Overtaking: Back to the drawing board

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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:


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.


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.


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)


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

151 comments on “Overtaking: Back to the drawing board”

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  1. Jonesracing82
    2nd July 2009, 14:57

    i think it’s these double diffusers, think back to melb and sepang races, there was lots of overtaking, the diffusers came in from Bahrain onwards and from that race onwards we have been seeing less and less oveertaking! i think thats a bit more than a coincidence!

  2. F1 Outsider
    2nd July 2009, 15:12

    GP2 cars seem to be able to run pretty close to each other. At Silverstone there was a good scrap between DeGrassi and Nico Hulkenberg for 2nd place.

    1. There was a good scrap but I’d argue the majority of the race was processional once the field had spread out a few car lengths.

  3. I think we need to proceed in decreasing aerodynamic load (limited wear wings profiles, limited angle, limited diffuser zone) and to switch back from carbon to steel brakes.
    Refuelling ban and pit-driver communication ban should also help, because the driver would need more vision on the race and you could not give up overtaking just for “tactical” reasons. I don’t like when the box talks to the driver and says “The next one is on your strategy” or “The next one should have two laps less”…and I think somehow those communication can inhibit overtake attempts.

  4. The problem is I think not so difficult to solve. More mechanical grip and less aerodynamic grip. This solution has been proposed for years just as Gilles Villneuve did And Damon Hill, Gary Andersson as well among many others.
    MUCH smaller vings, wider tyres and a larger diffuser!
    Why is this so difficult to implement?

  5. that mclaren simulator must be sent to a steel foundry & destroyed. it has neither helped them nor the OWG. complete failure on the part of OWG. Over taking will only be possible when the godforsaken rule of engine-freeze is lifted. nowadays the role of a engine has been reduced to nothingness. everybody running at same RPM, how can we expect overtaking? remember the 80’s & 90’s, the fight between the porche-tag,renault,honda was a treat to watch. Engine has no meaning in today’s formula one. i would like to know what job do mercedes have in f1? nothing imo. the neither build chassis nor do they have to further develop kers.(cuz they are doing away with it next year). emphasis must be laid on engine development also. but the dictator & the small troll will never listen to fans. so there is no point.

    1. I agree the engine rpm limit must be lifted. Also want the mfg of the engines to go back to their own ECU. This Mclaren/microsoft ecu is another equalizer that ruins the competion.
      The OWG obviously is a incompetent group because Brawn told them of the loophole in the rule and then exploited it to the dismay of everyone around.

      1. yes but Martin if you believe the reports from the beginning of the season then Brawn reported the loophole and wanted it closing and the rest of the working group ignored him and he went his own way.
        The rules need to be cast iron with little or no leeway. Designer need to have some lenience on the way the interpret the rules but not such a big step as the 3 teams had. I still say though that Brawn is quicker because of the engine more than the diffuser. Look at the other 2 teams and how they are doing. And Red Bull did well without the diffuser.

        1. I wont diasagree, because in the interviews with Barrichello he told everyone that would listen that the car was more than just the diffuser, he went on to say that there were several different improvements in the car that made the diffuser work better than other designs. I agree that the Mercedes engine is probably the best 1 out there right now. Power and reliability are better than any of the competing engines.
          I do think the Brawn is more than just the sum of its parts, but Red Bulls cars are starting to become a force to recon with. Who would have thought this time last year that Mclaren or Ferrari would be winless.
          You also bring up another good point as the other 2 teams who started out with the DDD havent enjoyed the same level of success. But they run the same engine. I dont know if that is relavent though.

          1. Well yes Force India have the mercedes engine too, but they are a much smaller outfit,(no matter what people think of BrawnGP, it is still mainly HONDA’s money and people and resources).
            PLus perhaps Mclaren/Mercedes help BrawnGP more than Force India due to needing Honda back on the grid in some form.
            But i would say it’s more down to the resources of BrawnGP vs lack of resources at Force India.

            Perhaps there needs to an independant body to look at several issue within F1 such as overtaking and aerodynamics engines gearboxes rev limits tyres chassis etc.

          2. Well yes Force India have the mercedes engine too, but they are a much smaller outfit

            Yeah but Vijay has the biggest boat scunny :)

            Indian Empress

          3. But seriously; From F1-Live.com

            Massive investment from Honda ahead of F1 exit
            After the car won three-quarters of every race so far under the 2009 regulations, Alex Wurz has revealed the secret of the Brawn BGP 001.

            At times last year, the team’s predecessor Honda had five wind tunnels at its disposal, according to Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport, as well as a half-billion euro budget.

            “The car was taken in three different directions in the wind tunnel,” test driver Wurz told News. “Two directions were found to be wrong, so the team could just switch.”

