Overtaking: Back to the drawing board

Follow the leader: Racing has not improved much this year

Follow the leader: Racing has not improved much this year

F1 has been grappling with the problem of how to get the cars to race more closely for several years.

For 2009, the FIA’s Overtaking Working Group proposed a radical solution involving lower, wider front wings and higher, narrower rear wings. It made the cars wretchedly unattractive but, they reckoned, it should allow them to follow more closely.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked. We now have cars that are heinously ugly – and still can’t overtake. Why hasn’t it worked and what should be done about it?

After the first few races of the season the changes got a cautious thumbs-up after we’d seen some genuinely exciting and close racing.

Since then we’ve seen several races where drivers have once again complained of being unable to get close enough to the car in front to be able to pass. There will likely be many competing explanations for why this is the case, so let’s explore some of them:

Drivers

Until a few races ago the debate over the lack of overtaking was centred around whether particular drivers just aren’t very good at overtaking. Suspicion particularly fell on Sebastian Vettel, who spent much of the Bahrain and Spanish Grands Prix stuck behind slower cars.

But since then we have seen more evidence of how cars with significant performance advantages over their rivals simply can’t make a pass. Here’s Jenson Button’s lap times as he caught Nico Rosberg at Silverstone towards the end of the British Grand Prix:

Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg, Britisah Grand Prix 2009 (click to enlarge)

Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg, Britisah Grand Prix 2009 (click to enlarge)

Having been lapping over two seconds quicker, as Button got closer to Rosberg their lap times gradually converged to the point where Button was hardly gaining at all.

KERS

I think one of the main reasons we saw more overtaking in the first few races of the season was that more cars were using KERS.

Renault, BMW, Ferrari and McLaren were using the system to make lightning-quick starts and overtake otherwise quicker rivals. We even saw non-KERS-equipped cars struggling past those that had the boost button.

But as more teams have rejected the technology, the opportunity for racing with it has decreased.

It may have been branded a ‘failure’, with the teams planning to abandon it next year, but it did make a difference as far as overtaking is concerned.

Diffusers

Felipe Massa reckons the FIA ruling making ‘double decker’ diffusers legal which he feels harmed the work of the OWG:

Just as was planned by the FIA, the cars did produce less downforce. But with the decision to allow the double diffusers, this plan was turned upside down.

It is always valuable to get the insight of a driver into matters like this, but we cannot ignore the fact that Massa’s team Ferrari were especially vocal in criticising the double-diffuser ruling and were among those not to use the innovation in the early races of the season.

Other racing series such as Champ Car successfully used cars which relied heavily on downforce generated by diffusers instead of wings to allow cars to race quickly and closely. The rationale was that it made the cars less sensitive when following the disturbed air of a leading car.

In his pre-season technical preview on this site, John Beamer criticised the 2009 regulations for substantially reducing the size of the diffusers, arguing that larger diffusers could create better racing:

The diffuser and floor generate downforce but create little turbulence. Given that the FIA?s aim is to reduce the size of the wake then a powerful diffuser in conjunction with, say, a less cambered and more shallow rear wing is a must.

Read more: How the F1 rules changes for 2009 are meant to improve racing (part 3/3)

Tracks

Is it down to the circuits?

The opening races were at venues often thought of as ‘overtaking-friendly’, like Sepang and Bahrain. But the Circuit de Catalunya, Monte-Carlo and Silverstone are seen as trickier places to make a pass.

I’m not really convinced by this argument. Yes, some tracks are harder to pass on than others – Monaco, for example, is always going to be exceptionally difficult.

But to my mind the fundamental problem is the cars still can’t get close enough to each other in the first place, and that is down to the technical rules.

What else?

Whatever the cause of F1’s overtaking problem is, the 2009-spec aerodynamics has not solved it. In a poll here earlier this week the modern F1 cars were voted among the most unattractive ever seen in the sport.

If we are going to be stuck with cars that can’t overtake each other, can we at least have ones that look good?

