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Formula 1 vs IndyCar Strategy

Formula 1 and IndyCar are the two titans of the open-wheeled racing world. Alongside the World Endurance Championship (WEC) they are the most prestigious titles a driver, engineer or team can win.

However, to beat the competition, teams must outmanoeuvre their opponents whilst adapting to the changing conditions of a race. Positions are won on track, races are won by strategy.

Graphic of the Time Deltas Map used by IndyCar engineers to pinpoint sections of the racetrack where competitors gain speed or have an advantage, facilitating strategic planning and performance analysis.
The Time Deltas Map helps IndyCar engineers analyse where their competitors are faster on the track.

The main considerations when defining a strategy for any series are fuel mileage, tyres and the unexpected. The tyre and fuel requirements are specified by the regulations, while teams have defined their own protocols for anticipating the unexpected.

Race winning strategy

As a general rule, motorsports teams want to spend the minimum amount of time in the pit lane relative to their competition. Therefore, an effective pit stop strategy is fundamental to any race win. However, defining the optimum time to pit varies drastically depending on the regulations of each championship. 

In Formula 1, refuelling is no longer permitted, which means that pit stops are predominantly defined by tyre life. Teams who can manage tyre degradation effectively, have the flexibility to extend the length of a stint or avoid a pit stop altogether.

The Shift in IndyCar Strategy Dynamics

IndyCar on the other hand, allows refuelling and so the strategy is mostly limited by fuel consumption. If a driver can save fuel, they can stay out and wait for a full course yellow capitalising on pitting whilst the rest of the grid are not at full race pace.  

‘Although interestingly, this has started to shift in IndyCar,’ explains Mike Caulfield, Senior Motorsport Product Specialist at SBG and former Head of Race Strategy at Haas F1. ‘Unlike F1, which is dominated by tyres, IndyCar can usually complete a full fuel tank of running on either the primary or alternate tyre compounds.

So IndyCar strategy is more focused on fuel consumption, cautions or safety cars. However, the new 2022 alternate tyre has much higher degradation, which brings tyre life more into the strategy equation.’ 

RaceWatch displays that help to visualise tyre performance and life
RaceWatch’s Formula 1 heritage has led to clear and informative tyre displays that help strategists understand tyre performance in real time.

Tyre choices

Extracting the maximum performance from the tyres, whilst managing degradation is the enigma that teams are constantly trying to solve. To complicate matters further, the sporting regulations specify the type and number of tyres teams are allowed to use.

In Formula 1, Pirelli have developed five compounds of slick tyres that range from the hardest (C1) to the softest (C5). There is also one intermediate and one full wet tyre. Pirelli choose three compounds for each race, depending on the nature of the circuit, and these are assigned a colour white (hard), yellow (medium) or red (soft).

Pirelli tyre nominations for 2022 Formula 1 Miami grand prix
Pirelli choose three compounds for each race and specify one mandatory set for qualifying and two mandatory sets for the race. CREDIT: Pirelli

For each race weekend, teams are limited to thirteen sets of slicks, four sets of intermediates and three sets of wets. However, two sets of slicks must be the mandatory race tyre and another set must be the mandatory qualifying tyre. Otherwise, teams choose the remaining sets, which is a particular challenge when the allocation needs to be decided fourteen weeks ahead of the event. One wrong choice could mean the driver is on the wrong tyre during the race. 

Mastering Tyre Strategy in IndyCar

IndyCar on the other hand, have many more tyre constructions and compounds to contend with. The variety of circuits on the IndyCar calendar has led Firestone to develop an array of tyres to suit the demands of each track. Last year, this equated to 36 different types of tyres.

These tyre sets can be broadly split into five categories, based on their construction: street course tyres, road course tyres, Indy 500 tyres, superspeedway tyres and short oval tyres. For street and road courses, teams have the primary (black) harder compound and alternate (red) softer compound to choose from, along with one wet tyre. For oval tracks only the primary compound is used. However, due to the forces generated during oval running, each corner of the car requires a slightly different tyre compound or construction.

Understanding the behaviour of all these different types of tyres, is a real challenge in IndyCar, especially when the tyres change almost every year and so there is limited baseline data to start from. Teams also have to deal with the variety of track surfaces and the IndyCar schedule which means that long runs are typically completed in the warmup – a few hours before the race. 

Safety cars and full course yellows

The IndyCar sporting regulations introduce some additional challenges that are typically not an issue for the likes of Formula 1. In Formula 1, you want to pit under a virtual or full safety car because your rivals are not at full race speed.

This means they cover less distance relative to you pitting under normal racing conditions. This encourages teams to pit towards the end of the pit window and wait for a potential safety car. 

