Is The Art Of Overtaking Lost Forever?

Contributor: Courtroom Reporter & Crime Analyst: James Parker


DRS, it is a controversial device which has divided opinion to the very core. Since its introduction in 2011, the FIA have constantly tinkered with the gimmick to ensure it creates the correct blend of opportunity, without detracting away from the skill of achieving a successful overtake. It begs the question, in 2013 after two years since its introduction, have the FIA done that?

The Chinese Grand Prix I think was the perfect proof DRS is still a W.I.P, a bit rough around the edges. Whilst I think Formula 1 can benefit hugely from DRS, it is easily too strong still in my mind, and therefore detracts away from one of the key skills a Formula 1 driver is judged upon – their skill to overtake. Of course, the sport has witnessed varying results with the device due to the different natures of different circuits, but does that mean a consistency cannot be found? I don’t think so, and F1 would lose an element of spectacle if we were to lose it forever.

The Divide in Opinion
Recently Gary Anderson from BBC F1 stated in his latest piece from the Chinese Grand Prix, that having DRS and the aggressive Pirelli tyre compounds together in Formula 1 is potentially becoming detrimental – saying this in his article:

Whether F1 needs the DRS overtaking aid as well as the current tyres is a different issue – I would like to get rid of it and make the drivers fight more to overtake”.

Now this is the beauty of DRS, everyone will always have their opinion and in the end Formula 1 as a sport cannot please everyone – that is the nature of the beast. On first glance, it would appear Gary does have a point, after all, in Shanghai overtaking did appear to be mightily easy in the first DRS zone down the back straight. I am almost certain numerous overtakes would have occurred down that part of the track into Turn 14 without DRS, with drivers all in varying stages of their stints and therefore managing different stages of tyre life.

But does that mean at other circuits on the calendar overtaking would be as simpler a task? In the current age of Formula 1, dominated by the “dirty air” philosophy thanks to cars aerodynamic dependency, overtaking has long been a “hot topic”. The period pre DRS was marred by the 1 second gaps, where faster drivers would hit that dirty air and lose huge chunks of downforce ensuing a truce was reached until pitstop strategies played their part.

Paddy LowePaddy Lowe, last season agreed that DRS has been a positive step by Formula 1 in rectifying the age old overtaking problem, and that it should remain in the sport stating:

“I think that what we found overall is that DRS has been a tremendous solution to the longstanding overtaking problem. A lot of things have been tried over the years and DRS at least has an authority to allow it”.

But he did go on to expand that view, that a consistency does need to be found with the device and that it is still a bit rough around the edge:

“At some circuits it doesn’t – India was a good example of that, surprisingly actually because it’s a good long straight there and it didn’t seem to allow overtaking – and then you get other circuits where arguably it’s too easy. It might be that we look at that and try and trim in both directions on those outlying circuits.

Perhaps one of the most famous incidents which highlighted the dirty air conundrum was in Imola 2005. After emerging from his first pitstop of the race in 3rd, Michael Schumacher firstly overtook Jenson Button for 2nd, before overturning a 20 second gap in 13 laps to be right on Fernando Alonso’s tale before the second round of pitstops. They emerged from their final stops in the same order, and for the next 12 laps Schumacher threw everything bar the kitchen sink at Alonso, eventually finishing two tenths behind at the finish.

Whilst the situation created a magnificent spectacle for fans, who witnessed a spectacular defensive drive by Alonso to fend off the hard charging Schumacher – was it the perfect proof overtaking a slower driver had become almost impossible? Would DRS have changed that result?

Does DRS Need To Change?
Defensive driving and overtaking go hand and hand with one another, with both being skills which take years to perfect. Watching a superb defensive drive can sometimes create the same spectacle as a magnificent overtake, and in that regard DRS has yet to find the consistency to allow both to happen in harmony. In the period pre DRS, defensive driving became very easy for a driver in front of a faster man, and the DRS device has almost had the reverse effect giving a chasing driver a superior advantage.

Perhaps the best example of a stellar defensive performance I have witnessed in the past 15 or so years was Mika Hakkinen, in 1998 at the A1 Ring. Using car positioning and mastering braking points to hold off a lighter two stopping Michael Schumacher at the start of the Grand Prix, he exercised the “perfect” defensive style, and it created one of the highlights of the 1998 Formula 1 season.

Whilst the battles of the past, where we witnessed the likes of Villenueve and Arnoux at Dijon, or Senna and Piquet at the Hungaroring are somewhat out of reach in modern day Formula 1, there is still room for improvement in regards to DRS to be tweaked to give both the defensive and attacking driver an equal opportunity in passing/holding their position on the track.

