How The Undercut Works In Formula 1

Sebastian Vettel pitting in the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix is a fantastic example of how the undercut works in Formula 1
Sebastian Vettel pitting in the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix is a fantastic example of how the undercut works in Formula 1

In Formula 1 racing, the undercut is a strategic maneuver where a driver pits before their rivals to gain an advantage. The essence of the undercut lies in the use of fresher tires to outpace competitors on older, more worn tires, capitalizing on the performance disparity. This tactic hinges on precise timing and can result in the undercutting driver leapfrogging ahead when their opponents stop for their own tire changes later on.

Efficient execution of the undercut requires a clear understanding of tire behavior and track dynamics. Factors such as tire degradation rates and the relative speed of cars on different tire compounds play key roles. Deciding to undertake an undercut involves a balance of risk and reward; while it may offer an opportunity to overtake, miscalculations can compromise track position and race strategy.

Key Takeaways

  • Strategic Timing and Tire Management: The success of the undercut strategy heavily relies on the precise timing of the pit stop and a deep understanding of tire performance. By pitting before their rivals, drivers can take advantage of fresher tires to outpace competitors on older, worn tires, potentially leapfrogging ahead in position once everyone has made their stops.
  • Risk vs. Reward: While the undercut can offer significant advantages in terms of track position, it is not without its risks. Miscalculations in timing, underestimating tire degradation, or re-entering the race in heavy traffic can negate the benefits of fresher tires, making it a high-stakes decision that requires careful consideration and planning.
  • Impact of Track and Weather Conditions: The effectiveness of an undercut is also influenced by external factors such as track conditions and weather. Optimal track temperatures and surface characteristics can enhance tire performance, making an undercut more effective. Conversely, adverse weather conditions or unfavorable track temperatures can compromise the strategy, highlighting the importance of adaptability and strategic foresight in race planning.

How The Undercut Works In Formula 1

The F1 undercut occurs when you get enough tyre degradation that the lap time of the tyre that you’re taking off has degraded such that it is slower even than the harder compound that you may be putting on. So, if you choose to stop just at the right time, your competitor is on a relatively slow, worn soft tyre and you move to, say, a brand new medium tyre, which has better performance, then at that point, you’ve got an undercut – you’ve achieved overall better lap times. The important thing is that you’ve got track position on your rival and racing is mostly about track position.

Fundamentals of the Undercut Strategy

In Formula 1, a strategic operation like the undercut is integral to a team’s race tactics. The undercut involves pitting earlier than competitors, ideally when they are on worn tyres. The essence of this maneuver is to take advantage of fresh tires to gain a performance advantage.

Key Components of an Undercut:

  • Pit Stop Strategy: Timing is critical; a pit stop is executed before the opponents make theirs.
  • Worn Tyres vs. Fresh Tires: The driver leaves behind deteriorating tyres in exchange for new ones that provide better grip and speed.
  • Performance Advantage: Fresh tyres allow for faster lap times, potentially overtaking the competition when they pit at a later stage.

The process operates on the premise that a car on fresh tyres can lap substantially quicker than one on old tires. Therefore, if the gap is small enough, the driver who pitted can rejoin the race ahead after the others have made their pit stops.

Considerations for Undercut:

  • Track position and traffic must be factored into the pit stop strategy to avoid losing time behind slower cars.
  • The advantage might be short-lived if the fresh tyres degrade faster, requiring adjustment of the overall race strategy.

The effectiveness of an undercut also depends on how well the team can predict tyre performance and track conditions, which can alter the outcomes of the strategy.

Executing the Undercut

In Formula 1 racing, executing the undercut requires precise timing and strategic track positioning to overtake competitors. The success of this maneuver hinges on diving into the pits for new tires at the opportune moment to gain speed advantage over opponents.

Timing the Pit Stop

To successfully perform an undercut, a driver must optimally time their entrance to the pit lane. This typically involves making an early pit stop before the car ahead pits, hence the term “undercut.” The driver will aim to stop one or two laps earlier than competitors, affording them the benefit of fresher tires. This tactic is especially useful when the car behind is running in clean air and can take full advantage of the increased pace that new tires provide.