More on overtaking in F1

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151 comments on Overtaking: Back to the drawing board

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  1. Chalky said on 2nd July 2009, 12:24

    Gilles Villenueve had a idea and Steven Roy posted it back on this site on:
    http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk/2008/03/25/two-good-reasons-to-ban-refuelling/
    Here’s a quote from Steven’s post:

    The idea that overtaking didn’t happen in the past is wrong. Up until ground effect came into being at the end of the 70s it was not uncommon for the number of changes of leader in a race to be well into double figures. There was a website that logged the changes of leader at the start line of every GP. At Monza there were regularly 30+ changes of leader at the start line. Multiply that by moves elsewhere and changes of other positions and you get an awful lot of overtaking. I really must try and find that site again. There is a reason why people rave about those Monza slipstreamers. Overtaking at other tracks may not have been as easy but it happened regularly.

    There is a famous quote by Gilles Villeneuve which debunks the myth that the lack of overtaking is a recent phenomenon. He said something like ‘The trouble with modern race cars is that the front wing is so sensitive that if you get too close behind another car in a corner you lose grip and the car understeers. As a result you lose contact with the car and cannot slipstream it down th straight and overtake into the following corner.’ Max and co have consistently over the past 20 years put out the story that overtaking has become more difficult in the last 5 years but before that it was OK so a minor tweak here and there will sort it. Gilles died in 1982. The problem has been around for a very long time. His solution was to take the wings and throw them away. Don’t modify them bin them. He wanted to fit 5 litre normally aspirated engines and big wide slick tyres. Increase the mechanical grip and reduce the aero. 26 years on and we are still going in the opposite direction.

    I have to agree with him, or I’d like to see it tried. You get close racing in saloon racing as they have little aero dependency.

    • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 14:31

      hmm very interesting… it certainly makes sense, though I doubt they would go as far as throwing the wings out.. but maybe something else can be done

    • Bas said on 2nd July 2009, 16:01

      He knew it , you and I know it, we all know it. But that doesnt mean that’s the way F1 wants to go.

      F1 in its modern sense is primarily a technical competition. But to keep costs down and racing close there are lots of rules and extra complications. Thats what makes F1 so popular with makes nowadays. And with fans too. racing is closer, theres makes teams, and its all very technologically advanced; currnet car’s performance is n majority aero based. Take off those wings away and all the “world summum of technology”, F1-as-the-makes(FOTA)-want-it aura is gone. And technological competition has for long be just as much part of the game as driver-to-driver. Colin chapman is a revered hero because he came up with things all the time, only for the mto be banned when he became to fast or the tec to be adopted by the rest as well.

      SO as much as it would help overtaking, it would be the end F1 as we know it. It is what both the FIA and the FOTA are completely opposed to. Its just not gonna happen.

      • IDR said on 2nd July 2009, 17:15

        IMHO, aeropackage is the main reason for current lack of overtaking but just because mechanical options have been more less equalized.

        Give mechanical freedom to the teams (restrictions on consumption and durability, only) and probably we will see more competition.

        The only good thing KERS has demonstrated is 80hp more is enough for not being suffering behind other car.

        • Kovy said on 3rd July 2009, 2:21

          I say they should just make the aero close to GP2.

          A month or so ago, I heard the FIA was planning to make the F1 slicks even smaller next year to slow cars down for ‘safety reasons’, all that would do is mad the cars even more aero dependent.

    • PinballLes said on 3rd July 2009, 4:07

      Those thoughts seem to make sense. The argument in the past has been that it’s the dirty air coming off the leading car, and the thought has been to clean up the dirty air coming off the leading car. But taking the bits of the trailing car that cannot handle the dirty air from the leading car make a lot of sense.

      Maybe the answer is to move the position of the front wing, maybe higher off the ground, above the top of the dirty air from the leading car? Maybe this could enable closer racing, or at the very least weird looking cars.

    • Hell$torm. said on 3rd July 2009, 5:23

      make the front wing narrower and the rear wing wider, get rid of KERS then we will have proper racing and good looking cars. the thing is qualifing puts the fastest cars at the front so they just drive away from the rest of the feild.

      sound stupid but how bout bonus pionts for the amount of passing maneuvers you make that would make the racing alot better and encourage drivers to take risks

  2. dsob said on 2nd July 2009, 12:28

    The answer to this problem escapes me, as well. Other racing disciplines manage to follow quite closely and overtake. I know most F1 people look down on IRL, but perhaps a look at their aero setup may be in order, as they manage to run nose-to-tail at 200mph. Not saying copy them, but have a look for anything that might apply to F1 and help solve the overtaking problem.

