Rookie on F1 Grid: Box, Box, Box… The Art of the Undercut

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport worldwide and has gained massive following in recent years even in countries that don’t get to roll out the red carpet for racing; India being one of those countries and this author being one of those followers. This column is my attempt to connect with other new fans of the sport and share with them my journey of exploring this fast, furious, and yes, at times, frustrating, sport.

How many engineers does it take to screw on a light bulb? I don’t claim to know. But it takes around 20 to execute a perfect pit stop in two seconds.

Pit stops are the ultimate brand ambassadors of the adrenaline-laced action of Formula 1. The blink-and-miss-it spectacle is the image most associated with the sport, and my recent beef with Drive to Survive aside, Netflix really hit the bull’s-eye with the title card.

On an average, pit stops are done and dusted by the time you can say ‘box, box, box’, the unusual command from the race engineer to the driver to come into the pit lane. Why box? To an F1 driver going 150 mph, ‘box’ sounds more distinct than ‘pit’ over team radio. Legend has it that it’s passed down from ‘boxenstopp’, German for ‘pit stop’. Or it could simply refer to the painted box outside a team’s garage where pit stops are made.

From the moment the race engineer calls in the driver or the driver conveys his call to pit, 20 men (no women yet sadly) are up on their feet in the garage. That’s 200 men up and down the paddock for 10 teams. The driver enters the pit lane and has to stop exactly at the mark so the crew don’t waste precious time shuffling to reach him. If you are Lewis Hamilton, you can also send the front Jackman flying when you overshoot.

You can also do that if you are Lance Stroll.

When the driver stops, all he can see is a swarm of team helmets surrounding his dome. Side bar: I do wish the awesome new helmet cam captures a pit stop just as brilliantly as it captures overtakes.

That swarm of helmets includes four tyre gunners, one for each tyre, who tighten and loosen the wheel nut; four tyre-off men, four tyre-on men, a front jack man who lifts the car from the front, a rear jack man, two ‘steadiers’ who steady the car as the side jack men, two men to adjust the wing flaps, and the eerily named lollipop man.

The lollipop man is now called the ‘pit stop controller’ and signals as to when the car can be released back on its way to the race track. In earlier years, this job was done by a stop and go sign at the end of a stick, thus unimaginatively, the lollipop man.

Depending on any incident during the race, pit stop crew also clear debris off the sidepods or change the front wing or, on rare occasions, swap the steering wheel. But these cost precious seconds as does serving time penalty.

An incident-free pit top is typically wrapped up within 2 to 2.5 seconds but if you are the Red Bull pit crew of 2019 Brazillian Grand Prix, you will have Max Verstappen back out there in record 1.82 seconds without breaking a sweat.

There are heartbreaks there too. Like Haas’ double pit stop failure of 2018 Australian GP when both Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean had to retire after being left with loose left rear and left front wheels, respectively.

The silliest one in recent times was the 2016 Monaco GP when Daniel Ricciardo was called in to pit by the race engineer but the pit crew was nowhere near ready. Ricciardo stopped in the pit box and the crew were still scrambling for the tyres left in the back of the cramped garage! The criminally long pit stop cost Ricciardo the race though he shared the podium at P2.

The doom and gloom is rare, however, and a textbook pit stop earns you a meme-worthy ‘wow!’ from David Beckham.

A stop under two seconds can push you up a couple of positions on the track but what can really turn the race around is the classic manoeuvre called the undercut. I have been hearing about it since the time I started following races from Monza last year, but it was Bahrain this year that got me truly interested. More particularly, Max Verstappen’s annoyance, which he didn’t hold back on team radio, at an unsuccessful undercut attempt against Charles Leclerc.

An undercut is when a driver pits a few laps before an opponent in front. On fresher set of tyres, you are potentially faster than an opponent who is running on slower, worn out tyres. At this point, the opponent could naturally choose to pit too for fresher tyres. But if the gap between the two is big enough by then and if the pit stop is less than perfect, the opponent could exit behind the driver who went for the undercut. The driver who pitted first gains in lap time and in turn track position, even courting DRS advantage (previously on Rookie…)

It sounds like a magic bullet, but you need to know when to fire, and more importantly, where to fire. And it all depends on tyre degradation and the track. Most tracks are undercut-friendly, offer enough tyre degradation and drivers can easily bring the new ones to temperature. But on tracks like Monaco and Russia even the softest compound tyres don’t see much degradation.

There’s another chicken-and-egg catch here. Races these days are normally one or two-stop ones and undercutting is usually reserved for the second pit stop if there’s one. So the driver who pitted first has undercut advantage but in the final laps is running on more worn-out tyres than the opponent he targeted during the undercut. It’s all about building on the track position you gained in the undercut to last you till the chequered flag.

On tracks like Monaco and Russia, it’s a delicate tightrope walk between undercut and overcut. Overcut is a rarer move when a chasing car stays on the track while the driver ahead decides to pit. The clear air allows the chasing car to zoom ahead and build up a solid gap. The driver who was previously leading spends one or two laps getting his new tyres to temperature. When the new leader does pit, he still comes out ahead of the opponent while exiting the pit lane. But that’s putting a lot of faith on worn out tyres to build that solid gap.

While overcutting is rare these days, F1 legend Michael Schumacher mastered the art of overcut in his time.

We’ll see what kind of track Miami turns out to be next week, but I confess I will be too busy giving the side-eye to the fake marina.

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