Conclusion – How Can It Change?

Why is it that some DRS detection zones are so far from the actual activation point – even as far back as 2 corners earlier? This can lead to an unfair advantage as we saw in China with Fernando Alonso passing drivers in front of him after the detection point, so that when he passed the activation point he could still utilise DRS whilst the following driver could not – a fantastic exploitation of a hideous flaw.

The length of zones at some circuits are clearly far from optimised, to the point at which the 10-12km/h speed advantage is given to the following driver for much greater time than it needs to be – making overtaking almost invalid.

Ayrton SennaThe decision of the FIA to give almost every circuit on the calendar two DRS zones should be welcomed because this affords the overtaken driver an opportunity of regaining their lost position. However the length and therefore effectiveness of the ‘new’ second zones have to date varied quite considerably.

During a recent discussion on this it was suggested to give both the defensive and attacking drivers a fair chance to fight equally, DRS is allocated in a selective sense with a limited amount of chances to utilise the device during a Grand Prix. For example, if it is a 60 lap Grand Prix, DRS could be used by the driver a total of 20 times before they run out of their allocated amount. In many regards this is like how Champ Car trialled their “push to pass” device which would give drivers the chance to increase turbo boost for a short duration.

If a driver were to run out of DRS applications, he could run through the pits (in many senses like a drive through penalty) to gain their full allocation once more. Whether or not the time spent in the pits replenishing the system would be worth the a DRS applications gained in the race is another matter entirely – but it could be hugely beneficial in safety car situations when time loss is at a minimum.

However, the FIA are unlikely to adopt this as a strategy but changes do need to be made. If they are not Formula 1 runs the risk of losing the art of close, fair overtaking/defensive driving and with it – some of the spectacle of the sport overall.

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27 responses to “Is The Art Of Overtaking Lost Forever?

  1. I tend to agree with Gary Anderson – however the teams master the tyres throughout the year and Korea and Abu Dhabi in particular without DRS may be rather processional

    • That is the big worry with me. If we were to get rid off DRS for the rest of the 2013 season, and teams did get on top of the tyre compounds like 2012, the differation in pace between two cars would not be great enough to eclipse the detrimental effects of the dirty air…..

    • I tend to disagree with Gary and you on this one.
      In the current tyre era, following a car has a two fold harmful effect, the downforce loss (hence speed loss) and the much faster degradation of the Pirelli tyres. If you were to remove DRS keeping the Pirelli tyres as they are right now, the loss in following a car maybe so bad that we may actually see faster cars who are not able to overtake in 1-2 attempts to fall back and keep a 2-3 sec gap just to preserve tyres.
      DRS has to be fine tuned, there is no doubt about that, it was a kind of a joke in China, but to remove it with the current tyres would kill close racing all together.

  2. Great piece James and on a topic I’ve been meaning to weigh in on for a while…

    Let us not forget that DRS came along following 2 other distinct situations in F1:

    Adjustable Front Wing – 2009
    F Duct / RW80 – 2010

    The adjustable Front Wing was bought in with the new rules for 2009, but fell by the wayside as DDD’s that dominated that year destroyed the very thing it was supposed to rectify: Wake

    McLaren’s implementation of their RW80 / F Duct bought up a fascinating conundrum for the FIA and teams as it clearly gave the team the boost necessary to aid in overtaking manoeuvres. In reality the FIA made the right decision in banning F Ducts as their scope of development was huge in comparison to the DRS we have now (Even if they had have been made to switch without the driver blocking off a hole)

    DRS entered in 2011 and I often wonder why everyone suddenly jumped on the ‘This is artificial racing’ bandwagon when in the previous 2 seasons we had seen similar attempts made to rectify the issue of following in the wake of a car. DRS is essentially a moving target and I have talked in the past about a solution that I feel the FIA should have moved toward:

    Free Practice / Qualifying – Unlimited Usage
    Race – Zones mandated by the FIA on Saturday evening with all data available to them to make an informed decision as to the length and quantity of the zones.

    The current format allows the teams to have their DRS deltas so well tuned that the effects of DRS puts the car past their opponent rather than alongside like it was designed to do and so I feel taking away the opportunity to know what the zones will be adds more of a strategic element to the use of DRS in qualifying and the race.

    • I agree with all this except.,. I have always been against DRS use in qualifying because I think it easily creates unrepresentative grids…

      On another issue… I think all drivers who do not set a time in Q3 should be sent back to behind the Q2 ranks… I am tired of this gamesmanship which really makes a mockery of qualifying… and indeed puts F1 into disrepute…!

