Illustration by Minnie Leaver
Lando Norris—the effervescent young McLaren driver—had a stonking weekend in Russia last year. For the first time in his career, he set the fastest lap in qualifying. Despite losing the lead on the opening lap of the race, he regained it commandingly. Towards the end of the race, he guarded against Lewis Hamilton as if they were cruising down a single carriageway.
And then it started raining.
With only a few laps to go, the race was now fraught with uncertainty. Going slowly through the pits and stopping for the wet weather tyre would cost more than 20 seconds, and if the rain passed, those tyres would be no good. But staying out on dry weather tyres if the rain continued would be even worse: the car would have about as much grip as your granny in the shower after five shots of tequila. What would Norris do?
When his team suggested switching to the wet weather tyres, his reply was instinctive and almost petulant: “No!”
That one simple word robbed him of his first victory.
Hamilton behind him pitted, and the next lap, the rain came down with vengeance. Norris was quite literally a sitting duck. By the time he crawled back to the pits for the wet tyres, the dream was over. He finished seventh. The cruellest reminder possible that talent, speed, and a good car are not always enough. Strategy counts too.
A bunch of factors contribute to making the right strategy call. Weather is obviously one. Another is the different types of tyre compounds: soft tyres are quicker but less durable, hard tyres the opposite.
For example, at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, Hamilton pitted twice so that he could run the softer tyre at the end of the race, while Verstappen pitted once, using the harder tyre. Although the extra stop cost Hamilton 20 seconds, he ultimately prevailed over Verstappen, because the new, quicker tyres gave him such a pace advantage.
In a similar vein, new tyres can be used to “undercut” the car in front. With the undercut, you pit before your opponent, go really fast on your new, fresh set of tyres, and thereby hope to propel in front of them when they pit later on. Indeed, Verstappen overturned a 3.2-second deficit to Hamilton in France last year by pitting for new tyres a lap earlier and then giving it full beans on the out-lap.
But the benefit of fresh tyres varies from track to track. Some tracks are really difficult to overtake on. Take Monaco, where Daniel Ricciardo won a few years ago despite a car gremlin losing him seventh and eighth gear, because the track was just so narrow. There, if your tyres are heavily degraded and you’re going very slowly, the car behind will still struggle to pass. Other tracks are the opposite.
Perhaps the biggest variable, however, is the presence of the safety car, which slows the cars down until it’s safe to resume racing: when there’s been a crash, for example. Under the safety car, pit stops become relatively cheaper. That’s because while you’re going slowly through the pit lane, other cars are also going slowly behind the safety car, instead of at full speed.
The allure of a cheap pit shop under the safety car led to what was perhaps the sport’s most manipulative cheating scandal. In Singapore in 2008, Renault instructed one of their cars to crash, to bring out their safety car. Their other driver, Alonso, was in a perfect position to capitalise strategically. It worked—Alonso won the race.
Of course, tyre degradation and strategy permutations do not inspire the same visceral excitement as wheel-to-wheel scraps on the track. But I think there’s a quiet excitement knowing that sometimes—just sometimes—a nerdy strategy engineer, analysing the numbers, who has worked remotely from the track since before remote working was cool, can change the outcome of a Grand Prix. So too can a particularly determined black cloud, as Lando Norris found out.