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

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  1. scunnyman said on 3rd July 2009, 18:18

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

    Yes martin

  2. scunnyman said on 3rd July 2009, 21:15

    having read these articles about goodwood and overtaking it has got me wanting to watch some season reviews over the weekend, while not doing the july 4th thing. Only i can’t work out what seasons to watch from 1975 to say 2006.

    can anyone suggest some years for me please?

  3. SoLiD said on 4th July 2009, 1:38

    Oh yes the penalty thing! They give them waaaay too quick.

    The Montoya US GP penalty was so hars … what if that didn’t happen and his engine didn’t fail at Japan where he was leading and the fastest out there… We would be talking of Montoya Champ 2003, many forgot it:)

    • scunnyman said on 4th July 2009, 3:08

      Yes SoLiD I think Montoya would have made a good champion, and he would have deserved it in 2003.

  4. Patrickl said on 4th July 2009, 17:53

    This has to be your worst article yet.

    1) Overtaking IS easier than it was in the last few seasons.
    2) Vettel IS poor at overtaking. Or rather he hasn’t showed much ability in this respect. While for instance Webber has demonstrated overtaking moves in the same car (and even on KERS cars)
    3) In that chart, Button is 1.5s faster on one single lap. In almost all other laps it’s less than a second. While Rosberg shows that he could go faster so in reality the difference is hardly more than a few tenths.

    The best you could argue for is that Button shows he can do a best of 81.7 and Rosberg a 82.4. That’s a 0.7 difference.

    The only thing the OWG set out to do was to make it possible for a car to overtake if it’s around 1 second per lap faster than the car it’s chasing. They accomplished this and this is demonstrated on track. Button is (at best) only 7 tenths faster so indeed that’s not enough.

    The OWG did not set out to let cars just drive past each other. There still has to be some skill involved.

    The amount of overtaking is actually more related to the number of possibilities. Like in the opening races with the odd tyre choices and resulting differences in strategy where cars could differ in lap times by 5 seconds.

    People should just stop whining about there not being enough overtaking. This is the essence of F1. If people ask for more overtaking the only thing you get is the retarded tyre rule we have had this year and things like reversed starting grids.

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