By Stefan Kristensen
January 9, 2022

Undercutting in Formula 1: What You Need to Know

Being successful in a Formula 1 Grand Prix isn't as simple as just having the fastest car. Drivers also have to contend with things like mandatory pit stops, weather conditions, and the likelihood of the safety car appearing on the track at some point. As such, teams need to enter each race with a strategy in mind.

Undercutting is a common element of Formula 1 strategy that you'll frequently see during races. If a driver times it just right, undercutting can potentially make a big difference during a race and give that driver a big advantage over everyone in front of him.

Today, we'll be going over everything you should know about undercutting in Formula 1.

What Is an Undercut in Formula 1?

Pit stop timing is pretty crucial to success in Formula 1. Since a pit stop obviously makes drivers lose time and positions on the field, it's common for drivers to wait until the absolute last minute to swap out their old tires for fresh ones. However, there are some instances where it's more advantageous to take a pit stop earlier rather than later.

An undercut in F1 is when a driver enters the pit earlier than the immediate competitor ahead, hoping that switching to fresh tires a lap or two earlier will give additional speed to pass the competitor ahead once that competitor also has completed his pit stop slightly later on.

Imagine that a driver is 0.5 seconds behind another driver and unable to pass on track as the driver ahead defends skillfully. Now imagine that he can drive a second a lap faster on new tires compared to the worn-out tires he is currently on. This means, theoretically, that by entering the pit one lap earlier, he can pass the driver ahead simply by changing the tires one lap earlier and drive faster for won lap. And remember that the driver ahead can't know for sure that his competitor will push the trick before he himself has passed the pit lane making him unable to do the same for at least another lap.

That's essentially what undercutting is; making a pit stop a few laps earlier than the car ahead of you does. The thinking here is that even if you lose time, thanks to taking an early pit stop, you'll be able to make that time up later by having fresh tires sooner.

Undercutting can be a risky strategy, and it doesn't always work, but when it does, it can significantly affect the outcome of a race. 

When Does an Undercut Work During Races in Formula 1?

Taking an early pit stop is a bit of a gamble since it gives the drivers ahead of you a little more time to increase the distance. However, when done right, undercutting can make you faster than the drivers in front of you.

If an undercutting driver makes a pit stop before the driver in front of him, then he'll have a new set of fresh tires at an earlier point in the race. Fresh tires obviously offer more mechanical grip than worn-out ones, so once the undercutting driver leaves the pit, their car will handle better than that of the driver in front.

Even though the driver in front will be a significant distance ahead, thanks to the undercutting driver's pit stop, they'll be driving on worn-out tires that don't offer as much grip. This can give the undercutting driver a good opportunity to close the distance between himself and the driver in front.

Then, when the driver in front inevitably has to pit, this can give the undercutting driver a chance he needs to overtake the leading driver. If the undercutting driver manages to get close enough to the driver in front, he can use his DRS (drag reduction system) to claim an especially easy overtake.

When Does an Undercut Fail?

While pulling off an undercut at the right time can potentially give a driver a better chance of winning a race, it is a pretty risky trick to attempt, as we've mentioned. The timing has to be just right for an undercut to be successful; if you try to pull off an undercut too early, you'll ultimately leave yourself at a disadvantage.

If you try and undercut the driver ahead of you earlier than you should, you'll receive your fresh set of tires too early. When this happens, a driver will initially receive the benefits of having fresh tires that we mentioned, but they will lose these benefits as the race goes on and their tires start to wear out.

Now, let's say the driver ahead of you pits at the normal time. If they do this, you might have the advantage over them for the period of time leading up to their pit stop, and possibly for a short period afterwards.

However, once they get their fresh tires on, they'll be back in top form and ready to continue on with the rest of the race at full pace. You, on the other hand, will have been driving on formerly fresh tires for a few laps now, and you'll probably have less grip than the driver in front.

This isn't a big deal if you're relatively close to the end of the race and you've put enough distance between yourself and the driver formerly in front of you to ensure a victory, but if you aren't, then the driver you undercut has a good chance of retaking his position. 

What Other Pit Lane Strategies Do Drivers Use?

Undercutting isn't the only thing drivers can do to try and gain places over other drivers. The pit lane strategy is important in every race, and careful timing of pit stops is essential if you want to stand a chance of winning.

Overcutting is another pit strategy that you might see some drivers adopt. Overcutting is the opposite of undercutting but is a little bit riskier of a trick to try. While undercutting involves taking a pit stop before the driver in front of you in the hopes of making up the distance later, overcutting involves letting the car in front pit first while you continue on with the race.

The idea behind overcutting is to push as hard as you can while the driver in front completes his pit stop to create as much distance between them and you as possible. With any luck, when it comes time for your own pit stop, there will be enough distance between them and you that they won't be able to catch up.

The other technique you might occasionally see during a race is the double-stack pit stop. This is when a team has both of its drivers make a pit stop on the same lap, one after the other. The double-stack pit stop is not performed very often, mostly because it's so tricky to pull off successfully and because it's not really practical to try in most races.

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been 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 technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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