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.”