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Analysis

How Red Bull creates the perfect strategy for Verstappen and Perez

An F1 team can have such a strong driver pairing and build such a fast car, but without a good strategy they are nowhere. Motorsport.com sits down with Will Courtenay, one of the three tactical masterminds at Red Bull Racing

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20 in the pit lane
Devising and implementing the perfect race strategy is a real ‘team effort’ in Formula 1. However, every team has a couple of people who are particularly tasked with determining the right plan of attack.
Red Bull Racing has three: Head of race strategy Will Courtenay, principal strategy engineer Hannah Schmitz and senior strategy engineer Stephen Knowles.
Courtenay, who, as his job title points out, heads the strategy group, has been with the Red Bull F1 team for quite some time.
“I studied engineering at university, and after I graduated, I joined this team at the end of 2003, when I was still called Jaguar Racing”, Courtenay tells Motorsport.com at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
“I joined doing the electronics in the car, so looking after the trackside electronics, making sure all the sensors are set up correctly and that kind of thing.” 
In 2004, Courtenay worked at the races as Jaguar's Systems Engineer, before moving over to the strategy department for the 2005 F1 season.
“I got on pretty well with the guy who was doing the strategy at that point and I had always been very interested in how the whole strategy worked and so on. He had been doing it for a while and decided he didn't want to carry on travelling. So the team needed someone to replace him. They asked me if that’s something I might be interested in doing, so I leapt at the chance as it was something that was interesting to me.”
Courtenay was with Red Bull in its previous guise, Jaguar

Courtenay was with Red Bull in its previous guise, Jaguar

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

Courtenay was given the role of strategy engineer, while the team was renamed Red Bull Racing: “I joined the strategy group in 2005, doing the strategy full time on the pitwall from 2006 onwards. And I progressed from there. I became the head of the group in 2010."

Rotation

Courtenay is not at every race; him, Schmitz and Knowles are alternating at the track, so when Schmitz is on location, for example, Courtenay and Knowles provide support back in the factory in Milton Keynes. According to Courtenay, rotating has a couple of major advantages.
"I’m always in the background and I’ll pipe up if I need to" Will Courtenay
“It helps in a couple of ways. Firstly, it means that we all get a little bit more of a break, if we do some races from the operations room in Milton Keynes and some at the track. Secondly, it also gives us a bit more strength in depth, because there’s three of us that can all do that role and understand that role.”
The one who works at the track has the final say when a decision has to be made.
Courtenay adds: “But I’m always in the background and I’ll pipe up if I need to. But these days it’s all fairly smooth and generally any of those sorts of conversations will have happened in advance. So when we actually come down to the crunch, we’re all on the same page.”
Rigid processes are in place to make sure there is consistency in the decision-making process, Courtenay emphasises.
Courtenay will often be found in the background of the action

Courtenay will often be found in the background of the action

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“We're very careful about how we go about doing things. We have a very detailed job list which we work through, so we make sure that whoever's doing the role that weekend, we're all following the same procedures and the same tasks each time.
"Also, after every event we'll sit down and have a meeting to discuss what went right, what went wrong and what we could have done better. So we're always sort of learning and making sure that we're all doing the same things in the same way. So hopefully it's consistent, regardless of who's actually at the track.”

Monte Carlo technique

Determining the best race strategy involves quite a lot of preparation.
“That will normally start in the week leading up to the race. So we'll start off by gathering a lot of data from historic events from previous years and also other events that have happened this year”, Courtenay explains.
“We've got various models that we'll use to try and correlate that data to what we expect is going to happen at this coming race.”
The primary factor in F1 nowadays is tyre performance.
“That's the thing that tends to determine the main strategies. But there are also other factors like overtaking, the amount of time you lose through the pitlane and things like that.
Managing the tyres makes all the difference in modern F1

