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. 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?

    1. pardon…..that Villeneuve’s

  2. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. Sven has it in a nutshell ! As have other excellent posts. Get rid of aero and let’s get back to pure mechanical grip. But….

    At the same time one thing that must be discouraged is the current system of allowing the single tyre manufacturer to use it’s advanced technology in a negative way….allowing them to deliberately supply inadequate/inappropriate tyre compounds to ensure that their tyre brand is continually being mentioned/discussed on live TV. Their marketing men love it, but it is simply stupid to allow the quality of the racing to be downgraded by a deliberate marketing ploy. Which is all it is !

  7. I can’t get on board with “all mechanical grip.” The cars are supposed to be fast. You need downforce to be fast. It’s simply not more challenging to drive my wife’s Passat Wagon (or a Sprint Cup car, OK) through Becketts than a 962C with 4 thousand pounds of downforce and 900HP to pull the drag. Sliding may be cooler to look at, but that’s what Formala Drift is for.

    1. Please…Formula drift plus all of the drift races have absolutely nothing in common with real racing. Part of the beauty in watching great racing is a driver who is coming out of a high speed corner and the whole car is drifting under control..he uses the entire corner and takes all the speed that is available down the straight. When you have a driver that can do that lap after lap without error is when you have seen real racing and the sport at its best.

  8. The issue with overtaking is the aero reliance on the car and the brakes. You cannot compare other standard series with f1 . Every car in those series are near identical. Therefore they alter the grip levels by having gripper tyres therefore mechanical grip inturn easier to follow as the aero loss is minimal. If you control the aero rules you can control the turbulent air.
    Turbulence from aero is caused by the rear wing. Current wings look shocking., they should all have a standard rear wing similar to IRL, wide and low profile and identical across the grid. The wash off the wing will be identical and car design will naturally be altered to cope with the was allowing for closer racing.
    Another option i believe is to propose a max downforce limit. (Max proposed this, i hated the idea but it would work.) It could be easily controlled by a simple wind tunnel test and measure of weight on the rolling road. This will allow lead to design towards mechanical grip.

    1. Yes but for every rule that the FIA has come up with to control this, the engineers and designers have worked around it. They would design the car such that when in the tunnel would give the max number that was wanted for certification and then in the real enviroment would perform in a different/better way then was measured.
      Every attempt by the FIA and all of its high powered committes to reduce speed and grip and any other performance variable, has always been redsigned and out thought by the engineers. Speed the next year are back to within 5% of what they were and thenext year after they are going faster than ever. It is the nature of the sport.

      1. Downforce is generated by wind and air pressure. The only variable is air. The difference in levels between a windtunnell and track would be caused by the density of the air, (casued by natural height above sea level) and speed. Windtunnell may only test up to 200km hr. This can also be measured with sensors on the car, which the team already have.

        Speed is not the issue, overtaking is the issue. If you limit the dirty air coming of the back for the car, the better the racing. 80% of the dirty air comes off the rear wing, this can be compensated by the floor of the car, which does not produced anywear near as much dirty air.

  9. IRL isn’t a shinning beacon for passing at this point, when you have top drivers apologising straight after a race for a lack of over taking.

    Maybe have a set value for the maximum turbulance allowed to produced by a single car, as i don’t see them removing front or rear wings. Too much advertising space

  10. Brakes are the problems I think. Generally, we can see this year’s cars able to follow closer, relative to 2008 specs. You can follow as close as you want, but if there’s no room or time to out-brake someone, overtaking is difficult.

    We can see the cars braking hard for a slow speed corner like 80 meters prior. The brakes are just too good! If they all put on brakes with decreased performance, I think it’ll help solve the issue.

  11. Phil,

    The issue is not aero reliance per se, and it’s not generation of turbulence per se. It’s susceptiblity to turbulence and dynamic instability. We need to go to tunnels. You need a car that can stick to the road off line and that’s how you do it. They generate downforce but don’t require super clean air. I understand the appeal of big tires, but you need big normal force for grip.

    The 09 rules are misguided. Dropping the wings to get them out of the upwash and making them bigger to get more downforce in turbulence was naive. A wing requies clean air, period, no matter how big it is. The tiny diffusers make the cars unstable and twitchy.

    Flat bottoms caused designers to use wings, flip ups, horns, etc to get downforce back. This created more turbulence–generated by devices that need clean air to work. Furthermore, flat bottoms make cars extremely pitch sensitive. These changes overall have made the cars both unstable and highly sensitive to turbulence. And thus, have made going round the outside in the parabolica, a la Mansell, a guaranteed trip to the gravel.

    1. The issue is aero reliance and the need of clean air for appropriate function. It is impossible to design something which can work efficiently in dirty air and generate the same downforce because the parameters of the dirty air constantly changed. Clean air is a constant variable.

