With the ban on refuelling this season, it would be easy to think that the job of the strategist on a Sunday became much easier. However with every 10kgs of fuel representing an additional 0.3 to 0.4 seconds on a lap time, tyre degradation is now the most important consideration for the race.
We talk to James Vowles, our team’s Chief Strategist, to understand just how important a single strategic decision can be during the course of a race weekend:
How many different scenarios would you create for a typical race?
With the help of our software, we create about 100,000 different race scenarios for an average race even before a wheel is turned at the circuit. A scenario takes into account all of the possible variables for every aspect of the race. This ranges from the performance of the pit crews to the ability of a driver to alter their driving style. Most are created before qualifying but as specific race conditions become clear, we add further scenarios. A scenario is not only made up of atmospheric, mechanical and racing variables, it is partly modelled on the drivers. The performance of a driver differs from corner to corner and changes under various conditions, for example, a driver could be exceptional in the wet or particularly good at maintaining the tyres.
Is getting the strategy right crucial for making the cut in qualifying?
Making the cut in qualifying is partly strategy as the number of laps, tyre selection and getting the car out in clear air is critical. Being on the right tyre at the right time, for example, can mean as much as several tenths of a second. But the rest is down to the driver and his performance on the day!
Did the refuelling ban change the team’s approach to strategy?
Yes completely. Not only in the race but in qualifying as having low fuel qualifying has changed the emphasis from fuel loads to going for the best times. It has also changed strategy during a race as there is no longer an end point where the car has to pit and refuel. The race has become more dynamic and you always have to be on the look out for a window in traffic to make your stop. The opportunity may only last for five seconds and can change rapidly meaning that we have a very short amount of time to make a snap decision, unlike last year where we had a lot more time to consider our options.
This means that the decisions we make are more pressurised and reactive, placing more of the responsibility of the team’s success directly on me. This has its ups and its downs but I really enjoy it. You’re not always going to get it right but this year, I believe we have done well with what we have. We have an outstanding pit crew which makes my job a lot easier. For example, other teams won’t want to follow us into the pit lane as we generally do the quickest stops, but I have full confidence that if we follow a team into the pit lane, we have every chance of coming out ahead of them.
Although the race has become more dynamic and reactive, you can only benefit from this if you have a good team around you. We have Ron Meadows (our Sporting Director) who is very good with our pit crew and is able to get them on stand-by very quickly, Ross of course who is very level headed and a good man to talk to during a race, and finally Shov and Jock (our race engineers) who feedback the information coming from the drivers very quickly and react to the decisions I make. Overall it is a very well-balanced team.
How much do you rely on the drivers when it comes to preparing the race strategy?
We do rely on the drivers and their feedback a great deal and we always talk through any decisions to be made. There have been rare disagreements of course but we are always open to their opinions and understand if they have a different feeling on things.
In qualifying, the drivers provide feedback on their out laps and on the tyres whilst we give them information on what other teams and drivers are doing. During the race, we continually talk to the drivers about their tyres to find out how they are performing and advise them on how to look after the tyres if there are any problems. We also give the drivers lap and fuel targets to hit at certain points of the race. So there is continuous feedback between the drivers and the engineers. We have to have them onboard with our thinking because their trust and confidence is evident in the lap times that they can produce.