What does undercut mean in F1 and why is it so important?

Jake Nichol November 22, 2021
What does undercut mean in F1 and why is it so important?
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Teams and drivers are always searching for the undercut in F1, but what does it actually mean? Why is it so important, and how do you know if it has worked?

Other than the start and opening lap, pitstops in F1 provide the most drama and intrigue.

Every dry race will feature pitstops as a mandatory rule, with teams often eager to use strategy to give their driver a better chance of clearing a rival.

To do this, teams will often pull their driver in early for a pitstop, attempting to ‘undercut’ the car ahead.

But what does undercut actually mean in F1, and how often do teams deploy the move?

Photo by Bryn Lennon – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Undercut F1 meaning explained

Essentially, the undercut is where a driver, who is unable to get past the car ahead on-track, will dive into the pits.

The idea is that they will be able to use their fresh tyres to gain track position on the other car by the time it has emerged from its own pitstop a lap or two later.

Such is the nature of the Pirelli rubber, fresh tyres will have more grip available than worn ones.

Photo by Hamad I Mohammed – Pool/Getty Images

It doesn’t always work as sometimes the undercut is not always as powerful at every track.

An example of such a powerful undercut came in the Spanish Grand Prix earlier in 2021.

Lewis Hamilton was struggling to get past leader Max Verstappen after the first round of stops.

On Lap 44, Mercedes hauled Hamilton in for a second stop for fresh tyres, in the hope it would give him the lead of the race.

So powerful were fresh tyres compared to Verstappen’s worn ones, Hamilton closed off Verstappen’s pit-window.

This meant that, had Verstappen responded with a stop, he would have emerged behind Hamilton on track.

Hamilton gradually reduced the gap on Verstappen and swept by on Lap 60 of 66 for the win.

Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images

However, the undercut only works when a car is within a couple of seconds of the one in front.

In the Qatar Grand Prix, Verstappen pitted when around eight seconds behind Hamilton.

The Briton was able to respond next time by and keep the lead.

What about the overcut?

Slightly different, the overcut would see Hamilton staying out on track for a few laps longer while Verstappen pits early, for example.

The idea is that the clean air out in front would enable Hamilton to extend his lead and try to jump Verstappen in the pits.

It is possible in this hypothetical situation that Verstappen encounters slower traffic and loses time.

Should Hamilton emerge in front after his stop, he will have ‘overcut’ Verstappen.

The nature of the Pirelli tyres makes the overcut incredibly rare in modern F1.

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Jake can usually be found writing about or watching anything to do with motorsport – from Formula 1 to NASCAR to British Truck Racing. His work as a motorsport journalist has been published by the likes of Autosport, Motorsport.com and Motorsport News – all highly respected names. Away from racing he is a keen amateur astronomer, podcast listener and enjoys long walks in the park with his three dogs.