  3. DanThorn said on 2nd July 2009, 12:42

    The lowing of the rev limit to 18000 RPM can’t have helped either. A few times this year drivers have been complaining of bouncing off the limiter before the end of the straight, which negates the advantage of the slipstream…

    • Hallard said on 2nd July 2009, 15:42

      That’s really more of a gearing issue than a rev-limit issue though.

      • mp4-19b said on 3rd July 2009, 8:25

        no it isn’t

        • scunnyman said on 3rd July 2009, 8:33

          Agreed what is the point of pulling out of the slipstream of the car in front if when you are about to pull ahead the rev limiter comes on.

          Just get rid of the rev limit and maybe allow a boost from the engine. It uses a bit more fuel, but then the driver is supposed to be able to manage things like tyres, fuel and gearboxes.

  4. Ronman said on 2nd July 2009, 12:44

    Yeah, i had this concern when watching the last race. where it turned into a processional one.

    it was completely boring, and it’s very frustrating when a very fast car gets stuck behind a slow one and doesnt even have the chance to overtake.

    other than the aero package, we should also consider Tyre difference. if they all raced on the same exact tyres, it would be one less variable, and having to put up with fragile tyres keeps drivers driving relatively conservative and not attemting to push on for an overtake, rather they wait for the pits…

    it’s a hard nut to crack I’m sure, but reduced aerodynamics overall wont hurt the racing, but then it wont have F1.

    • Brian said on 2nd July 2009, 17:30

      I agree with the Tyres. The teams shouldn’t have to use both types in a race. If a certain type of tire is best for that particular circuit then that is the only one that should be used. The tires should also be made to last as long as possible.

  5. Eddie Irvine said on 2nd July 2009, 12:50

    We need powerful engines in order to increase top speed. This will lead to bigger breaking distance and as a resault a lot more overtaking.
    I know a v10 engine would be a lot more expensive, but if they keep the engine rules stable without changing their rev limits every year or their approximately life in grand prixs the cost will be reduced for sure.

    • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 14:35

      This will lead to bigger breaking distance and as a resault a lot more overtaking.

      hmm good point…

    • Xibi said on 2nd July 2009, 16:19

      I’ve been saying this for quite some time.

      Definitely agreed! Good point!

      • Someone had suggested the use of steel brakes instead of carbon fibre ones. That would cause the braking distance to double, it is assumed.

  6. hollus said on 2nd July 2009, 12:52

    “F1 has been grappling with the problem of how to get the cars to race more closely for several years.”

    And im my opinion, this year they solved it.

    I think we are mixing two concepts here. I watched Silverstone following alonso in the mid-field. He passed Hamilton, Hamilton passed him. He tried to pass Heidfeld something like 10 times, and while he could not pass, he got parallel to him several times (and more than parallel, buy the Renault is dreadful at braking). Whenever he made a small mistake, somebody behind him was close enough to pass him. All of this in aero-heavy silverstone.
    So I have to conclude that the new F1 cars can indeed run closer to each other than they used to.
    From running very close to passing, that is a different story, but these cars get close and they slipstream well (and would do even better without the rev limit).
    In that sense, the OWG got it right, but they won’t make the cars harder and narrower so they can push each other to pass.

    • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 14:41

      If KERS was made mandatory for all teams this year, and if double diffuser was not allowed for this year, I think that would have solved the problem.

      Additionally i think the weight of the cars (with the driver in it, minus the fuel) must be the same for all teams and drivers in order for this to work.

      • Hallard said on 2nd July 2009, 15:46

        I would actually argue that KERS has prevented passing as much as it has enabled passing. I get the impression from the earlier races in particular when you could see someone like piquet holding up barichello by defensively using KERS (and making a good show of it!)

        • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 16:17

          yes at the moment that is true because not all cars have KERS and Barichello doesn’t have KERS. But if they “all” had KERS maybe things would be different..

