement large changes for bigger gains.
You have to keep in mind that most of the teams that aren't Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull have budgets that are a lot smaller than those of the top three teams, so it's not really feasible for them to radically change the design of their cars after the initial design is finalized.
Even in general, teams don't really want to spend any more money designing their cars than they have to. The total cost of developing and building a Formula 1 car is close to $20 million dollars, and having to redesign a car can easily add millions more to the initial cost.
Finally, when the race season begins, the teams show up only to discover that Ferrari is still faster than all of them by 4 seconds every race. By sandbagging strategically, it's possible for one team to put the other teams at a significant disadvantage.