  • Optimal Lap: Decide which lap to enter the pits based on tire degradation and following traffic.
  • Track Analysis: Evaluate the circuit’s characteristics to determine if earlier pit stops will grant a net benefit.
  • Competitor’s Strategy: Monitor the race strategy of the car ahead to pit at a moment that will be advantageous.

Importance of Track Position

The driver pits with the expectation to return to the track in a position that allows them to capitalize on clean air and unobstructed laps. Track position is critical because the driver aims to emerge ahead of traffic, where they can maximize their pace without interference from slower cars. The team must calculate if the gain from new tires will offset the time lost in the pit stop, enabling the driver to effectively overtake the car ahead once the opponent pits.

  • Clean Air Advantage: Use the laps after pitting to set fast times unimpeded by other cars.
  • Traffic Assessment: Avoid re-entering the track in heavy traffic which could negate the benefits of fresher tires.

Timing and track position are paramount in making the undercut work, with teams and drivers aiming for precision to gain strategic track advantage.

The Role of Tires in an Undercut

An undercut in Formula 1 relies on tire performance to gain a time advantage over competitors. The condition of the tires before and after the pit stop is central to the strategy’s success.

Tyre Performance and Degradation

Tire performance in Formula 1 is highly sensitive to thermal degradation. Older tires lose grip and speed due to wear and heat, which results in slower lap times. As the tire life extends, worn out tires exhibit increased degradation, making the timing of a pit stop crucial for an effective undercut strategy.

  • Worn Out Tyres: Reduced grip and performance
  • Tyre Life: Affects timing for pit stops
  • Thermal Degradation: Impacts tire behavior throughout their life

New Tyres and Their Impact

When a driver switches to fresher tires, they benefit from improved grip and faster lap times. The fresh rubber offers a significant performance uplift, which can potentially enable a driver to rejoin the race ahead of competitors that have yet to pit.

  • Fresh Rubber: Improved grip and faster lap times
  • Fresher Tyres: Essential for overtaking after an undercut

Risks and Rewards

When implementing the undercut in Formula 1, teams weigh the potential benefits against the possibility of time lost due to traffic and tyre performance. The execution of this technique is critical and can significantly impact the race outcome.

Managing Tyre Wear

Newer Tyres: Pitting earlier to undertake an undercut allows a driver to take advantage of newer, faster tires before their opponents. The period immediately after switching to fresh tires can provide a lap time advantage, which could be crucial for overtaking once the competitors emerge from their pit stops.

  • Fresh Tyres and Performance: A successful undercut relies on extracting the maximum performance from new tyres quickly. This window of opportunity is essential for a driver to put in faster laps than their rivals who are still on older tires.

Slower Lap Times and Traffic: However, an undercut can be risky if the driver re-enters the race in heavy traffic. Slower vehicles can negate the advantage of new tyres by holding up the driver, leading to slower lap times.

  • Time Lost: Any time gained through the performance of new tires can be lost if the driver encounters traffic upon re-entry to the track. This loss can be significant if the traffic is sustained over several laps.

In summary, while the undercut strategy offers the potential to gain positions, it requires precise timing and consideration of tyre wear and track position to offset the risks of lost time due to slower traffic.

Strategic Decisions Under Safety Car Conditions

Formula 1 race strategies adapt significantly during Safety Car conditions, which provide teams with a chance to make strategic pit stops and conserve tyre wear with a reduced impact on a driver’s race position.

Safety Car Periods

When a Safety Car is deployed during an F1 race, it significantly alters standard racing conditions. Specifically, it reduces the time lost during a pit stop, as the field is bunched up and travelling at a slower pace.

  • Advantages: Drivers who pit under the Safety Car can often gain positions if their rivals stay out, by taking advantage of fresher tyres once the race resumes.
  • Considerations: Teams must carefully decide whether the tyre savings and potential gain in position outweigh the risk of pitting early and deviating from pre-race strategies.

