One of his biggest rivals, Alain Prost, took a very different approach. He was often called “the professor” because he always calculated and never took unnecessary risks.
This second approach is very common among racing drivers today. Although overtaking an opponent is what every driver wants to do, he must consider that it is better to finish second and obtain a large amount of points than to risk an overtake at a crucial moment in a championship, crashing and bringing nothing back home instead.
In the 2021 F1 season, we saw it between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Hamilton was generally less aggressive than his Dutch rival, preferring to play the long game. He would have won the championship with this approach, had it not been for a last-minute safety car in the final race.
Some riders also won’t defend themselves against their rivals’ overtaking attempts if they don’t see them as “the ones they race with”. For example, a faster car that is out of place on the track due to poor qualifying or an extra pit stop, as in the case of Chase Elliot at Phoenix Raceway in 2020. It might seem counterintuitive, but racing with a rival costs time because you have to take suboptimal lines to keep other cars from passing. Losing time against a similarly paced rival you’re racing with can result in lost points.
Pit stops are an important part of motor racing and are often a requirement for every driver. They replace a car’s tires with newer (and faster) tires and fill the fuel tank so the car can make it to the end of the race.
But while you can get cooler rubber that will help you go faster, a pit stop costs time. As you race down the pit lane at slow speed, then stand still while the pit crew gets to work, your rivals are spinning at full speed.
As a result, teams spend a lot of time and resources finding the optimal balance between making saves and staying out. They not only look at how many tire changes to do, but also when is the best time to do it.
This can also change during the race, as events on the track and what other teams are doing can influence the timing. In NASCAR, we have recently seen Denny Hamlin using some clever pit strategy so we were quicker at the end of the race, giving him the chance to chase William Byron with a few laps to spare.