“Undercut” is the buzzword in Formula 1 circles today as it is used more often than in the past. With Pirelli tyres, most Grands Prix are either one pit stop or two pit stop races. Rarely do drivers pit for a third stop unless they have an unfortunate flat tyre. But what is an undercut in Formula 1 and how does it work?
What is an Undercut in Formula 1?
Every team has a race strategy for every Grand Prix. The strategy will depend on the track conditions, the weather and the quality of opposition. Race strategies are outlined before the race. All team members are taken into confidence when planning a strategy. Race strategies however are not set in stone. The decision to undercut is taken when the driver is racing.
Team race strategy outlines plans to outsmart the opponent. Undercutting is one of the ploys employed in gaining an advantage over the opponent. The timing of the undercut and its execution will decide whether the strategy works or not. The team manager, team engineers and the driver have the final say on when the driver needs to undercut.
Undercutting is nothing but pitting earlier than anticipated by the opponent. This gives the undercutting driver the advantage of racing on new tyres. New tyres can be used to gain a lead over the opponent. Knowing that the opponent will pit after a few laps, the undercutting driver has an opportunity to build a bigger lead.
The timing of deploying the undercut is important. A driver has to undercut one or two laps before the other drivers are supposed to pit. If he is successful in doing that, he has the advantage of racing in clean air when the other driver’s pit. Clean air provides less resistance to the car and helps the driver gain a bigger lead on the opponent while saving tyres.
Does undercutting always work?
Undercutting works only when it is timed and executed properly. If the opponent anticipates and understands the race strategy of the undercutting driver and counters it, the strategy can backfire. The driver that pitted later will have newer tyres towards the end of the race. The undercutting driver will hand over the advantage gained to the driver that pitted later.
A smart opponent who has understood the undercut strategy will work out how many more laps he can go without pitting. He will then race till he can in the slipstream of the undercutting driver if he has taken the lead to preserve his tyres.
Towards the end of the race, the opponent has several laps of not so worn-out tyres. These tyres, which are not as old as the undercutting car, help the opponent gain back the lead. The undercut is only employed after weighing the risks involved against possible gains in the race. As such, the decision to undercut is only made while the race is in progress.
What is the overcut in Formula 1?
Overcutting is also an advantage gaining strategy employed in Grand Prix races, though rarely. Overcutting is just the opposite of undercutting. Here a driver stays out of the pit and takes advantage of racing in clean air while other drivers pit. Clean air presents less resistance to the car helping the driver make good time while saving the car’s tyres.
The driver that overcuts, gives it his all while he is out there, knowing that he is going to pit soon. Towards the end of the race, he will have the advantage of racing on lesser worn tyres and gain back his position. Overcutting does have benefits but also the same disadvantages as undercutting. If not timed and executed properly, the ploy can backfire.
Overcutting is also used when the safety car is deployed. When the safety car is deployed, all the cars are bunched together. The advantage enjoyed by all drivers is marginal. The driver pits just before the safety car goes off the track. When he comes out of the pits, he is racing on new tyres and can make good time recovering his lost position or even better.
How was the undercut employed in the 2021 F1 season?
Max Verstappen first employed the undercut in the 2021 French Grand Prix. Although he had to work hard to win the race later, it allowed him and Red Bull to dictate the race strategy. He again successfully employed it in the US Grand Prix against Lewis Hamilton. Max Verstappen and Red Bull were sweating by the time Verstappen won the race on well worn-out tyres.
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes responded by taking a leaf out of Max Verstappen’s book in the 2021 Qatar Grand Prix. The Mercedes team called in Lewis Hamilton very early into the race. The result of the undercut was that Lewis Hamilton built up an insurmountable lead and went on to win the Grand Prix.
Video: How The Undercut Works In F1
How The Undercut Works In F1 – The Conclusion
Undercutting and overcutting are manoeuvres employed in Formula 1 Grand Prix racing as a part of race strategy. Both manoeuvres can be successful or not depending on the timing of employment. The decision to employ any one of these manoeuvres is taken when the race is in progress after carefully weighing the risks involved.