Virtual Safety Car

The Virtual Safety Car (VSC) also brings a notable strategic dimension to races.

  • Pit Stop Window: During VSC conditions, drivers must maintain a slower pace, creating an ideal window for pit stops as the loss of time is less than in full-race speed instances.
  • Tyre Conservation: With all cars slowed down, drivers have an opportunity to save tyres, essentially extending tyre life and altering strategy for the remainder of the race.

Each decision taken during these periods is critical as it can alter the outcome of the race, influencing driver gains and overall team success.

Competitive Dynamics

In Formula 1 racing, strategic pit stops are critical for overtaking and defending positions. The timing of these stops, and whether a team opts for an undercut or overcut, can drastically influence the outcome of a race.

Overcut vs. Undercut


An undercut is a racing strategy where a driver pits before their competitors in hopes of gaining a time advantage. By fitting new tires and returning to the track, the driver aims to complete laps at a quicker pace than those on older tires. If executed correctly, the driver will be ahead of the cars they were trailing when those cars eventually pit.

  • Advantages:
    • Can gain position when others on the track are slower due to worn tires.
    • Effective against cars with similar or slightly faster pace.
  • Risks:
    • New tires must provide enough of a speed increase to compensate for the time spent in the pit.
    • Traffic encountered upon rejoining the track could negate the benefit.


Alternatively, an overcut involves staying out on the track longer than the competitor before pitting, aiming to take advantage of a clear track to set faster lap times. This works well if a car’s tires are holding up better than those of the competitors, allowing them to push hard and create a gap.

  • Advantages:
    • A driver can exploit clear tracks to set competitive lap times.
    • Useful when overtaking directly on track is difficult.
  • Risks:
    • The strategy can backfire if the tires degrade too much, causing loss of time.
    • The driver might pit and rejoin the race in traffic, which can reduce the opportunity to overtake.

Both the undercut and overcut require teams to judge the performance of their car against others, understanding when their car can be faster or how to best use tire performance to their advantage. Whether fighting to overtake a slower car or to maintain a lead against a faster car on the same lap, the decision to eventually pit is often the difference between winning and losing. The balance between risk and reward in these decisions is a testament to the strategic depth of Formula 1 racing.

Optimizing Pit Stop Sequences

In Formula 1, precise timing and execution of pit stops are imperative for gaining a strategic advantage during a race. Teams analyze various factors to determine the optimal moment for a driver to pit. Effective sequencing of pit stops, which refers to the strategic timing of tire changes and other maintenance, can leverage the performance benefits of fresh tires.

During a pit stop, the pit crew must work in concert to change tires as swiftly as possible. Coordination and practice lead to pit stop durations of less than three seconds. After the pit stop, the driver engages in what is known as the “Out Lap,” which is crucial. On fresh tires, a driver can push hard to maximize the advantage over competitors who may be on older, more worn tires.

Strategic elements include:

  • Timing: Pitting at the right moment can prevent a driver from losing time behind slower cars or in traffic.
  • Pit Crew Performance: A well-trained crew is essential for quick and error-free tire changes.
  • Weather Conditions: Shifts in weather can necessitate unplanned pit stops, requiring teams to adapt rapidly.

An effective pit stop sequence can be the difference between winning and losing. Teams must assess the potential gain from fresh tires against the time spent in the pit lane. Ideally, a driver reenters the track in a clear space to maximize the out lap’s effectiveness, allowing the undercut strategy to play out successfully. This precision turns the pit stop into a powerful element in a team’s strategic arsenal.

Impact of Track Conditions

Track conditions play a pivotal role in the effectiveness of an undercut strategy in Formula 1 racing. Different track surfaces affect the level of grip available to the tires, which directly impacts car performance. For instance, a race track with a smooth surface may offer less resistance, allowing for higher speeds but requiring careful tire management to maintain traction.

