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 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.
The 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.