Game Theory and unusual F1 strategies (Part 1)

For those unfamiliar with game theory, it is basically the mathematics of games, particularly how to win them using logical decisions. The word “game” can be interpreted pretty liberally here. It can mean anything from a football match, to a war, to negotiating an international treaty. One important aspect here is to properly define a “win”. It may seem obvious what it means to win in F1, but the specifics of each situation can drastically change the criteria. A win for one team might be literally winning the race, whereas for another team it might be obtaining the 5th place required to secure the championship. A third team might count a “win” as having the financial ability to continue in the sport, regardless of their results on the track.

F1 is a complex sport, and different members within a team may also have different goals. The Mercedes F1 team may want to win races and championships above all else, but what about the Mercedes company as a whole? For them it is a business investment, so they would deny additional funding that would lead to improved results if it was perceived as being a poor return on their investment. They might prefer to finish 3rd and spend $10 million than win and spend $500 million, for example.

The example of Honda is a good demonstration of differing goals. They have spent huge sums of money whilst being uncompetitive, only to announce they are pulling out just after achieving success. It seems totally illogical to someone focusing only on the sport, but Honda are not (at their core) a sports team, and so to only view things through that lens is not particularly logical.


Game Theory

There can obviously be differing goals for drivers of the same team too. Two “teammates” fighting each other for the title can end up as bitter rivals, despite the fact that the are on the same team. In the worst case, this can create significant amounts of friction, which other team members can get caught up in. Teams may intentionally hire one driver to act more as a support role (even if such a role is never officially acknowledged) to create a more harmonious relationship. A similar concept is to hire drivers at least partially based on their mentality, as some drivers are more likely to try to exploit frictions whereas others seek to reduce them.

In this post I will look at unorthodox strategies that have occurred in the heat of a championship fight. These situations bring out the inner mathematician in F1 drivers and teams. Instead of just chasing victory, they find themselves adapting their behaviour based on the permutations that are unfolding in front of them. Sometimes these are relatively simple (e.g. They must finish in 5th place or higher), but other times the strategies take on minds of their own, throwing the traditional ideas about what F1 is all about out of the window. All of these are valid concepts from a game theory perspective, although there are also good reasons to why they are not regularly employed!

Intentionally driving slowly.

There are many examples of this throughout F1 history. It was attempted by Lewis Hamilton in the final race of 2016, with the (unsuccessful) intention of allowing cars to close in on and pass title rival Nico Rosberg. This is one of the few cases where the driver and team fundamentally differed on strategy, with Mercedes urging and later ordering Hamilton to speed up, to no avail. It is surprising that Mercedes did not agree with Hamilton on how to deal with this likely scenario before the race, as the ensuing radio debate did not reflect well on anybody.

Michael Schumacher also employed this tactic (successfully) in the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix. On his return to F1 after breaking his legs earlier in the season, Schumacher blocked title contender Mika Häkkinen for much of the race, allowing teammate Eddie Irvine to claim victory. A final example is the 1997 Japanese Grand Prix, where Jacque Villeneuve (mostly unsuccessfully) attempted to block title rival Schumacher in the early stages of the race, only to be blocked himself later on (successfully). This particular race is full of strategic intrigue and counterintuitive goals. It is covered in more detail here.

Intentionally crashing your car.

Specifically, crashing into your championship rival. This has happened several times, with the most blatant examples being Senna (successfully) crashing into Prost in 1990 and Schumacher (unsuccessfully) crashing into Villeneuve in 1997. This strategy is probably consigned to history now. Whilst Senna (and others) got away with it, Schumacher’s actions in 1997 saw him excluded from the final championship standings, whilst also having to attend classes on safety as punishment.

Fig 1: Schumacher’s infamous collision with Villeneuve in 1997.

Taking an unnecessary grid penalty.