            Amid the shock of the global economic situation, Honda then pulled out and the Brackley team was rescued by a management buyout headed by Ross Brawn.

            “The Brawn is probably the most expensive car with the lowest operating budget ever,” the Austrian admitted.

          4. I believe that the Nurburgring may be more suited to BrawnGp cars that the Red Bulls in my opinion. It’s not such a high speed circuit like Silverstone. And not one of my favourite tracks. I never have liked the modern circuit, especially circuits with mickey mouse chicanes right before the start/finish straight.
            I would prefer one of the other teams to come to the fore and challenge BrawnGP. But i believe Red Bull are the only team that can really catch BrawnGp because of the points gap.

          5. You may be right scunny, but if Red Bull come good at what’s left of the Ring and then again in Hungary it’ll be game over for Brawn this year. The only new track I like is Turkey and that may be going away after next year (see my post on Bulgaria in the forum).

        2. Yes Jagged, the most expensive car to design maybe and one of the cheapest to run.
          Maybe next year we will see BrawnGP’s real potential.

          1. It’ll be interesting to see if Brawn can respond to Newey’s latest Red Bull challenge. We’ll know in about 10 days scunny.

          2. Agreed Jagged, I quite like Turkey too, especially with some nice roast potatoes, some brussel sprouts,sweede,carrots, yorkshire puds, mash, cabbage, parsnips and gravy yum yum.lol

            No seriously I do like istanbul park.

            Remember though, the likes of Mclaren, Ferrari and BMW are well capable of coming good befoe the end of the year and taking points away from both front running teams. Maybe even Renault too, NAH that’s asking too much lol.

        3. I still say though that Brawn is quicker because of the engine more than the diffuser. Look at the other 2 teams and how they are doing.

          well McLaren have the same engine as Brawn GP so I wouldn’t think that is the main reason for Brawn success although it certainly is a contributing factor. What is one major issue is that McLaren and few other teams had designed their chaise to support the Kers .. so the extra weight the center of gravity were modeled around that. Thus the entire car and chaise was built around that since the rules were not very clear, as they never are thanks to Max Mosley. Where as Brawn, including red bull did all their work with no major plan on using the Kers… Brawn were also the first to perfect the use of the double diffuser so I still believe that this gave them the edge initially, although now I believe that the car is just so well balanced compared to the rest…

          1. I have to agree with you maksutov that the BrawnGP cars are more stable because of the design without KERS, but i still stanndby my staement that the engine is more of a factor than the diffuser, if not then the cars would be much further ahead of the Red Bulls than they are. And i am sure that Mclarens woes are also attributed to going the wrong way on the aero. I am sure that Mclaren will improve this year and BrawnGP have improvements too.

  6. and they should ban MIRRORS. it should be like moto gp. even jack the son of gilles was of the same opinion.

  7. I love how people are stating that the DD diffusers are the problem, when experts in aerodynamics have proven that actually undercar aerodynamics are more efficient and less likely to effect the following car.

    I agree with the poster above who state that they shoud reduce the over-car aero downforce and allow more undercar downforce. Though even once this is taken into balance the overall downforce should be less than it is currently.

    I think part of the reason the first few races were more exciting than more recent ones is that the cars were all new, the teams were still getting to know them and how to set them up and a lot of the aero packs weren’t very developed. Now we’re into the season the aero on the cars is getting more developed (as hence more sensitive) and the teams are honing in on the best setup which means the cars are more driveable…

  8. I’ll give my two cents. I did not watch F1 in the 60’s when, at least in the documentaries, you see a lot of great slipstream battles. But I have been watching it since the mid 70’s and I can tell you that this idea that in the past the number of overtakings was absurdly higher than now among similar performance cars is a mith. Overtaking moves in F1 have always been special (and therefore, relatively rare) moments. But I agree that things got a bit worse in the last 10 to 15 years. Although I appreciate the aerodinamic argument, I believe the main problem are the tracks. Since Senna’s death the sport became obsessed with safety – You make of it what you want, but I think that if you don’t have the guts you should work in an office or somewhere else and take Jack Stweard along with you. Most of the fast-curves followed by long-straights (ending in a tight corners) are gone and that is where cars with similar power managed to overtake each other in the past. Think of the parabolica followed by the pit straight in Monza or the eau rouge followed by the strait to les combes in Spa, for example (the few survivers). In the past we had the woodcut followed by the pit straight in Silverstone, the sector between the tamburelo and tosa in Imola, several places in Paul Ricard, the peraltada/pit straight combination in Mexico and many more. And, of course, we had the old Hockenheim – a blast throught the forest. What do we have now? Many truncated circuits and a bunch of straights that follow tight corners – the cars will bunch up in the corner but if there ins’t a huge disparity in power they won’t change places in the straight because the car in front can accelerate earlier than the car behind. This advantage to the car in front is not there if the straight is preceeded by a fast curve.
    Thus, bring the fast curves back and, to guarantee, ban the wings.