Managing the tyres makes all the difference in modern F1

Photo by: Pirelli

"So we'll gather all that information together and we'll feed that into our models. That will start to give us some predictions of how we think the tyre's going to behave and so on.”
That information is then used for simulations. “So basically those simulations start to tell you: these are the likely strategies you're going to be doing, whether it's a one-stop or a two-stop, and what the main sort of race tyres are going to be”, Courtenay says.
"With all that randomness in it, you start to get a bit of a feel for the kind of dominant strategies" Will Courtenay
“Then during the race weekend, we'll start gathering data on tyre performance and so on from practice, and we'll start to refine those models. So we're narrowing down now what the best strategies are going to be so hopefully, by the time we go into the race, we've got a pretty clear idea of what our main strategy is going to be, but also under what circumstances we might adapt our strategy.
"If the degradation is higher than we expected, for example, when we might switch to a different strategy. Or if a safety car comes out, what we might do to react to that.”
To run their race simulations, Red Bull uses Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. “We use the Monte Carlo simulation technique and they provide us with a system that allow us to do that”, Courtenay says.
“So we'll generate effectively like a random race, with a random grid order based on sort of rough qualifying expectations. We've also got an expectation of what the tyre performance will be, but there'll be some sort of randomised variations on that and we'll make some random variations of when everyone's going to pit during the race.
Modeling pit strategies correctly is key to success

Modeling pit strategies correctly is key to success

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"So you can create a kind of a made-up but possible race and then we'll do that millions of times over the course of the weekend. Then from that, with all that randomness in it, you start to get a bit of a feel for the kind of dominant strategies that keep coming out as good.
"Then you can start to look at which are the strong strategies and which are the weak ones and sort of focus in on the strong strategies based on that.”

Clear and concise communication

During a race, the strategy group is looking at all the different scenarios.
“Even if it's what looks maybe quite an uninteresting race - maybe it's a quite straightforward one-stop - there's still a lot going on behind the scenes. Because we're constantly talking about: what if a safety car happens? And if there's some weather around: what if it rains? What if we have a puncture and we suddenly have to make a pit stop unexpectedly?
"We're always trying to be one step ahead of the game so that if something does happen, we already know what our reaction is going to be, so that we're not then having to suddenly make a quick decision.”
Although Red Bull’s dominant form has definitely made things easier in recent times, the team’s strategists have been accumulating a lot of praise over the last couple of years.
Asked what makes the Milton Keynes-based outfit so strong on the strategic side, Courtenay answers: “I mean, I've only ever worked with this team, so I don't really know exactly what it would be like at a different team.
Having only worked with Red Bull, Courtenay has little idea of how other teams work

Having only worked with Red Bull, Courtenay has little idea of how other teams work

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

"But I feel that one of our strengths is that we all work quite well together. And not just within the strategy group, but also with race engineering, with Christian [Horner] and everybody else that's involved.”
“I think we have fairly good but disciplined discussions. So there'll be a conversation, but it will be controlled and it will be useful”, Courtenay continues.
“I think that's a strong point because when things get tense or maybe things get exciting, it's very easy for that conversation to become a bit disjointed and a bit chaotic. So it's trying to avoid that and making sure that we're passing the right information to the right people at the right time. That information is taken on board and then acted on.
"We're never standing still, we're always trying to move forwards" Will Coutenay
"So it's just trying to be clear and concise and have nice, good communications across the people. And hopefully, from that, we can keep a clear head and make the right calls.”

Continuous improvement

A Formula 1 team is always looking at how things can be improved further, and with strategy that’s no different.
“There's always ongoing development. We’re always constantly trying to improve our models and refine the process of what we're doing. So we're never standing still, we're always trying to move forwards.
"So sometimes that might be improving our prediction models or simulations so that we get better predictions for the races, and sometimes it might just be trying to make things quicker and more efficient.
Strategy can always be improved

Strategy can always be improved

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

"So it might not necessarily make them better, but if you can make them a click of a button rather than two hours of work, then that two hours is saved every weekend and that means you can put more time going forwards into other development. So it's always an ongoing process to try and do everything better, faster, and more accurately.”
The millions of simulations that are run during a Grand Prix weekend require sophisticated software. Red Bull is well-equipped in that respect.
“I think having the access to resources is very useful”, Courtenay admits. “As I mentioned, Oracle Cloud Infrastructure has been something that's been very useful for us over recent years. But I don't think it's just that.
"Being in a good team, we also get to work with very good people. The strength of the engineering team is very good. Also we work with some of the best drivers in the pitlane and that makes a big difference too. So I think it's not just the facilities, but it's also the people we get to work with. We've all been together a long time, I think that helps as well.”

