Overtaking: Too much or too little?

Nick Heidfeld, BMW, Barcelona, 2006In the past week we picked the fifty best overtaking moves (see below if you missed them).

The difficulty of passing a rival on the track in Formula One, and the perceived lack of it, comes up time and again in criticisms of the sport.

But is it really that serious a problem? And if it is, why are the FIA pursuing such an odd solution to it when they’ve had a fix for years?

The NASCAR example

“Who says you can have too much overtaking? No way!” The sentiment and the attitude are as unmistakably American as the language. This is what Nicky Hayden, 2006 Moto GP champion, thinks of the issue of overtaking.

The reasoning is classically American – overtaking is good, therefore lots of overtaking must be great. It’s the same bigger-is-better belief that the fine nation of America is founded on.

But it is flawed. Practice quantity over quality for long enough and you get cheap, plastic, McDonald’s hamburgers, you get appallingly built American cars which few sophisticated foreign buyers will touch, and you get the joke of a ‘sport’ that is NASCAR.

I’m generalising of course but there is a truism at work here – which is that you can have too much of a good thing.

NASCAR may have overtaking by the spadeful but its popularity has more to do with the predominance of home-grown sports in America (baseball, American football etc…) and the public’s preference for exclusively American, rather than international competition.

There is probably too little overtaking in Formula One today.

The GP2 example

British Grand Prix, Silverstone, 2006, startCommentator Martin Brundle was driven to despair watching the British Grand Prix last year at which the three greatest drivers in F1 at the time – Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher – started at the front and then hardly saw each other at all.

He said, “I’m on the grid and I can hardly say, ‘Well, we’ve got the three best drivers in the world at the front of the grid, but, er… I’m not sure anything much is going to happen…’ I mean, I’d get fired immediately, wouldn’t I?

“The thing is, these days we all get pumped up about a ‘pitlane pass’. We’ve got indoctrinated now, so that we think of someone coming out of the pits, and someone else rushing down the pit straight, as a pass. And it’s not – it’s a change of order, but it’s not a pass! ‘I was waiting for the stops’… Jesus, how many times have we heard that?”

Alonso’s optimised fuel strategy saw him ease away comfortably, and Schumacher circumvened Raikkonen by means of a pit stop. The crowd nevermade as much noise that weekend as during the GP2 race when Lewis Hamilton, in a move worthy of Nigel Mansell, whipped past Nelson Piquet Jnr and Clivio Piccione at 150mph.

Michael Ammermuller, GP2, Barcelona, 2006F1 should not look to NASCAR for a model of how to create a series where overtaking is possible, but much closer to home, at GP2.

The aerodnyamically-restricted cars run on slick tyres and can stay much closer to one another through the corners, allowing for overtaking. No refuelling stops and no ‘race fuel’ qualifying nixes the opportunity for places to be wo and lost through tedious strategic manipulations.

Given that GP2 is an FIA-run series, why on earth is it taking so long for President Max Mosley to sort out overtaking?

The solutions

Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Melbourne, 1999Back in 1999 he had a report on his desk produced by the FIA Advisory Experts Group (that included late designer Harvey Postlethwaite and former F1 medic Sid Watkins) that stated overtaking would facilitated if current downforce levels were reduced by 50% and mechanical grip and drag increased 10%.

That calculation would give us a reasonable approximation to how GP2 cars compare to F1 cars. But although the report had the backing of many drivers, Mosley dropped it on the grounds that it he felt it would make the sport more dangerous – his stock excuse for throwing out anything he doesn’t like.

Instead he is now trying to win support (or railroad through) plans for his ‘centreline downwash generating’ wing, which would radically transform the look of F1 cars while, many designers suggest, not necessarily improving their capability to run close to one another.

The performance of GP2 cars suggests that something as unconventional (and unattractive) as a split rear wing is simply not necessary to engender overtaking.

Max Mosley, Bahrain, 2006What Mosley wants, Mosley usually gets. He has voiced his opinion in the past that too much overtaking would be a bad thing, and I’d go along with that.

But why he is pursuing this over-complicated and divisive solution when a simpler one is already at work in the series closest to Formula One, I cannot even guess.

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5 comments on Overtaking: Too much or too little?

  1. Firstly, I must say what a great set of videos that made for fantastic viewing – thanks. I’ll never forget Hakkinen and Schumacher at Spa, and Villeneuve in Estoril.

    I agree with your sentiment that Max should look at GP2 rather than NASCAR for solutions. NASCAR is a good series in the sense that it is more fan-friendly, but as a model for a racing series it is lacking in the sophistication department.

    Personally, I enjoyed the last F1 season and apart from the tradtional bores (Catalunya being one), I felt the overtaking that occured was of okay quality. But there is definitely room for improvement. The two moves I mentioned above probably sum up the last ten years in F1, which is quite sad.

    I’m starting to think that maybe the points system does need to be changed. Alonso played it easy in 2005, knowing that a second place would only lose him 2 points in the title lead. But as soon as he had won the championship, he let the Renault go and we all saw one of the greatest Japanese Grands Prix ever. Oh yeah, that was another move to include in this past decade.

    I think a part of the ‘lack of overtaking’ issue is down to the drivers not wanting to take risks (in the sense of Alonso in ’05), and this issue needs to be dealt with as well.

    Of course, it’ll never be just right, and as you said, what Max wants Max usually gets. Which is a crying shame when designers and team owners also want to see more overtaking. After all, if the sport becomes boring, people will not watch. And for the commercialised form of F1 at the moment, that would spell the end of the sport.

  2. Nathan Jones said on 21st January 2007, 1:04

    firstly, there can be too much overtaking in F1!, secondly i’d much prefer that to what we have now!
    thing is, i remember around season ’95 that drivers started being punished if they caused collisions with suspended race bans etc. this for mine is a massive deterrant for the drivers to try a move!
    remember when JPM got a penalty at U.S ’03 for colliding with barrichello!
    what the FIA needs to do is encourage the drivers to make a move, not deterr them!
    sadly, as i live in OZ we don’t see let alone hear of any of the GP2 races! :(

  3. I couldn’t agree more with your article! I hate NASCAR with an undesirable passion. I hate everything about it, from its simplicity to the simpletons that watch it!!! Even if F1 doesn’t have much passing, you know that the very few passes that are made are 10x more difficult then those of Nascar. And American cars are ****, the only reason why they sell in the USA is because of there “macho / cool / bigger then yours” factor that simple people are attracted to. Anyways, I hope F1 does get better in the future.

  4. GP2 is a pretty good model, if you ask me. The other reason GP2 cars can run much closer together is that a good part of their downforce is generated via underbody aerodynamics, which don’t create the same turbulence problems as wings do.

    And you’re right, there *can* be too much overtaking. I remember Nigel Roebuck raving about NASCAR in the 1980s, and being horribly disappointed when I actually saw a race on Eurosport, or whatever it was. Still figure it might be impressive to watch in person though – if not quite worth a transatlantic trip in and of itself.

  5. I think F1 Cars should be like GP2 cars and races should be longer and there should be points given for overtaking

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