          • Kovy said on 3rd July 2009, 2:20

            KERS will only allow overtaking if it is allowed to be an open system which teams develop freely.

  7. Raceaddict said on 2nd July 2009, 12:55

    When I first heard about KERS I thought it was destined to be a great equalizer when it came to passing. Also, KERS would not only create more parity on the track, but also serve as an example of a regenerative technology that would, at least in intent, address the real world issue of alternate-energy creation.

    As the season progressed it became obvious that this was to become an optional technology with teams picking and choosing whether to use KERS or not. In my opinion if KERS were mandated on all cars and for all races the overtaking problem would be less of an issue than it is now.

    • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 14:44

      good point. Also for that to work, the double diffuser would have had to be removed or made mandatory for all cars. As I posted above, also the weight must be same for all cars with the driver in it (Minus fuel) of course

  8. James Brickles said on 2nd July 2009, 12:59

    To be honest, I think overtaking has improved and to an extent, the new rules have worked. Its only improved from the midfield down the the lower end of the grid.

    I think these double decker diffusers are to blame because we saw Alonso and Heidfeld have their battle and Alonso was able to get alongside the BMW (Non DDD). Then we saw Button struggling to even follow Rosberg (DDD).

    • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 14:45

      I agree.

    • Dan Bigham said on 2nd July 2009, 15:53

      ALL the cars have a DDD now, including BMW. and as covered above the affect of a diffuser on the cars wake is extremely minimal. Its the aggresive design of the wings that cause wake issues and stop the cars following each other closely…

    • Bas said on 2nd July 2009, 16:14

      Its true that the wake of a DDD is greater than an oldskool diff, but this doesnt affect the effectivity of the diff of the car behind. If modern cars were allowed to have some ground effect on the front end rather than wings, there would be no problem with the wake at all.
      Basic rule of thumb: everything that is underneath the car is not affected by airflow disturbances. Everything that is standing or hanging in free air is.

      Therefore, all cars have more downforce at the rear and with the DDD regardless of whether theyre following closely or not. But when following a DDD, you have less front downforce than when following an oldskool diff.

      If teams were allowed to apply an unlimited number of aerofoils they could negate this effect, but that number, and the space in which they can be placed, is limited in order to limit downforce, increase safety and reduce costs.

      • W-K said on 2nd July 2009, 18:10

        According to my instructors, long ago, the job of a diffuser is to produce a Laminar (smooth) flow. Therefore the diffuser needs to be made bigger, not smaller or removed.

        If you look at the designs of wind tunnels the area between the fan(s) and the working area, is to smooth the air flow and is often called the diffuser. You cannot research the air flow over cars, aircraft etc if the air is turbulent before it reaches the test object.

  9. Tiomkin said on 2nd July 2009, 13:05

    If you could use KERS for a decent amount of time, say 15 seconds worth per lap, then it would be worth having. Plus because it allowed you to overtake, everyone would want it.

  10. PJA said on 2nd July 2009, 13:08

    Don’t all the teams, except maybe Toro Tosso, have a version of the Double Decker Diffuser by now?

    Alonso was able to get so close to Heidfeld at SIlverstone because Heidfeld’s front wing was broken BMW told him to come in and get it changed because he was losing so much performance but he said it could wait till the first stop as his car was still quick enough were it mattered to keep Alonso behind him.

  11. iceshiel said on 2nd July 2009, 13:10

    perhaps they should make f1 cars more narrow?

    • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 14:50

      I think they already made them narro, besides that would look ugly, furthermore if they make any more narrow well then why dont they just go and race motorbikes! – what they actually need to do is remove that ridiculous front wing so cars can touch wheel to wheel if necessary. Make stable rules that apply equally to all teams, and make all cars have the same weight distribution with the driver in it (minus the fuel)

  12. Dougie said on 2nd July 2009, 13:11

    The DDD and a big fat angle on the rear wing generate turbulence. The rear wing is the biggest culprit here. The diffuser alone generates little turbulence, the wing lots, together loads.