      If you limit the dirty air wash of the car the better the overtaking. The rear wing is the aera where most of the dirty air is generated. Standard rear wing design were 80% of the dirty air is generated will allow the cars to follow closer. If the cars had a wide, and low profile rear wing the wash would be significantly less. Not only this standard rear wing would give teams a constant variable to to design front wings too allowing for closer racing.

      they need to reduce the aero of the rear wing.

      As for going around the outside of parabolica at speed, there are other factor other then aero the make that difficult. Tyre grip on a dirty unrubbered line which never get driven on, there is more road to cover going around the outside of a corner, the downforce difference and horse power difference between cars today is not big enough to allow for that.

  12. In a poll here earlier this week the modern F1 cars were voted among the most unattractive ever seen in the sport.

    That’s a very misleading statement Keith. Modern F1 cars were voted the best looking. You can’t isolate 2009 from the rest of the 2000s because you haven’t done that for the rest of the decades. Cars always change a lot over 10 years, so it’s unfair to isolate 2009, claiming it was the worst. The statement also gives the impression that the poll showed the recent cars were poor, meaning any arbitary figure from 5-10 years depending how you interpret it.

  13. Yes jagged Viyay has the biggest boat and the biggest toys i guess. But he’s not spending his money like Toyota to get his team to the front.
    Vijay knows that just throwing money at the job isn’t going to work. Although throwing money at a big boat gets him something to be envious of…

    Nice Boat……………..

  14. or maybe the present day drivers don’t have the balls to perform overtaking maneuvers like senna,mansell & hakkinen. they are too afraid to overtake cuz they are afraid they’ll get penalized. look at what happened to hamilton at spa 2008. although i agree there are flaws in the OWG’s design, the drivers must also make a conscious effort to overtake. for example people like nick heidfield race only for statistics(he’s finished 40 odd races in a row i think)if it were senna or hakkinen or for that matter montoya in his position, they wouldn’t give a damn to such a useless statistics. it is people like nick heidfield, nakajima,fisi that make racing boring. if i’m right nick heidfield hasn’t won a race since the turn of the decade(1999 he won a f3 race, his last ever race win). so he dosen’t know what it takes to push for a victory. all he cares about is finishing all the races , so that people will remember him as the driver who finished the maximum races in a row. who cars about such a statistic? no real racing driver would give a damn. ppl like nick heidfied must be confined to testing & other activities. he’s certainly not a racer. we are in desperate need of some ballsy drivers. the last one was jpm.

    1. It’s like you say there mp4-19b if drivers are worried they will be penalised for trying to overtake and fail then why should they even try. Over the last five or so years there have been numerous instances of penalties for overtaking blunders.
      I remember one instance for Montoya at US grand prix (dunno which year) where he tangled with Barrichello and i saw it as a racing incident as did Rubens i believe, but the stewards blamed Montoya. It was one of the reason he left the sport mid way through 06.

      1. i remember that race too well. i’ll never forget that race. it was the 2003 us gp. at first they gave him a 10sec stop go penalty & later half through the race black-flagged him for no good reason. we must remember that shoemaker,jpm & kimi were separated by a mere 3 points at that point. even rubens acknowledged it as a racing incident. so i dunno why such a harsh punishment was meted out to him. that 2003 season was a rigged. the fia & ferrari were pals at that time. nowadays drivers don’t have it in them. they are all as good as george bush. thats all i can say.

        1. I think 2003 was heading to be one of the best seasons ever with several different winners compared to the yr b4 and the yr after. But then the FIA stook it’s nose and it’s big size 15 boots in and starting messing because of pressure from some quarter, I can’t quite remember who right now.
          If i had been Montoya at Indy i would have fumed aswell. I’m not surprised at him leaving F1 when he did. He was sick of the politics and so am i.

          People have been saying get rid of max and all will be right (and i was one of them), but now i believe all of FIA is the problem. SO why bother with them, let’s all just quit and start from a clean sheet from the ground up.

          1. People have been saying get rid of max and all will be right (and i was one of them), but now i believe all of FIA is the problem. SO why bother with them, let’s all just quit and start from a clean sheet from the ground up.

            Finally someone gets it.A missed opportunity ? LOL

            As for aero,well maybe a leading open-wheel series at some point in the future will be brave enough and forward thinking enough to remove once an for all the reason that F1 cars don’t ‘race’ any more.

        2. “nowadays drivers don’t have it in them. they are all as good as george bush. thats all i can say.”

          Please explain mp4-19b i’m a bit confused.