    1. This is the best comment in this thread (barring the formatting). I agree with both of your points:
      1. That overtaking has always been relatively rare in F1.
      2. The cars and drivers (through simulators) have “outgrown” the static or neutered tracks.

    2. I agree with the neutered track staement more than ever.
      Safety is important, but the old tracks and the dangerouos spot in them where what seperated the drivers from the posers.

    3. I agree with Antifia 100%.

    4. I agree you have made some good points there Antifia especially the obssession with safety following Senna’s death. Yes safety is needed, but it needs to be tempered with the whole point of motor racing. Especially at speeds in excess of 200mph. Danger is always there and death a possibility. Drivers and fans should be aware of this and not neuter the tracks as you say.
      Yes there was not a massive increase in the amount of overtakes in years gone by compared to now, but they were more memorable in the main and more people were prepared to try. The stewards and the FIA with their penalties may be making drivers and teams think again about even trying an overtake incase it goes wrong and they are penalised.

  9. and also would it be a good idea to use slicks only in the front end & use threaded tyre at the rear? that would compensate for the large “rear” downforce produced by double-decker diffuser using cars such as brawn & red bull. the point of introducing slicks was to compensate for the lack of downforce. but now it seems that aero is king. and the cars such as red bull & brawn are dangerously closer to the 2004 lap times(fastest f1 in history). so it would be nice for wheel to wheel racing if they revert back to grooved tyres. this is the cheapest & best solution if we wanna see some wheel to wheel battle.

    1. I have always hated the grooved tire. Proper race cars ride on slicks unless it is raining. Then great race drivers ride on slicks and the rest ride on rains.

      1. Me too Martin i have hated grooved tyre since day 1, and i can’t beleive they stayed for 11 seasons. Grooved tyre was one of the worst ideas to enter the sport.

  10. Formula 1 become too much of a spec series, resulting in a very competative starting field. But if cars are more or less equaled, it will be very hard to pass anyone.

  11. Like dsob said, IRL has done a good job in the past of having cars able to follow closely and overtake. In NASCAR, the cars are built in a way to allow the car following to run faster than the lead car. I am not an aerodynamicist, but I know NASCAR aerodynamics are a little different from F1. Can anyone explain tough why F1 cars can’t be built to allow the following car to be slightly faster than the lead car? We always hear about the cars being slow while running in “dirty” air.

    1. F1 Outsider
      2nd July 2009, 17:23

      To say that Nascar Aerodynamics are a little different from F1 is the understatement of the century!

      F1 cars do get a “tow” from the car in front. But the front of F1 cars is very aero dependent unlike Nascar. A stock car can follow another closely because there’s less need for downforce at the front nose of the car. When an F1 car gets too close to the gearbox of another, the car in front is creating a hole in the air and a vaccum right behind it. Once the the nose of the chasing car is inside the vacuum, it loses all the downforce that it depends on for grip, which hurts the car’s cornering ability, which is what you need to make a sucessful pass.

  12. remedy for the current problem of overtaking:-

    1. Complete ban on wind-tunnel testing.
    2. Complete ban on simulators(like the crappy one at mclaren)
    3. lift freeze on engine RPM.
    4. It must be made mandatory thar big-corp like mercedes,BMW,toyota,honda can “only” supply engine & not bother about other things.
    5. real f1 teams like McLaren, williams, Red bull must build only chassis & transmission & not bother about engines.
    6. encourage innovative designs.
    7. bring back some classic tracks.
    8. appoint adrian newey as the head of OWG.
    9. use only dassault systeme’s based CAD/CAE products
    10. Ouster Max Mosley from FIA.

    the last suggestion would end all the problems imo.

    1. I agree with some of those but not all. I really do think that a lot of this comes down to the drivers. In the mid field is some pretty close racing, but drivers do a pretty good job of defending. Heidfeld had a problem with his front wing which slowed him down, yet he was still able to hold of Alonso, and Alo was definately trying his best to get by him.
      One thing they should do is desing a areo package that would allow for the closest racing (sorta like making Adrian Newey a head designer) and all the teams must design their cars accordingly.

    2. Well I don’t agree with any of these. Max is probably on his way out, but it’s most likely not just him that’s the problem.

      2. Complete ban on simulators(like the crappy one at mclaren)

      Why? How does this help overtaking?
      It’s not just the big teams that use simulators. Wirth Engineering designed the LMP2 Acura that competed last year in the ALMS. This car was solely tested in their simulator to save costs. They are linked with Manor F1 for next season and I can only assume that they will do a similar job.