    Overtaking has reduced in line with aerodynamic loads going up… the cars are closer today because aero loads have reduced over the top of the car, they may have gained it all back in the Diffuser but it hasn’t stopped the cars being closer this year.

    We need to go further still in reducing aero over the car. We want to return to wing dimensions of 2008 and then reduce the number of planes and the angle range. The Champ Car references are correct, small wings is the future… Champ Car has witnessed some fantastic scraps, not just on ovals but road courses as well.

    Please note: the comments above are not from an aerodynamic specialist but from a casual Formula 1 viewer and should be flamed as such… or, when proved right, commended ;-)

    • Martin said on 2nd July 2009, 15:08

      Yes but Champ car wings for road course vs superspeedways are radically different. When they run high speed ovals the fronts are very small and are there to trim the car. The rear wing is also very flat as they are running 200mph constantly and not changing speed more than 10mph from corner to straight. Road courses you see the same big front wing with high angle rears to generate more downforce at lower speeds.
      I dont disagree that wingw could make a difference as well as other items such as no rev limit.
      If you want to see the sport get better with over taking, quit constantly meddle with the rules.
      Give them a 3.5 litre engine, no rev limit,no max number of cylinders, no minimum number of races on the engine.
      Give the teams options on the aero packages they can run, such as ground effect-no front wings and limited rear wing surface area. No ground effects- then it opens up to more aero options and a toal flat bottom on the car.
      Give them a lot of leeway on tire sizes. if the team wants wider rears and front then let them have it. That way some teams may be able to equals aero issues with more grip mechanically.
      Take away the refeuling as has already been settled, but allow tire changes without tire warmers anywhere in the paddock, if it is freezing out then it is the drivers responsibility to make the adjustments. Also allow the drivers all the tires they want of whatever compound is available for the race.
      With different options teams can then develope the car as the year goes by, and hopefully the racing would be better.
      The best drivers will still be at the top and maybe it would come back to the drivers as much as the car.
      Once the rules are agreed to they shuld be locked for a period of at least 5 years to help the teams control cost in this fashion. If they have a reliable engine/tansmission package after the first year they dont have to spend millions developing in that area. If the tire compounds for a given track are known and dont change from year to year then they can tailor the setup as the already have data to support the setup and tehy save time and money again.
      The US doesnt have some of the problems with their sport administration for some obvious and some less obvious reasons. Obvious is Max and the FIA, Less obvious is the sanctioning body isnt changing the rules every year or every week. The racing may not be as good but you dont read about the organizers of the sport in the press everyday, which is the way it should be.

      • Maksutov said on 2nd July 2009, 16:48

        Once the rules are agreed to they shuld be locked for a period of at least 5 years to help the teams control cost in this fashion.

        True, at least for a reasonable period of time while some teams who may be struggling could catch up. It would also prevent the extra cost in design and manufacturing of new components every year.

        But I agree with some of your statements regarding allowing the drivers to chose whatever tyre compound they like. However, enabling the teams too much leeway could mean that teams with more money could have a bit more of an advantage…

        • Martin said on 2nd July 2009, 23:26

          yes, but it has always been this way and always will. This just allows some extra ways of developing more competitive racing.

          • scunnyman said on 3rd July 2009, 4:35

            What you say Martin makes a lot of sense. But since when does FIA make sense?

    • BigG said on 2nd July 2009, 15:39

      I used to watch ChampCar in the late ’90’s early 2000’s. At that time, the cars were varried between several different chassis, engines, & tires, but the racing was close on the road courses. I think that was down to the ChampCar rules allowing ground effect tunnels under the cars. The venturi tunnels aren’t affected by turbulence. This is something that F1 banned decades ago, but I think they should reconsider. This time they should regulate the dimensions of the tunnels and maybe the profile so it doesn’t become a money sink. This might help, but please don’t bring the boring part of Champ Car: regulated fuel tank size. That left many races with a procession of cars that couldn’t race because they were so low on fuel. The race distance was almost doable in 2 stops, so most teams would try to push it and hope for a yellow flag.

