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F1 Racing Often Comes Down to the Tires – The New York Times

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Determining which of the three compounds, soft, medium and hard, to use and when, can turn a loser into a winner — or vice versa.
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Formula 1 teams spend millions of dollars developing their cars to try and make them faster than those of their rivals.
But it is often the strategy decisions, sometimes made at a team headquarters thousands of miles away, that will win or lose races. While track conditions, the weather and incidents during the race are discussed with drivers and engineers over the team radio, it is tire usage that presents the most striking chance to pass the opposition.
“We know that we haven’t got the fastest car,” said Andrew Shovlin, the track-side engineering director for Mercedes. “We’ve got to look to the opportunities in strategy.”
Before they even get to the racetrack, teams will start to plan their tire strategy using computer simulations and tire data. Teams have three types of tires to choose from, soft, medium and hard, known as compounds, with the added hurdle that two of them must be used during a race. Choosing wisely can make a car faster than the other guy’s car, and can also reduce the number of time-eating pit stops. And the strategy is constantly changing during a race.
“Pre-event, we run like 100,000 simulations where we give drivers different strategies, start tires, stop laps, all this sort of thing,” Bernadette Collins, the former head of race strategy at Aston Martin, said in an interview. “We come up with a best expected finishing position for each strategy.”
Practice on Friday gives teams the first chance to see how each tire performs on that track compared with their expectations or simulations, and then adjust their strategies. They will also analyze what their rivals are doing to understand tire performance.
“You’re trying to build as much of a picture as you can, so hopefully you’ve got a good range of compounds across a good range of cars,” said Collins.
The soft tire is typically the fastest and the best compound for qualifying, but it has a short life span, making it less effective in the race over long distances. The hard is around one second per lap slower, though this can sometimes increase because of weather conditions, but it is more durable, helping save teams a pit stop to change all four tires, which usually costs about 20 seconds.
The medium is intended to be somewhere in the middle, offering a balance of durability and speed.
For example, at the Dutch Grand Prix in September, which was 72 laps, the longest soft tire stint was 25 laps, the mediums managed 31 laps, and the hards went up to 38 laps. Teams will usually make one or two pit stops in a race.
Teams will always change all four tires at a pit stop, and must ensure the car always has the same compound of tire on each wheel. A specific tire is designated to each wheel. The rear tires have 10 centimeters more tread than the front tires, meaning they cannot be swapped around.
Teams must work out the quickest way to complete a race: either use the more durable tires that are slower but require fewer stops, or if the extra pace of the softer tires makes it worth taking extra time in the pits. Each team will have dedicated engineers analyzing the data from sensors in the tires to determine how they are performing.
If teams need to change strategy during the race, they will tell the drivers using the radio. This will be done via code, such as telling drivers they are on “plan B” or “plan C,” which will have been discussed in meetings before the race. If they plan to stay out eight laps longer than expected, a typical message might be “target lap plus eight” to inform the driver when they should pit.
Strategies can be influenced by factors outside of the teams’ control. Sometimes this can be because of rain, forcing teams to switch to tires designed just for wet conditions. Temperature changes can also impact tire life, as they did at the Hungarian Grand Prix in July.
Charles Leclerc of Ferrari was leading comfortably halfway through the race, but when he changed from mediums to hards, he struggled to get them warmed up because of the cold temperatures.
The cold had convinced Red Bull to give Max Verstappen mediums instead when he had pitted earlier, allowing him to pass Leclerc, who eventually pitted for a set of softs. But it was too late. Verstappen won, and Leclerc finished sixth.
More often, on-track incidents, like accidents, can force a change in plans, especially if the safety car is deployed. This requires the cars to follow the safety car at slow speed so cars in those incidents can be cleared. Because no overtaking is allowed and the cars bunch up behind the safety car, that wipes away the time gaps among cars and forces strategists to think quickly. It is sometimes more time efficient to pit while the cars have reduced speed.
Collins said the strategists would discuss “every three to four laps” what to do if the safety car is deployed so there is a plan in place to react. “Inevitably, doubts re-emerge when the safety car does come out, depending on the incident or who has retired,” she said. “It is always a bit frantic. The radio gets very busy with lots of people talking.”
These decisions are often made at headquarters, where strategists and engineers are crunching the numbers and keeping track of what other cars are doing. They are based in mission control-style rooms with rows of screens and computers, where staff members will be assigned roles such as listening in to other teams’ radio messages, analyzing tire degradation or looking at the weather radar in case of rain.
They can then give information back to the senior strategists at the track, who make the final call. “The difficult bit of strategy is getting the people to funnel the information to the pit wall at the right time, knowing when something is really crucial,” Collins said.
A recent example of adjusting plans during a race happened at the Dutch Grand Prix. Knowing it lacked the speed to beat Red Bull, Mercedes changed its tire strategy. It decided to pit Lewis Hamilton just once, instead of twice, while Red Bull’s Verstappen was set to pit twice. Mercedes worked out this would give it an eight-second lead once the pit stops were completed, which it hoped would be enough for Hamilton to win.
“We knew that we didn’t have the fastest car,” Shovlin said. “But we felt if we could put it on a better strategy, it would give us an opportunity of winning.”
But there was a late safety car when Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo had an engine failure and his car had to be cleared. That gave Red Bull an opportunity.
Verstappen had run on softs for 18 laps, mediums for 30 laps, but made a third pit stop to return to softs under the safety car for Bottas. Verstappen emerged from the pits close behind Hamilton, foiling the Mercedes strategy.
It could have also pitted Hamilton and given up the lead, but Mercedes gambled by not pitting. It noticed Hamilton had been managing his hard tires well by driving smoothly to prevent overheating, giving it reason to believe he could fend off Verstappen once the race resumed.
But Verstappen overtook Hamilton before they even reached the first corner after the restart because of Red Bull’s tire advantage. Hamilton, on the team radio, fumed over the strategy call as he dropped back to fourth place before the finish. He later apologized, admitting he reached a “breaking point” after seeing the chance to win slip away.
Toto Wolff, the team principal of Mercedes, said dealing with emotions was part of the game, and it was “how it has always been in a relationship between frustrated driver and the pit wall.”
But he backed the strategists for gambling to try and win instead of accepting second place. “It didn’t work out for him, but I’d rather take the risk to win the race for Lewis rather than finish second,” Wolff said.
Collins said it took time for drivers to trust their strategists.
“Part of that is to go through with the drivers why we made the decision, what information we did or didn’t have, and what you would do differently,” she said. “Like any working relationship, it’s about building trust over time.”
Although teams are careful not to give away too much information, Formula 1 works to explain their strategies through its TV broadcasts. It provides graphics offering constant updates on what tire each driver is using, and also works with Amazon Web Services to gather data from the cars and Pirelli, the sport’s tire supplier, which helps to estimate tire performance and overtaking probabilities of different strategies.
Rob Smedley, a Formula 1 technical consultant, previously worked as a race engineer at Ferrari. He said using the data in broadcasts would help to “give the fans an insight into my world.”
“Tire performance is such a key performance aspect of the whole of Formula 1,” he said. “You need to be able to tell that story in a way that’s engaging, and you don’t need a degree in physics to be able to understand it.”
That need has been driven by the new fans who are now learning about the sport after being pulled in by the Netflix show “Drive to Survive.” Smedley said that while Netflix was good at showing the behind-the-scenes politics, Formula 1 using the Amazon data on its broadcasts could help give fans a deeper understanding of races.
“We’ve had a huge influx of fans coming into the sport who have, and there’s nothing wrong with this, a very superficial view of what the sport is all about,” he said “It’s our job to take those new fans on an education journey.”
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