Temperature is another critical factor. Optimal temperature ranges help tires reach their peak performance level, enabling better handling and faster lap times. During an undercut maneuver, if the track surface is too hot, it can cause the tires to degrade more rapidly, negating the potential benefits of fresher tires. Conversely, a cooler track surface might not allow the new tires to reach the ideal operating temperature quickly, which could compromise the intended advantage of pitting earlier.

Strategic decisions must also consider weather-induced changes. Rain, for example, can alter a track’s characteristics dramatically, affecting braking points, acceleration, and the rate at which tires wear. A well-timed undercut during varied weather conditions requires precise predictions about how the track will evolve during the race.

Key Points:

  • Smooth surface: May offer less resistance, affecting traction and tire wear.
  • Tire grip: Dependent on track texture; essential for exploiting the benefit of fresher tires.
  • Optimal temperature: Necessary for peak tire performance; influences the success of an undercut.

A finely-executed undercut leverages an understanding of these conditions and adjusts the strategy accordingly to gain track positions. Without careful consideration of the track environment, an undercut attempt may fail to yield the desired outcome.

Historical Context and Evolution

In Formula 1, strategic pit stops have played a critical role in race outcomes for decades. Initially, pit stops were primarily for refueling and repairing vehicles, with little focus on tire strategy. Over time, with advancements in tire technology and aerodynamics, the significance of tire changes grew.

During the last few decades, teams began to realize that timing these stops could be as important as the stops themselves. They discovered that by pitting a car at an opportune moment, a driver could return to the track with less traffic and on fresher tires, hence the undercut strategy took shape. The premise lies in pitting sooner than the competitors to gain a time advantage that will pay off when others make their pit stop later.

Lewis Hamilton and his team, Mercedes, have often utilized the undercut to great effect, demonstrating the evolution of the strategy into an art form. For instance, pitting just before a competitor is due to navigate slower traffic can compound the benefits of the undercut.

Likewise, Red Bull Racing has leveraged undercutting to outsmart competitors, especially at circuits where overtaking is challenging. The fresh tire grip versus old tire degradation becomes a decisive factor in gaining track positions.

Decade Pit Stop Focus Strategy Shift 1970s Refueling, Repairs Tactical tire changes 1980s Tire Durability Early strategic stops 1990s Aerodynamics Refined stop timing 2000s Pit Stop Speed Introduction of undercutting

The nuances of the undercut hinge on a confluence of factors: tire compound performance, individual driving style, track layout, and weather conditions. The precise execution can propel a driver past competitors through a well-timed return to the race.

F1 Undercut – FAQs

 How does the undercut work in Formula 1?

The F1 undercut occurs when you get enough tyre degradation that the lap time of the tyre that you’re taking off has degraded such that it is slower even than the harder compound that you may be putting on. So, if you choose to stop just at the right time, your competitor is on a relatively slow, worn soft tyre and you move to, say, a brand new medium tyre, which has better performance, then at that point, you’ve got an undercut – you’ve achieved overall better lap times. The important thing is that you’ve got track position on your rival and racing is mostly about track position.

Do Formula 1 teams always look for an undercut?

Not always. When it doesn’t work is when you’ve got very low degradation on, say, a soft tyre and there’s quite a big gap in performance from the soft to a medium. It’s where your soft tyre is still providing you with good performance 20 laps into the race and the medium tyre is way too hard for the level of degradation you will see in the soft. I would say that Russia is not a place where we’re likely to see much of an undercut in F1. The level of degradation is low and I think we have the C2, C3 and C4 compounds there so I think it won’t be worth be pursuing. You never know, but I think it’s unlikely.

Why does an undercut work in F1?

An undercut in Formula 1 works as a strategic maneuver where a driver pits to change tires before their competitor ahead does. The idea is that by pitting early and switching to new tires, the driver can take advantage of the fresher, faster tires to put in some quick laps. When the competitor responds by pitting on a later lap, the driver who undercut can potentially rejoin the race ahead due to the time gained from their earlier pit stop and faster laps on new tires. This strategy relies on the driver being able to maximize the performance of the new tires immediately after the pit stop and requires precise timing and execution to be successful.


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