Strategy becoming more important?

Even when Red Bull is controlling the race, the team doesn’t seem to shy away from taking some strategic risk. Like during the Chinese Grand Prix earlier this year: Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez were first and second when they were called to the pits at the same time, forcing the mechanics to perform a double pitstop.
“We’re a very motivated team”, Courtenay reacts with a smile.
“We always try to get the most we can out of every possible weekend. But there's always a certain amount of sort of risk assessment as you don't want to do something risky just for the sake of it, because sometimes it might backfire and then you might look a bit silly. So we're always trying to assess the benefits and the risks involved and, if it looks like it's worth the risk, then we'll do it.”
Some risks pay off, while others don't

Some risks pay off, while others don't

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

As recent races have shown, the field is getting closer and closer together, as a result of the technical regulations being stable for a few years now. This means strategy could play a decisive role in the races more often, Courtenay realises.
“As we can see, the other teams are getting closer to us. So I think strategy for us is now going to become more important again over the coming year or two, as the other teams are now closer to us in performance. I think strategy is going to become a real focus again going forwards.”
That Red Bull's mechanics are consistently delivering (sub) two-second pitstops helps.
"It's very helpful having drivers that have very good bandwidth" Will Courtenary
“I’ve always said it's fantastic that the mechanics do such a great job with the pitstops, because you can be confident that if you're trying to undercut somebody, you're going to get a good pitstop, or if you are going to do a double stop, that it's all going to go smoothly. So having the confidence in the pitcrew makes a huge difference, and I think that is another useful sort of tool in our stack.”

Bandwidth

Last but not least there are the drivers. Verstappen is well known for the fact that he likes to think about strategy during a race.
“Actually, it's very helpful having drivers that have very good bandwidth”, says Courtenay.
“Obviously we're thinking about it in a lot of detail, but it's good that he's got it in his mind as well. Because then if we do decide to change our strategy or try to achieve something particular - maybe we're trying to go long and overcut somebody or whatever it might be - then Max will very naturally understand what we're trying to achieve.
Courtenay praised Verstappen for his understanding of the assignment

Courtenay praised Verstappen for his understanding of the assignment

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

"So having Max and Checo both aware of the aims of what we're trying to do means that they can drive the car in a way that means we're much more likely to succeed in those strategy plans. Drivers who are able to think about things like this make our lives a lot easier.”
On top of that, Verstappen and Pérez are both known for their tyre managing skills.
“The better the driver, the easier it is to play with the strategy and maybe try something different”, Courtenay remarks.
“So sometimes for us, we want to be aggressive and pit early and try and undercut somebody. But other times, that's not the way you want to go and you want to make sure the driver can look after the tyres, extend that stint length and pit later, so that will give him a tyre advantage to then attack later in the race.
"Having drivers that understand that, can look after the tyres and really try and meet the objectives that we set them, just makes that strategy so much more successful and a lot more valuable. If the driver couldn't do that, then you start to narrow down your options and then you're much more limited in what you can try.”

The Hungary call 

One example of Verstappen interfering with the race strategy is the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix.
The Dutchman was tenth on the grid and was supposed to start the race on the hard tyre because he was out of position, but then decided to start on the soft based on his feelings during the ‘laps to grid’. This call proved to be crucial as he was able to progress through the field to finish the race first. 
Red Bull made the right change at the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix

Red Bull made the right change at the 2022 Hungarian Grand Prix

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“On the laps to grid, Max was very clear that he felt the hard had very little grip and was a very poor tyre, because the temperatures were quite cool that day”, Courtenay, who was working back at base while Schmitz was on the pitwall for that race, recalls.
“So there were some very quick discussions between Max and the engineering team, and Hannah and us back at base. And we decided: Ok, the hard doesn't look like it's going to work for us, let's try and switch it up, let's start on the soft.
"So obviously that was something we had to react to quite quickly and rework our strategy plans accordingly. But as history showed, it worked very well.
"And with Max going on to win that race, it was a really good feel-good story for us. It was nice to show that we can react quickly when we need to."
The pit wall is where all of the tough decisions are made

The pitwall is where all of the tough decisions are made

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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