This is an effective strategy, until a team decides to dive into the pits first and undercut you. As you finish the rest of the lap on older, slower tyres before pitting, the driver who pitted first has done a much faster out lap on fresh rubber. Consequently, when you come out the pits, you are behind. This usually triggers a domino effect where all the teams pit to try and mitigate the effect of the undercut.

Screenshot of the RaceWatch race planner showing a comparison between a two-stop strategy (in red) and a one-stop strategy (in green), illustrating how the former can outpace the latter by allowing engineers to monitor competitors' tactics, undercuts, and overcuts.
The RaceWatch race planner allows engineers to quickly spot the tactics of their competitors and monitor undercuts and overcuts. In this example, the two stop strategy (red) is much faster than a one stop strategy (green)

Safety Cars and Yellows in IndyCar Strategy

In IndyCar however, under a full course yellow, the pit lane closes until the pack bunches up. Only then does the pit lane reopen. Consequently, drivers who pit under full course yellow will gain an advantage over those who pitted under green racing conditions.     

Unfortunately, if a driver enters the pits and a yellow comes out, the pit lane is closed. This means they will have to drive through the pit lane, end up at the back of the pack and then pit when the pit lane opens again.

If a driver has to stop to refuel when the pits are closed, they will receive a drive through penalty which has to be served when the race goes green. This penalty of being caught in the pits by a full course yellow is so severe that on road and street courses, IndyCar teams will try to pit as early as they can within the pit window. 

Indycar Strategy: Racing on ovals

On oval circuits, however, the opposite is true. Due to the length of the track, pitting under green racing conditions can put you two or three laps behind. Therefore, teams want to pit under a full course yellow because this not only allows them to capitalise on those who pitted under green, but by joining the back of the pack they also haven’t lost those two or three laps.

This leads to Indycar teams pitting at the end of their pit windows, in the hope of a full course yellow. 

With yellows playing such a crucial role in defining the optimum strategy, it’s vital that strategists and race engineers have all the information they need to make quick and accurate decisions when a yellow flag comes out.

Cars navigating an oval track during a full course yellow, highlighting the strategic timing for pit stops to avoid losing laps and optimise race position.
Strategic pitting under a full course yellow on an oval track, demonstrating how teams use caution periods to their advantage without losing significant ground, as seen in a critical moment during a race at Texas.

‘A great example of this was at Texas [last year] when a rapid situation occurred on track,’ explains Craig Hampson, Director of Trackside Engineering at Arrow McLaren SP.

‘There was a yellow flag on track and a lot of passes going on. As a team, you want to be able to advocate for yourself to ensure that you hold your running position to the exact timing of the caution. With RaceWatch we were able to confirm instantly where we should be in the running order. In the past, without RaceWatch, that possibly could have cost us two or three places out on track.’

Accurate decision making

Overall, the strategists in both Formula 1 and IndyCar need to constantly monitor many parameters and make accurate decisions quickly. To achieve this, they need all the relevant data in one place that is customised to their needs.

Enhancing IndyCar Strategy with Advanced Data Integration

A side-by-side comparison of two race cars. On the left is a Formula 1 car with "DARKTRACE" branding, predominantly orange with blue accents and featuring sponsors such as "Dell" and "VELO". It has a low, sleek profile with complex aero elements and tightly packaged bodywork. On the right is an IndyCar, labeled with the number 7 and "mission" branding, with a similar orange and blue color scheme but a visibly different aerodynamic setup, including a bulkier air intake above the driver's head and simpler side pods. Both cars have large, slick racing tires and are designed for high-speed circuit racing, showcasing the unique design philosophies of their respective racing series.

‘We have developed RaceWatch to bring together all the streams of data available to teams in once platform,’ highlights Caulfield. ‘That includes telemetry, timing data, race control messages, competitor tracking and strategy modelling. We’ve also developed the visualisation of this data to ensure that engineers can access relevant information quickly but also view and understand data in ways they may not have thought about before.’ 

‘Having race data with integrated video and race radio enables us to have all of the context of the race or a situation within the race and to be more informed,’ explains Hampson.

‘It enables us to more likely make the right decisions. At Arrow McLaren SP we want to be the best, we want to have the fastest car and we want to win. We needed to have a competitive advantage over our competitors and when we saw that RaceWatch was an all-in-one suite that did the job of four or five packages we knew that this was the right software for us.’ 

‘RaceWatch software is more powerful and reliable than what we have used before,’ concludes Nick Snyder, Performance Director at Arrow McLaren SP. ‘In man hours it has probably saved us between 10-15 hours which has increased our efficiency, which in turn, increases track performance.’

Article written by: Gemma Hatton

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