Overtaking: Too much or too little?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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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