Like them or hate them, grid penalties are an important part of modern F1. The 2012 US Grand Prix is an unusual example of a driver intentionally taking a penalty to help his teammate. Felipe Massa took a unnecessary 5 place grid drop to elevate teammate Alonso up one place and put him on the clean side of the grid to boot. Whether this was successful or not is debatable, but Alonso recovered from a poor qualifying to take a podium place ahead of Massa.

Getting help from rival teams.

Both Ferrari and Williams were accused of having secret pacts with other teams in the final race of 1997. Sauber (allegedly) agreed with Ferrari to hold up the Williams car of Villeneuve during the race if at all possible, whereas Williams and McLaren (allegedly) agreed to assist each other during the race too. These tactics were questionable in their success. Although both deals appear to have been successfully acted upon during the race, it is probable that neither had an effect on the championship outcome (the race winner was decided by the Williams/McLaren deal, however, after Villeneuve let both McLaren drivers through on the last lap). Both deals were formally denied by the teams involved, but drivers Fontana (Sauber) and Coulthard (McLaren) subsequently confirmed that they had been made. This is the third time the end of the 1997 season has been mentioned here…those final two races were truly bizarre.

Fig 2: Villeneuve celebrates with McLaren drivers after an alleged cross-team collaboration.

Getting out of the car.

When Jack Brabham’s car ran out of fuel on the last lap of the 1959 title decider, he decided to climb out and push. He was successful too, claiming 4th place and the title with it. Although the determination to pull this off deserves credit (particularly as he was pushing uphill), the problem was actually self inflicted- Brabham had refused a call to top up his car with fuel in an attempt to be lighter and faster during the race. This strategy has not recently been attempted in races, but both Alonso and Hamilton have attempted to push stricken McLaren cars back to the pit lane in qualifying to circumvent rules requiring cars to return without outside assistance.

A similar situation that happened semi-regularly in the 1950s was one driver voluntarily giving their car to another. At the 1956 title decider Peter Collins let Fangio finish the race (and therefore win the world championship) in his car after Fangio’s car suffered a mechanical failure 46 laps into the race.

Fig 3: An exhausted Brabham pushing his car home.


Picking a driver to back.

This last one is typically a strategy that teams don’t employ, which can be costly. In 1986 the William’s drivers spent the whole season battling each other, only for Alan Prost to steal the title from under their noses in the final race. A similar situation occurred in 2007, with Alonso’s and Hamilton’s battles in the McLaren allowing Räikkönen to take the title from both by a single point. Alonso urged the team to back him, and there’s no doubt that had they done he would have won the title. Similarly they would probably have won had they backed Hamilton, making the decision to back one driver over another almost impossible.

While the fallout from asking one driver to play a supporting role would have been significant, it would surely have been less than the implosion of the team that actually occurred. So why don’t team follow this strategy? Firstly, it may be unclear which driver to pick in a close fight. Secondly it may not be clear how to support one driver over another, as it will almost certainly need both drivers consent. Thirdly, the subsequent fallout may prove unnecessary if either the team falls short or end up both ahead of another title rival.

There’s one more example that is worth looking into with regards to picking a driver: the final races of 2010. Here both Red Bull drivers were fighting for the title against Alonso (and Hamilton). At the second to last race, Webber was the leading Red Bull driver in the championship, but Red Bull allowed teammate Vettel to take victory ahead of Webber, rather than support their leading car. Some questioned this decision, and a repeat of the disasters of 1986 and 2007 looked entirely possible, but fate had a different ending in store.

At the final race, Webber qualified poorly, and then pitted early after struggling in the early stages. Alonso reacted with his own stop, and both were subsequently stuck in traffic for the rest of the race. This allowed Vettel to cruise to victory, and more importantly the title. Whilst there’s never been any suggestion of foul play, it was Webber’s poor form that ultimately put Alonso on a sub-optimal strategy too. Had both Red Bull’s been competitive across the weekend, the most likely outcome would ironically have been that neither ended up with the championship.


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