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The strategic mistake we would happily make again

Why the wrong outcome doesn’t always mean you’ve made the wrong decision


In association with FxPro, Head of Race Strategy Randeep Singh talks in detail about our strategy at the dramatic 2019 German Grand Prix, and why it may have cost us a podium finish...

Right decision, wrong outcome. Sound familiar? 

You made a call and were certain it was the right one. Everything added up. It was a no-brainer, a dead cert. As sure-fire as Lando drinking a super-chilled, glass of refreshing milk in the morning. And yet, unbelievably, things didn’t go the way you wanted… or expected.

But what if you were given the chance to do it all again, would you do things differently? What about this year’s wet and wild German Grand Prix, when we chose not to pit Carlos under the Safety Car for slicks – potentially costing him his first podium in Formula 1?

Let’s rewind to lap 41 at Hockenheim. Turn 16 is proving particularly troublesome in the wet and it’s just about to claim its latest victim: Nico Hulkenberg understeers helplessly into the gravel trap and sails into the barrier – not helped by the run-off area which was treacherous at the time.

Safety Car deployed.

Meanwhile, the crossover point is rapidly approaching – the optimum time to fit slicks and get off the intermediate tyres. Intermediates that Carlos has used to great effect to work his way up to sixth place after a spin at, yep, you guessed it, Turn 16. On top of this, the weather radar is proving about as useful as a chocolate teapot, creating uncertainty as to whether another band of rain is just around the corner.

Suddenly, you’re plunged into a strategic dilemma that can make or break your race. Oh, and you only have about three seconds to make the call and communicate it to the team. It’s not far off the time it takes our partner FxPro to execute an order, with most executed in less than 11.06 milliseconds. Make the right call, and there are points to be gained. The wrong call, and you risk leaving the track with little to show for your efforts.

We didn’t want to jeopardise our chances of a fifth-place finish – our best of the season so far – so elected to keep Carlos out to protect it, which tied into our high-level objectives as a team. However, soon after the Safety Car peeled into the pitlane, it became clear that the threat of rain had dissipated, and slicks were definitely the tyre to be on. Carlos pitted, and as predicted, went on to finish fifth.

But here’s the kicker. In hindsight, if we had pitted for slicks under that Safety Car, we would have been pretty much guaranteed a higher finishing position and possibly a podium. And at this point, I know what you’re thinking. It’s clear we made the wrong decision.

Except, we didn’t.

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During those split seconds when the Safety Car was deployed, we made the right call with the information available and we would make the same one again in that exact situation.

How come? Well, it boils down to randomness – a lack of pattern or predictability in events. It’s something which the German Grand Prix had in spades, resulting in the most dramatic and exciting race of the season so far.

Randomness cast a shadow of uncertainty over the outcome of the race which we couldn’t predict at the time of our decision. That’s despite countless hours of preparation, which includes running billions of simulations – over 90% of which can be rendered useless in the blink of an eye depending on what transpires on the track.

Having repeatedly simulated the race, we know that the decision to not pit Carlos under the Safety Car had a higher expectation for the greatest number of points. This is why we would make the same call again.

When randomness comes into the equation, you cannot determine the quality of your decisions based on the result. You can only determine the quality of your decisions based on what was known at the time and the process undertaken to arrive at them.

You have to be very careful after a race like the German Grand Prix. The last thing you want to do is let an outcome that was decided by randomness, cause you to overreact and change how you work. You must remain wary of flip-flopping – that’s going from one strategic extreme to another, not something John Watson did when celebrating victory at Long Beach in 1983.

It’s not to say that if we make a mistake, we immediately disregard it. We review everything, good or bad. We review the positive outcomes in the same painstaking detail as the negative ones because we want to know whether they are a result of good decisions, randomness, or something else. And if things haven’t gone as planned, we determine whether there is something we need to change in our approach. This is known as backcasting.

No, it’s not some newfangled, reverse audition process that Quentin Tarantino adopted when picking the silver screen protagonists for his latest box office hit Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s when you go back through your decisions to work out whether they were good, or just the outcome was good, and how well those decisions and actions aligned with high-level objectives. That’s essentially what we do when we review our strategy.

There is no blame culture at McLaren. If you make a mistake or don’t achieve the target, you review, work out what you would do differently and move on. And if you can back it up, you’re never afraid to say you would make the same decision again, just as is the case for the call we made at Hockenheim.

On that day in history, it may have been the wrong outcome, but it was the right decision – the right thinking, the right processes, the right methodology. And that’s what matters most. Having the courage of your convictions in the high-pressure, adrenaline-fuelled world of F1, where there’s nowhere to hide, is unquestionably brave. And at McLaren, that’s when we’re at our best.

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