      Also how does banning simulators work with point 6.

      6. encourage innovative designs.

      With the limited testing surely innovative design would be drastically reduced if they can’t test or simulate them?

      9. use only dassault systeme’s based CAD/CAE products

      Could you expand on this, as I can’t see how this will help?

      3. lift freeze on engine RPM.

      Costs would rise dramatically. Only feasible if a working budget cap is introduced or your point 4 was introduced (engine or chassis but not both), but then Ferrari would not be able to supply their own engines and that wouldn’t be F1, would it?

    3. mp4-19, while I like your suggestions, it would be tough to police. items 1,2 and 9.
      Itme 4 & 5 are good also but I doubt any mfg could design a competitive car from the ground up, that is why they have been partnerring with companies like Mclaren, Williams and others.
      I dont have a problem with a company such as Mclaren Builing chassis/tubs for sale so other teams could just buy them and design their own bodywork(would cut cost for smaller teams and be a money maker for the chassis/tub mfg’s) Their are teams that wouldnt like this but as long as it was only the tub and none of the other peices of another teams car, I could live with it.
      I think items 6&7 go without saying as well as #10.
      Appoint Adrian Newey as the head of the FIA.
      and let him get the old guard out and get racing people back in.

  13. Actually the IndyCar series (IRL) in the US is currently having the same problem. Even on ovals, the cars are not able to get close enough or pass.

    The IRL has basically frozen changes to their specs for years to keep cost down. Some people believe that this has lead to a point where individual teams have attained the peak performance from their chassis-engine-tire combination.

    The IRL also made a took away a lot of the flexibilities that the teams had with respect to the changes they could make on the chassis in order to reduce the difference between the cars and again, keep costs down. Some people also believe this has also contributed to the current situation.

    1. IRL has just announced changes to the oval aero package:

      The IndyCar Series will provide aerodynamic options to teams for 1.5-mile oval racetracks with a goal of improving performance, specifically overtaking.
      After a number of boring racing this year, the IndyCar Series has stepped in to give team more freedom to create different aero options and in theory, create more passing.

      Tools include tire ramps and sidepod extensions, and brake backing plates for Kentucky Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. Utilized with other track-specific aero packages, the changes would add about 300 pounds of downforce to the cars and potentially create more overtaking opportunities.

  14. i disagree that they are so ugly, look at last years cars, i do belive that this year, they have a more menacing, low, and down-to-business look.

  15. The recent IRL race at Richmond was possibly the most boring IRL race ever! Sufficiently boring for two of its drivers to need to apologise to the crowd afterwards (those that bothered to stay to the end that is).Other recent IRL races were also lacking in action.

    But changes will be forthcoming for the next races,and this is the area in which F1 is falling behind in,its ability to react soon enough to obvious problems.

    Of course in IRL no one is going to moan about the multi-million dollar aero/chassis/suspension update that they can now no longer use because the rule changes now make that update instantly obsolete,and so you’ll get the meetings and the arguing and the teddy throwing until eventually we end up with something that’s a bit better,but didn’t go the whole way to solving the problem.But that’s F1! LOL

  16. I been thinking. Why not get the whole field using KERS. Then, they can only use the battery on every other lap. 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th etc can use it for one lap then 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th etc use it for the next. There we go, alternate laps, hey presto,,,,, Overtaking everywhere!!

  17. the principle is fairly simple – reduce air disturbance with aerofoil deivces I.e. wings, and replace the lost downforce with smooth flow solutions such as GROUND EFFECT.!!!!!!! I’m starting a campaign – bring back ground effect!!!

  18. I have been saying this a few times on this site about overtaking.
    In my opinion i’d have to say that reducing the aero package as far as possible along with widening of the tyres and maybe this idea of the bigger diffuser that John Beamer is talking about may be the way forward. If a car has more mechanical grip and less drag form the aerodynamics then it should be possible to have close racing and then be upto the driver’s skill to overtake.
    It must be possible to design a car that is capable of the things i have said.

    1. I agree scunny, but instead they went with those huge and lower cow-catcher front wings this year. Besides being subject to washing out in the non-laminar flow of the double deck diffusers, they’re easier to damage in a tight passing maneuver.

  19. Bartholomew
    2nd July 2009, 19:05

    Narrower front wheels and steel brakes –
    The cheapest and best solution.

  20. Use seperate point systems for the Drivers and Constructors championships and award an extra .5 for every pass that a driver completes and maintains for 2 laps, but if he doesn’t hold it, he loses the .5 point and it is awarded to the other driver, so long as he can hold it for 2 laps. That type of system may motivate drivers, especially near the end of the year if they are in the hunt.

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