Tires, pit-stops and blowouts – how four wheels can win or lose a race

The 2021 F1 season is well underway, and already two drivers are frontrunners as the favorites to win this year’s Championship. But what drives their success? Their undoubted expertise behind the wheel? The constructor’s investment in the development and technology of the car? Or simply the entire team’s race strategy on the day?

Of course, it’s a combination of all the above and more. It’s no surprise to learn that in this every-second-counts sport, tires, and pit-stops really can make the difference between a place on the podium or early retirement from the race.

Sakhir, Bahrain – December 6th, 2020

In the penultimate Grand Prix of the 2020 season, world champion Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton was ruled out. Consequently, the Williams driver (and Mercedes protégé) George Russell accepted the opportunity of a lifetime by agreeing to stand in for Hamilton and thoroughly impressed spectators by clocking the fastest timesheet on the first two of three practice sessions.

On race day, Russell still looked set to win, starting from the second position behind his teammate Valtteri Bottas, who won pole position by just 26 milliseconds. Russell did indeed lead for most of the race until lap 63 when Mercedes decided to pit both of their drivers. Then a communication breakdown led to Russell’s car being fitted with Bottas’ front tires and Bottas spending nearly 30 seconds in the pit before going back to the track with the very same tires he initially came in on.

The error meant Russell had to re-pit on the next lap and then, with ten laps to go, he was back in the pits with a slow puncture. This kind of performance shows exactly how unpredictable race days can be: an expected win to finishing ninth, all down to pit-stop mistakes, and a punctured tire.

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When tires go right – and wrong

F1 drivers and teams look at the race day conditions to decide the best tires to use – hard, medium, soft, intermediate, or wet. The fastest ever recorded pit-stop occurred on lap 46 of the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix when Red Bull driver Max Verstappen changed from versatile intermediate to more suitable soft tires as track temperatures rose. It took a total of 1.82 seconds to change all four and with that timely tire change, he won the race.

As for blowouts, both Verstappen and Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll were forced out of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on June 6, 2021, with catastrophic tire failures. Verstappen was heading for victory at the Baku course, leading the race until the closing stages. Anyone betting on Verstappen to be the Formula 1 race winner was in for a shock as the favorite crashed out. But if your money was on a Red Bull driver to win, then you were in luck – Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez took the winner’s podium.

If you feel the need for speed

The race is still on for the winner of the 2021 Formula 1 Drivers’ Champion title, with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen almost head-to-head, giving pundits and oddsmakers a run for their money. For the Constructors’ Championship, Mercedes is currently in front at 7/4 against Red Bull’s odds of 2/5.  Then there’s the question of whether George Russell, who shone in Bahrain, will take over Bottas’ Mercedes seat. With both drivers out of contract at the end of this season, the smart money already says yes.

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Winton Frazier

 "Amateur web lover. Incurable travel nerd. Beer evangelist. Thinker. Internet expert. Explorer. Gamer."

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