      • Bas said on 2nd July 2009, 16:35

        Main reason for banning was that it made cars corner dangerously fast. Dangerously, because the huge downforce pushed the springs down completely with no suspension left. This made the cars bounce around rather much, and extremely tricky to handle. It also meant that, whilst bouncing, the cars could bottom out, interrupting the airflow underneath the car and thus instantly cancelling out all downforce, quite often with horrific consequences.

        Colin Chapman thought of a way around this, by an advanced system that fixed the bottom of the car directly to the wheels, and rather suspended the rest of the car on this. But the other teams quickly protested it, claiming primarily it would ruin the championship and consequently it got banned

        Nowadays, car suspension is much more advanced and these problems wouldnt necessarily reoccur. The main reason the FIA has frightened away from allowing ground effect again is another. It would be like opening pandora’s box, and no-one knows what would come out of it in terms of car design, speeds, safety etc. For the same reasons, the teams (or at least most of them) will vehemently oppose any such move: they stand to lose from it, as its costs big money to develop, and all their current understanding of the car is thrown right out of the window. And who might come out on top?

        Because no-one has worked with ground effect on an f1 budget or tec level for nearly 3 decades, no-one can tell what would happen, what kind of rules would give what effect, unless u standardize it. Anyone?

        So, to all parties involved ground effect is a passed station. Even though it is the most likely solution to the problem WITHOUT downgrading the hi-tech character of the sport, teams and regulator will prefer complex artificial aero rules with little effect over a one-stop solution to the problem. ‘no radical changes, please’

  13. Interesting quote in Autosport from A1GP manager John Travis:

    While the old car was generally disliked for its looks and lack of sophistication, there were few complaints about the quality of racing it produced.

    With greater emphasis placed on aerodynamic performance on the Ferrari car, it was feared that the racing would suffer from the age-old problem of turbulent air from the leading car disturbing the performance of the one chasing. But Travis’s experience working with Lola and Penske in “proper” Champ Car as he refers to it, had given him an insight in how to counter-act these pitfalls.

    “We were given information about where F1 was going to go, but I’m afraid I disagreed with what they’ve done,” he states. “I don’t think it’s the right way to go. We went back to wide-track and slick tyres. We wanted to produce at least 50 per cent of the downforce from the underwing, because for me that is the less sensitive part of the car to the turbulent wake. Our front wing philosophy followed what we’d done in Champ Car with Penske in terms of wing position and endplate design. We looked at the turbulent wake and we tried to incorporate that philosophy into this car. We didn’t have time to investigate lots of solutions, so we went with what we knew worked.”

    Of course there’s more to overtaking than just being able to run close to the car in front. At tracks like Taupo and Brands Hatch, it’s very hard for open-wheel racers to pass – the layout just doesn’t lend itself to it. But at venues like Kyalami and the new Algarve track in Portugal, the A1 races were as entertaining and action-packed as ever.

  14. jinthehouse said on 2nd July 2009, 13:39

    Smaller brakes mean longer braking zones!!!!!

    • Hallard said on 2nd July 2009, 15:49

      Smaller brakes would just mean they wouldnt work as efficiently. Decreasing the grip of the tires is the real limiting factor in braking.

  15. 159Tom said on 2nd July 2009, 13:55

    Mostly the diffusers I guess – why not go back to the more restricted aero rules that Ross Brawn suggested last year?

    I also suspect some drivers are being “managed” too much by team bosses and race engineers: encouraged to wait for the pit stops, and given strategies where target lap times are more important than track position.

    at Barcelona, Vettel said he gave up trying to follow another car closely because he was sliding around and wearing his tyres out…what’s wrong with wearing your tyres out? Hopefully the refuelling ban will help.

    Max Mosley once threatened (as a negotiating tool) to ban pit-to-car radio – maybe not such a bad idea to send the drivers out and let them get on with it!

    …and bring on a race at the Algarve track.

    • John H said on 2nd July 2009, 14:09

      Indeed. The removal of refuelling next season will definitely help with this.

      Looking back on it, I think publishing the amount of fuel in the cars is not a good idea (although I’m usually in favour of giving fans more info) because if you know for sure the guy in front is pitting 2 laps before you, what’s the point of risking it?

      Just stay behind, and pump in a couple of laps on low fuel when he goes in.

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