          1. all i meant to say was that the drivers are starting to become more incompetent, just like bush. a day might come when the art of overtaking might well be forgotten. the sole purpose of racing according to me is overtaking, the rest including pitstop, refueling, managing tyres etc is all bull…
            nowadays drivers are discouraged to overtake by their own teams! look at what happened in brasil 08. after vettel had passed hamilton with 3 laps remaining, whithmarsh came on the radio & told hamilton that he was racking glock & not vettel! vettel was a few feet ahead of him & clock was almost half-a-lap ahead!now hamilton being a “well groomed” mclaren prodigy obeyed his godfather & decided to play it safe & thereby not pass vettel. now just imagine what if those extra drops of rain had not fallen at juncao? glock wouldn’t have lost grip & hamilton would have never been kissed by nicole scherzinger! all that i’m trying to say is that would senna,mansell & jpm played it safe like hamilton. with no disregards to hamilton.no they would not have. they would have gone chasing vettel, at least attempted to pass him even if it meant risking losing a chmpionship. that is what we want. not an old man sitting in front of a lcd screen looking at the gps data, telling their their drivers who is where & asking them to play it safe. by doing this on a consistent & regular basis the teams themselves are directly discouraging their drivers from overtaking. whats the fun?

          2. I cannot disagree mp4-19b but i see overtaking as an art form, a skil that not every f1 driver has, but they should!. The examples you give Mansell,Montoya,Senna and even Hamilton (when not told to slow by team) are very good at overtaking, even with bad aero and hard to overtake cars. Mansell has many instances where he was able to bluff the drivers in front of him into thinking he will try an overtake one side and then take the other.
            Although current cars need modifying to help overtaking it is not impossible to do so as Hamilton has shown and a few others.
            I like to see a BATTLER like Mansell who is not afraid of anyone just go for an overtake, if it fails and he stays on track he just tries again. Some/a lot of current and recent f1 drivers seems to have one or two goes at an overtake then ease off if they can’t get past. Of course the Penalties awarded for some overtaking moves will put drivers off. It is such a shame that we can’t see real battles on the track. Just most drivers wishing to wait and see if they can pass in the pits.

          3. I just hope that whoever replaces Max is better than the guy who replaced Bush. It isnt racing but it is just as important.

  15. the only good thing about the 2009 cars is that since its got rid of all the winglets,horns,aerofoils,sidepot cuttings, no complicated front & rear wings, it makes it easier for game modders to model these cars. as a result the polygon count is very low resulting in improved fps performance in rfactor & f1c. the 2009 cars graphical performance is way above the 2008 cars. for example the latest f1rl v2.0 gives me about 50 fps during race, while the fsone 08 gave me only 35-40fps :( thats about the only positive thing i can say about this years cars.

  16. can’t we just go back to the aero package of the cars when it wasnt such a pain to pass (whether thats 10 or 20 years). Perhaps with some modern modifications of some sort so they dont look really old. F1 has to be the pinnacle of motor sport BUT I think its the viewpoint of most people that its more engine and development of other parts rather then the aero itself which needs to be right up there.

    There just seems to much emphasis and cost involved with aero then anything else due to the way they have set the rules (i.e. no engine development etc). Each team is spending an absolute crapload to get extra aero parts bolted on throughout the season where its the aero thats the biggest issue with the sport.

    we dont want the cars to all look exactly the same, but maybe have much stricter rules for new aero and limit teams wind tunnel work or only allow 1-2 upgrades a year.

  17. If kERS was the reason that there was more overtaking in the earlier rounds, there should have been a KERS car winning a race – but there wasn’t.

    1. thats cuz overtaking only happens at the back of the grid & at best midfield.

      1. Maybe if that is the case then reverse grids are the way forward, but with rules that don’t allow for the front running cars to go slow on purpose to be at the front.

        Don’t ask me how that is possible.

  18. Although the rules haven’t really produced any overtaking, one success is how close the cars are now – especially in qualifying.

    And the car’s aren’t ugly, they look clean and simplistic.

  19. HounslowBusGarage
    3rd July 2009, 12:35

    I think I’ll start a breakaway series . . . Formula Hounslow. Whadda y’think?
    Normally aspirated 3.5 liter engines of any configuration. Slick tyres, steel breaks and limited venturi tunnels. But no aerodynamic device in front of centre line of the front axle, nothing behind the centre line of the rear axle either. And no aerodrnamics higher than 50 cm above the highest point of the tyres, no protusions from the main bodywork featuring curves of less that 50 cm radius.
    There. Simple really.

    1. There. Simple really.

      Sounds like some ‘historic’ series to me.;)

  20. Ban the double decker diffusers – then we can have great racing like the first GP of 2009 again.

    1. Ban the double decker diffusers – then we can have great racing like the first GP of 2009 again.

      Teams have spent literally millions on developing double-decker difusers and upgrades that ‘blow-away’ the opposition,and not forgetting that some of the teams actually ‘read’ the rules correctly in the first place! Would it be fair now to ask those teams to throw all that advantage away?

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