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The Subtle Game of Race Strategy - a High Speed Chess Match

When the Track Action Hits a Lull - Check Out the Masters' Moves

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The Subtle Game of Race Strategy - a High Speed Chess Match
Photo (c) Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Team

Unlike in many other forms of auto racing, a Formula 1 race often has long periods in which very little track action appears to be taking place. That is, there may not be much passing and wheel-to-wheel fighting. But it's often during these apparently quiet moments that the biggest stakes are being played out in race strategy. And it is in following, or even second-guessing, that strategy that the spectator discovers a whole new, passionately interesting element to the race apart from track action.

The Elements of Strategy

Strategy may be broken down into the following aspects: tires, fuel level, pit stops, engine revs, grid position and the nature of the specific track itself. Depending on the way these elements are used and calculated, the winning car is not always the fastest in terms of raw speed or passing on the track.

Budapest: A Case Study in Strategy

If a race lasts 70 laps, like the Hungarian Grand Prix, then a strategic scenario might go as follows: if the two cars most likely to win are those that start from first and second positions, they will also probably have two different strategies. The winning strategy will be the one that best takes advantage of the track features.

Passing another car on the Hungaroring is notoriously difficult, as it is a narrow, dusty and winding track. This means most drivers try to pass during the pit stops, using strategy instead of raw speed. Imagine Fernando Alonso scored the pole position in his McLaren-Mercedes, while Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari started second, although it was faster all weekend.

This likely happened because Alonso used the softest choice of tires, and perhaps less fuel. Softer tires are faster, but they wear out more quickly than a harder tire. Raikkonen, by contrast, has used the harder tire, and with more fuel on his car, it is heavier and therefore slower. But the Ferrari's tires and fuel will last longer than those of the McLaren, allowing Raikkonen to stay out on the track longer before his first pit stop. It may even allow him to make only one pit stop to two pit stops for Alonso.

Making pit stops to change tires and refuel may take over half a minute. While Alonso takes his pit stop, Raikkonen can make up the lost ground on the Spaniard so that when Alonso returns to the track he is behind the Ferrari. When Raikkonen returns from his pit stop later on, he will do so ahead of Alonso.

A Driver Too is a Big Part of Race Strategy

Strategy not only requires calculation from the team, it also requires perfect execution by the driver. At precisely the moment his team asks him to, he must speed up and pass straggling cars. His pit lane entry and exit must be perfect to reduce the time of his pit stop.

Strategy as Viewing Pleasure

For many spectators strategy is a source of aesthetic pleasure, as watching a game of chess is to a Grand Master. Although there is not much action on the board in a chess game, it is the mental action of outwitting the adversary that pleases the spectator.

"In some ways race strategy is the same as chess," said Ross Brawn, the strategist behind most of Michael Schumacher's 91 victories at Benetton and Ferrari. "You know which direction you want to go in, and then try to be three or four moves ahead to try and outwit the opposition."

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