  3. I am broadly in favour of DRS in its intended form. The intention was to improve the ability to overtake by compensating for the dirty air issue when following a car. I think there is an issue currently though, shown dramatically in China, that the DRS zones are too long.

    The zone should be long enough to compensate for the loss due to the dirty air only. Once the chasing car has entered normal slipstream range the zone should end. The problem would be gauging this particularly as the speed differential with and without DRS grows with speed due to the way drag increases as a square of speed. So, the cars may already be halfway down the straight before the speed difference is great enough to allow the chasing car to negate the dirty air deficit gained on the lead-in corner. I’m sure it could be worked out accurately with the data available though.

    In China, if the DRS zone had ended about 3/4 of the way along the straight I reckon it would’ve been enough to put cars in a position to overtake without allowing them to complete the pass before the bend which is what I would really like.

  4. I’d like to see racing, not motorway-like overtaking. The easily degradeable soft tyre, plus DRS, plus KERS, makes overtaking too easy especially with the very different strategies teams employ.
    I want to see drivers fighting lap after lap, race after race. Either the tyres need to be more durable, or get rid of DRS.
    The other solution is to change the aero regulations so that the cars behind are not affected as much by dirty air.

    • I don’t think its possible for the aerodynamics of a car not to be affected in dirty air, unless you strip down all the aerodynamic parts to primitive times.

      • Unfortunately such common sense is not present in Formula 1…. aero during the 80’s was in it’s “primitive stage” and this is why cars were able to follow so closely together, although I am unaware how much change in aero there will be with the change to turbo units next season…

  5. The introduction of two DRS zones each having their own activation point, which should be approx 1 second in distance from the zone, also they can only be utilised when passing a car for position (ie back markers do not count).

    So in theory Alonso passes Hamilton in the first DRS zone, they approach the activation point for the second zone and Hamilton (if within 1 second) gets DRS and a chance to retake the position?

  6. Aero killed overtaking, so DRS artificially re-introduces what used to be done by slipstreaming. But it is not the same!

    I would take wings away, but revive traction control and ABS and maybe fully active front flaps as air brakes and/or turning aids.
    I would also allow full electric braking/energy recovery per wheel and drive therefrom. Liquid nitrogen cooling for KERS so as to get near superconductor efficiency. (Graphene developments may make this unnecessary) In other words instead of aero, use every possible electronic aid to enhance mechanical grip. No min or max weight.

    Delete all the “one move only” rules and have proper overtaking skill re-introduced.

    • You always make such good sense – I’ve long advocated a change in aero regs. but people always asserted it was either impossible or just downright Luddite… In my job one action easily created a problem which many people tried to rectify with various ‘solutions’ when what was invariably needed was a return to ‘first principles’. Now it seems fashionable to just plough on through the murk with endless regs., and new regs., and adjustments, and updates, and so on. We used to call it: The Art of the Immaculate Compromise. 😉

  7. Looking after tyres and fuel have always been a part of F1. DRS is the best solution so far, but a better one would be to reduce the effect of aerodynamics. However, they will never get a consensus to reduce the size of front and/or rear wings or ban diffusers. Then we would see close running.

    • That is exactly what I tried to convey in my article Cassius, DRS is the best solution to the current problem, however the device is far from consistent and therefore we are having very sporadic results. The catch 22 with this as you say, is the FIA will never bring in regulations to ban diffusers, or drastically reduce downforce to the point dirty air becomes invalid…

  8. only allow Maldonado to have DRS and start him at the back of the grid every race weekend….bound to cause some action

  9. How about the UK stock car method in which the grid is reverse qualy or reverse points, but in the case of F1 biggest spend at the back and so on to the paupers at the front.

    • The fastest cars would simply ensure they do the slowest times… or unnecessarily change a gearbox… 😉

      • It may well be points not qualy, I know the gold and chequerd and silver tops go at the back but to be honest I’v only been to see F1 stocks once at Wimbledon, other times it been F3. Tears and Gears was an interesting series. (two rival families at war, one daughter and one son engaged, Yorks and Lancs, it was like Romeo and Juliet)

      • maybe the rules can then say if you chance a gearbox you go to the front of the grid.. in order of gearboxes being changed.. Going to get complicated! 😛

  10. To me, gary is right. Ban carbon brakes and enforce limitations on the bottom, and you’ll see overtakes again ( obviously get rid of those ridiculous tires as well)

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