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.
What is the average response time when something unexpected happens during the race?
We do a lot of preparation before the race on events like an accident or a safety car and have our plans in place. On average, I would say that we react within five seconds of the incident occurring. Firstly you take stock on where you are and what’s happening which takes about two seconds. We determine the severity of the incident and establish what the consequences are, we have a second to communicate that to the race engineers which is then passed to the drivers which takes another two seconds.
How are you able to choose an option from 100,000 choices so quickly?
We rely quite heavily on our software. At the start, you have 100,000 scenarios and a lot of these depend on the start and can therefore be eliminated as the race gets going. The race order which will define positioning for the majority of the race is generally settled in the first few laps and from that point, we can get a broad perspective of where we are and start narrowing down which scenarios are valid. We have tools which can predict when cars should be stopping and where they could potentially drop back into the order. We use the software-generated scenarios as a background but then our judgement to make the final decision.
If you suggest a change during the race but the driver disagrees, who has the final word?
Generally the team makes the final decision. The only circumstance where this might not be the case is in variable conditions where we rely on the feedback of the driver. However for example, if there is a situation where the weather has changed and a competitor has pitted, changed tyres and is setting very good lap times, we have the extra information to make the correct decision. But it would be foolish not to take the driver’s opinion into consideration as they have the direct contact with the car.
Michael provides exceptionally good feedback which is invaluable but the feedback of Nico is often underestimated and is very thorough and accurate. It makes a real difference on the track but I would say it makes a bigger difference after the race in the debrief m. It is wonderful to have the feedback of someone like Michael who has won the Championship so many times and you can ask very detailed questions and get good responses. His experience is invaluable to all of us.
How would you compare your job to a football coach?
With any important role in top-class sport, your decisions can absolutely change the end result. The difference with a foot ball coach is they have time to get a good overview of the situation whereas with Formula One, the picture builds much quicker and the time we have to make decisions is so much shorter. The similarities are that you know exactly the team you are dealing with and you can do the analysis of the other teams to find out what their strengths and evolve a strategy for how to beat them. A key difference is that when we make a decision, it is easy to analyse whether it was the correct decision putting a bit more pressure on us!