Feature F1 Unlocked
THE STRATEGIST: Bernie Collins picks out her top 5 best strategy calls from the 2023 season
The curtain has fallen on another Formula 1 season, with Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing enjoying a crushingly dominant season. And while the drivers and teams are all winding down after a hard year’s racing, we asked former Aston Martin strategist Bernie Collins to pick out her top five strategy calls from the 2023 season. Here’s what she came up with, in reverse order…
5. Norris’ nine-place undercut at Spa
The Spa Sprint race weekend was almost entirely wet until Sunday. Both McLaren drivers ran a higher downforce rear wing which had benefits in the wet conditions earlier in the weekend but made racing incredibly difficult when it dried up.
Norris' speed through the middle sector was no compensation for a severe deficit in straight line pace resulting in the Brit being overtaken multiple times in the opening stints.
From a P7 grid position he had dropped to P16 in the middle stint – not through any driver or strategy errors but purely through straight line speed deficit allowing others to easily overtake using DRS. Norris and McLaren’s only hope was to find sufficient free air to allow their speed in the middle sector to improve overall lap time.
With rain approaching the circuit on the radar – and while others extended their stints (not wishing to stop for dry tyres if intermediates would soon be needed) – Norris stopped for a fresh set of soft tyres. These softs and free air allowed Norris to gain crucial time over others as light rain fell on the circuit.
The initial intention appears to have been to then complete a three-stop strategy but realising that the additional stop would again create traffic Norris and McLaren shifted focus to making it to the end on the soft tyres he had. The success of this allowed Norris to undercut a staggering nine drivers and finish P7, on a day when all had looked lost.
4. Stroll’s soft tyre gamble in Las Vegas
New circuits are always a challenge with the lack of knowledge on tyre behaviour, overtaking and potential Safety Car impact – to name just a few parameters the teams normally have data on before each race.
In Las Vegas Lance Stroll started a lowly P19 due to a five-place grid penalty on top of a poor qualifying performance. The soft tyre had performed poorly on Friday and was expected to be largely avoided in the race with even the medium not looking good compared to the long lasting hard tyre.
However two drivers, Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda, chose to start on the soft tyre. This seemed at first to be a very unusual decision given the soft’s performance advantage at the start would be reduced by a relatively ‘green’ track and heavy fuel loads off the line.
However in Aston Martin’s case with two sets of hard tyres available, the soft was most likely chosen with the team banking on an early Safety Car – more likely to happen on a street circuit. If this soft could be used briefly then it would allow an effective one-stop race using the hard tyres.
Stroll initially missed the opening Virtual Safety Car window but was saved by another Safety Car deployment on Lap 3. This allowed the soft to be removed and the first set of hards to be fitted to the car.
Through this hard stint Stroll gained positions as others pitted to change from their medium start tyres. The final Safety Car deployment again allowed Stroll the opportunity of a reduced pit loss and to run a final hard tyre to the end.
This strategy meant that Stroll had only done the race start and one single flying lap on the soft tyre, and then the entire race on the hards. Although a risky strategy, the soft start tyre paid off handsomely and Stroll gained a remarkable 14 positions to finish P5 – highly impressive given he started on the very back row.
3. Ferrari brave it out in Canada
The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada has the shortest pit loss time of any track on the F1 calendar, which often promotes multiple stop strategies – even more so when the Safety Car is deployed with the additional time saving attached. But the Montreal circuit also features a high overtaking threshold and low tyre degradation which combine to place high importance on track position.
On Lap 12 George Russell's collision with the wall brought out a Safety Car and triggered all but two of the cars starting on the medium tyres to dive in for a pit stop while the field was running at well below normal racing speed. The two drivers who didn’t stop were the two Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
Having started in P10 and P11 respectively the decision to stay out under the Safety Car promoted them to P4 and P5. This allowed them to run in free air at their car’s true pace and avoid losing time in traffic – but committed them both to a one stop-strategy.
Without traffic considerations, stopping under the Safety Car and committing to a two-stop strategy was quicker on paper – but the free air gained by Ferrari through staying out when others boxed allowed a P4 and P5 finish that would otherwise have most likely been impossible to achieve.
The strategy decision-making was improved by fully committing to it with both cars and not doing what many would have done by splitting the risk and stopping one driver under the Safety Car alongside everyone else.
2. Albon’s monster Montreal stint
Alongside the variation in strategy provided by Ferrari, the Canadian Grand Prix provided a season best finish for Alex Albon and Williams (matched later in Monza). Albon started in P9 and like all others who started on medium tyres – aside from Ferrari – stopped under the Lap 12 Safety Car to fit the hard tyre.
Post Safety Car deployment Albon was running in 12th having lost positions to Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz, who stayed out under the Safety Car. Realising that many drivers were now on a two-stop strategy and would need to stop again, Albon and Williams changed focus to tyre management and attempted a huge 58 lap stint on the hard tyre.
Williams’ car set-up featuring high straight line speed – even without DRS – all aided the attempt to defend position from cars and drivers that had stronger overall pace but poorer straight line speed.
Albon’s brilliant execution of the one-stop strategy resulted in him gaining five positions in the second stint and defending these to the end to seal a P7 finish – a season best for both Albon and the team.
This one result brought Williams six of the 28 points they finished the season with – and proved to be crucial in them beating AlphaTauri to P7 in the constructors’ championship, who finished just three points behind. A great strategy, a great drive, and a result that helped net the team millions in prize money.
1. Gasly beats the rain in Zandvoort
The Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort was the first race back after the summer shutdown and it didn’t take long for some rain to show the holidays were definitely over.
The race started on dry tyres with rain approaching the circuit. Alpine’s Pierre Gasly was amongst the first to pit at the end of the opening lap. The combination of driver and pit wall read the conditions well to get onto the intermediate tyre allowing, over the opening laps, Gasly to move from P12 on the grid right up to third.
The return switch to the dry tyres on Lap 11 was slightly late but allowed Gasly to run in the dry in P4 defending from Sainz. A later pit stop for a second set of softs compared to Sainz allowed Gasly to be in a stronger position in the closing laps as again rain hit the circuit.
Gasly then made another optimum switch to intermediates and was able to maintain this position to the end of the race, finishing fourth on the road though this was later converted into third thanks to Sergio Perez being hit with a five-second time penalty for speeding in the pit lane.
The changeable conditions throughout the race meant there was plenty to be gained out there – but no one read the race better than Gasly and his team on the Alpine pit wall.