The first round of the 2018 F1 season – the Australian Grand Prix, was a perfect example of what from the outside could look like a bad case of over optimisation.
F1 and high level motorsports in general are always at the forefront of optimisation. Whatever type of motorsport you look at there are rules and regulations that each team has to abide by and that puts constraints on their engineering freedom. But as has always been the case:
Constraint inspires creativity
In order to gain an advantage in any game where there are rules to abide by you have to optimise everything and go right to the edge of the regulation. And as history have shown — every once in a while — beyond that.
But the case here is not related to regulation but rather optimisation. From the outside F1 looks quite simple; Strange-looking vehicles lap around a twisting track and fastest car/driver wins.
There are of course some truth to this. But in reality winning a Formula 1 race is way more complicated than that. Your driver has to be named Lewis Hamilton and your car has to be from the Mercedes team — okay bad joke — but the last few seasons haven’t been the most exciting.
Having the fastest car of course helps a lot — it is a race after all. But fastest is not everything and fastest is not a single defineable term. You can have the fastest car in a straight line — which is fine if you do dragracing — but won’t help you in a F1 race. You could have the fastest car around corners due to a lot of downforce — but then you are sitting duck on the straights. You could have the fastest car in a straight line and close to fastest around the corners whenever it is in front — but once you are following other cars the airflow changes and it is no longer as efficient — sorry for another Mercedes pun. But the point is: optimisation always ends up being a matter of trade-offs.
In this game of trade-off, money of course matters a lot. If you do not have unlimited access to money (who has anyway) a lot of trade-offs comes down to money. But of course the more limited your supply is, the more trade-offs ends up being decided by this factor.
The less money/resources you have, the more stringent and risk-adverse you have to be. A small error could end up having a large negative impact on your entire endeavour because you are more negatively affected by it, than more resourceful teams would be.
Running the engine too close to its maximum to gain just a small advantage could end up blowing the engine up entirely. That is a bad outcome no matter which team you are. But for some teams that could end up blowing a big hole in their budget while also potentially robbing them of life-saving and sponsor-attracting championship points.
Mitigating risk is one of the things that Mercedes has done superbly. They have been experts at “stealing” points in races where weren’t the ones with the fastest cars of where they may have made a mistake, but then had procedures in place to mitigate the downside of those mistakes.
And this exact point is where I think the Haas F1 team made a crucial mistake.
To anyone who did not watch the grand prix and therefore need a little context. Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were having a season opener to die for. They were running 4th and 5th a third way into the grand prix. First Kevin Magnussen running 4th came into the pits to change tires. But something went wrong with the rear left tire, which was not properly attached and the mechanic working that tire signalled that it was not properly attached(a bit late though, more on that later) — but to no avail, the car was released and a few turns after the pit exit. Kevin Magnussen had to retire the car.
That in at of itself was bad enough but even worse less than 5 minutes after the exact same thing happened to Romain Grosjean, only on his car it was the front left that was not properly attached.
We can spend a lot of time throwing dirt on the actual mechanics attaching the wheels or it could be the tire-guns or it could be something else. But the important part here is not what happened, it is what did not happen.
Mistakes happen. People make them all the time. Equipment fail. Unforeseen things come up. That is just part of life and part of high stakes competition. What is not okay however, is not having steps and processes in place to mitigate those events and cap the adverse effects these.
The number of races won by time gained on pitstops aren’t that many. I am sure they are there and I am not trying to say that pit stops do not matter in F1. Tenths of hundreds of seconds lost in a pitstop could cost you a place and thereby potentially a win.
But as said earlier. Optimisation needs to be done with mitigation of the potential downside in mind. And my armchair analysis of the incident with Magnussen and Grosjean is exactly a case of this happening.
I am in no doubt that the Haas F1 team has practiced their pitstops to infinity — all teams do that. But I fear that perhaps they haven’t practiced enough adverse scenarios.
Watching a pitstop in formula 1 is watching a well choreographed dance. Everyone has a very specific and well practiced objective. There are several people assigned to each wheel, people assigned to jacking up the car, even people with spare jacks is the jack fails etc.
The final part of every pitstop is people at all 4 wheels giving OK signs and the car being released. The important part here is that if something goes wrong — one of those people should signal something is wrong and the car should not be released. Then whatever mistake should be corrected and then the car should be let of. That could of course cost some places — but releasing a car onto the racetrack with wheels not properly fastened costs the entire race as demonstrated in the 2018 Australian grand prix.
The problem with extremely well choreographed and instinctive procedures as a pitstop has to be is that you end up switching off your mind and just does the same thing over and over again. This makes for really fast and efficient movements — but fails spectacularly once something unexpected happens.
If everyone doing the pitstop expects it to go through without error, because that is what they have practiced over and over again. Then no one is ready to correct course once the inevitable mistakes happen. Their instincts act out the “positive” scenario and they only process the “negative” after they have acted out the well rehearsed positive. This can actually be seen in effect when watching the slow motion of the pitstops. The mechanic “acts” out the positive scenario and then only afterwards(a hundredths of a second later) signals the error. This is actually still in time before the car is released — but as the man in charge of the release also acts out the “positive” scenario the car is released and the error cannot be corrected.
This is in my opinion is a mayor flaw in the strategy of the Haas F1 team. They are a very small team with limited resources. They should be extremely risk-adverse and have procedures in place to catch every potential adverse event they can think of. Of course there will always be things they could not have anticipated. But a wheel-nut not attaching certainly isn’t one of them.
A hundredth or even a tenth of a second spend on ensuring that everything is as it should be, is spent so much better here than what the result of shaving it off potentially costs in relation to gains.
A few seconds longer pitstops for both of their drivers could have been a mayor annoyance and costs them a few places each — but that would still potentially have ended them well within the points. Now they have no points at all and end up looking really stupid and amateurishly.