Since 2010, Formula 1 has seen two periods of complete domination. The first was with Red Bull and Sebastien Vettel, who clinched the World Drivers’ Championship for four consecutive years until 2013.
Then, from 2014, Mercedes have been streets ahead, winning both championships in every season. British driver Lewis Hamilton has enjoyed an astonishing run of good form and would have already beaten Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles had it not been for his teammate Nico Rosberg pipping him by just five points in 2016. Hamilton did, however, equalize it in 2020 after winning 11 races out of 17.
2021 has proven to be very different though. After some rule changes and off-season development, Red Bull has been able to catch up to the Silver Arrows and challenge for the title. Hungry for his maiden championship, Dutchman Max Verstappen is leading the charge and leads with 12 points over Hamilton after the US Grand Prix.
The two have swapped places at the top of the table several times throughout the year and it looks like the championship battle will be taken down to the wire in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on December 12, 2021.
With such tight margins, a single DNF or mistake could be all that’s needed to decide who will be celebrating at the end of the year. It also means that strategy and number crunching is going to be just as decisive to the outcome of the title battle as driving skill.
Numbers in sport
Using mathematics, statistics, and probabilities is not exclusive to Formula 1. We can find it applied to strategic decisions in just about every discipline on the planet. Games like blackjack and roulette are built around probabilities and skilled players try to apply strategies that will shift the odds.
Similarly, in the NBA, strategists applying complex calculations, game theory, and improved player skill have combined to increase the frequency in which teams shoot for 3-point field goals. Since the 3-point rule was introduced in 1980, the number of attempts at this type of shot has increased from less than 5% to nearly 40% today.
In Formula 1, strategy decisions are key in gaining position on track and beating your rivals.
Pit stop overtakes
There are two places to overtake in Formula 1 – out on the track and in the pit lane. Most of the time, everyone would prefer drivers beat their rivals by using race craft to pass them on the circuit, but the dirty air that makes it hard for cars to follow closely through corners means pit-stop overtaking is important too.
We saw this come into play during the United States Grand Prix, when Lewis Hamilton beat Max Verstappen from the start, gaining the lead into the first corner. Verstappen couldn’t manage an overtake while on the circuit, so his team called him in for an early pit stop to change tires.
F1 cars must run at least two types of tire during a race (unless it rains) and, therefore, must make at least one pit stop.
Drivers that pit before their rival can try to perform something known as the “undercut”, a strategic play where they pit earlier so that they have fresh rubber. This freshness provides more grip, helping the cars to go faster.
If the driver can then reduce the gap between them and their rival to less than the time it takes to make a pit stop (20 seconds in the case of the US Grand Prix), then they will have pulled off the undercut and overtaken their opponent.
Timing pit stops right in order to undercut a rival requires careful calculation, simulation, and consideration. Strategists must work out the different permutations, predicting how the other team(s) will counter their moves and deciding which option has the best probability of working.
Teams will typically employ an entire team of people to do this number-crunching who will work for weeks in the run-up to the race, feeding new data into their models. They’ll also continue throughout the Grand Prix itself, inputting real-life data into their simulations.
Countering strategic moves requires the same effort. In the case of the undercut, it is sometimes possible to “go long”, with the defending driver waiting for several laps before they pit after a rival. The rationale behind this is that, by the end of the race, they will have fresher tires than their opponent and may be able to overtake them on the track.
But as we saw in the US, this is more difficult because the dirty air comes into play.
Effect on the 2021 Championship
With both the Mercedes and Red Bull cars and drivers being evenly matched, strategy will play a big role in deciding the winner of the championship. Both would rather they beat their opponent in wheel-to-wheel combat, but dirty air will make this difficult.
F1 in 2021 will, therefore, be as much of a mental competition as a physical one.