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:


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

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151 comments on Overtaking: Back to the drawing board

  1. Steve_P said on 2nd July 2009, 17:11

    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.

    • F1 Outsider said on 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.

  2. mp4-19b said on 2nd July 2009, 17:20

    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.

    • Brian said on 2nd July 2009, 17:38

      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.

    • Chalky said on 2nd July 2009, 22:24

      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?

    • Martin said on 3rd July 2009, 0:33

      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.

  3. lionfan99 said on 2nd July 2009, 17:34

    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.

    • Jagged (@jagged) said on 2nd July 2009, 17:49

      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.

  4. graigchq said on 2nd July 2009, 17:51

    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.

  5. VXR said on 2nd July 2009, 17:51

    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

  6. Adam said on 2nd July 2009, 18:20

    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!!

  7. 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!!!

  8. scunnyman said on 2nd July 2009, 18:37

    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.

    • Jagged (@jagged) said on 2nd July 2009, 18:52

      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.

  9. Bartholomew said on 2nd July 2009, 19:05

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

  10. Brian said on 2nd July 2009, 19:17

    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.

  11. Leaf said on 2nd July 2009, 19:28

    Good ideas from everyone. I think I would have agree with Gille Villeneuveis comments of 25 years ago. He said to improve passing and all around racing: Increase engine/horsepower to say 5 litre, put 20 inch slicks on the cars, ban re-fueling and lets go racing. As an addition, diffuser and floor regulations could be opened up and wing regulations tightened. There you have it. Next problem please?

  12. SoLiD said on 2nd July 2009, 19:28

    I have some views why overtaking is that hard in F1!

    First BRAKES!
    Those F1 brakes are so darn good, they brake so so late and so make it very very difficult for an overtake to take place!
    Unless you get real slow corners (a hairpin), it will be hard as they brake so late and take corners sooo quickly!

    Another thing. Qualifying times are rather close… but on long runs the difference between the cars are much larger, and the difference is again a factor there.

    Altough some drivers seem to be better or braver then others… Lewis Hamilton seems to be pretty good at it!

  13. suffolk said on 2nd July 2009, 19:42

    How about a simple push to pass button, as in A1GP to allow a temporary increase in engine RPM. Each driver is given a limited number of chances to use this during the race.

  14. Raceaddict said on 2nd July 2009, 19:44

    Ugly or beautiful is a relative thing. In the 17th century Rubens painted images of the hottest chicks of the day; zaftig zeppelins by today’s standards. Centuries later it was Twiggy. I know some old-timers who are abhorred, aesthetically, by any race car with so much as a wing on it.

    Taste is a moving target so given enough time the aesthetic, the look of an object that is, will normalize itself in the minds of people (think of the solid-body electric guitar). Once that is done, the move is to the refinement of proportions, scale and other attributes.

    Today’s cars are neither ugly nor beautiful, but a result of the rules written to legislate them. Given enough stability and time, an aesthetic will emerge. It will then be regarded as “normal”. Over time the overall design will be refined, more and more people will come to accept it, and then if it had a sound beginning, it has a chance to become “beautiful” in our eyes. Overtaking’s another thing entirely.

  15. sean said on 2nd July 2009, 19:47

    The drivers are partly to blame there is a real reluctance to have a go with those snowploughs being so delicate go back to 2008 take off all the funnels and horns,smaller brakes large rear wheels,large rear diffuser & rear wing, engines to 20,000 rpm.Cant be any worse than what we got now.

    • Chalky said on 2nd July 2009, 22:26

      Do you blame them? The stewards would probably drop them 10 places if they got it slightly wrong (Vettel Australia)
      Only Reubens seems to get away with a bit of bashing, but he hasn’t always made it work.

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