Track or car design – what’s to blame for F1’s passing problem? (Poll)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Follow-my-leader at the Circuit de Catalunya
Follow-my-leader at the Circuit de Catalunya

Two F1 car designers have claimed F1 track designs need to be changed to increase overtaking – instead of making changes to the cars so they can follow each other more closely.

Do you think tracks need to be changed more to create overtaking opportunities? Or does the problem still lie with the cars?

What's to blame for poor racing in F1?

  • Car design (15%)
  • Mainly car design but partly track design (31%)
  • Car and track design equally (18%)
  • Mainly track design but partly car design (24%)
  • Track design (11%)
  • No opinion (1%)

Total Voters: 2,172

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Sam Michael, technical director for Williams, said:

If you look at somewhere like Abu Dhabi, there are some good aspects to the circuit, but there are fundamental mistakes. There wasn’t good enough racing there and the organisers need to rectify that before next year. You can’t keep blaming car design.
Sam Michael

Michael makes at least one point I agree with: the need to get rid of chicanes. It used to be that chicanes were something track designers used as a last resort when they had to slow the cars down before a dangerous section with little run-off area. When a track like Abu Dhabi is designed from scratch with a virtually unlimited budget it should not have chicanes in. They are unsightly and discourage overtaking.

McLaren engineering directors Paddy Lowe shared the same sentiment as Michael last month when he said:

If you go to a circuit and you ask a driver where he can overtake he will say, ??there?s only one place where I might be able to do it and it is here.? All the drivers will agree on that same corner. So if you follow the logic of that, we should be asking why all corners can?t have the features that drivers can so easily pinpoint to improve opportunities.
Paddy Lowe

I’m not entirely convinced. We’ve had 12 years of Hermann Tilke designing supposedly overtaking-friendly tracks and results have been mixed at best.

And when car designers start talking about adding even more slow corners to F1 circuits I have to put my fingers in my ears. Modern F1 track are already infested with slow, flat, uninteresting corners. F1 isn’t just about overtaking – it’s also about the spectacle of fast cars tackling the world’s great corners like Pouhon, Maggots, the Suzuka Esses and Istanbul’s Turn 8.

Michael blames “tracks like Barcelona where nobody overtakes” – but he’s forgetting that when the Circuit de Catalunya was first used in the early nineties it was considered good for racing. This was where Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell had their unforgettable wheel-to-wheel sprint down the start/finish straight. It was because the cars had much less downforce 18 years ago.

I think the chief problem is still the huge amounts of aerodynamic grip F1 cars generate. I don’t see how two technically savvy individuals can go to race weekends where lower-grip GP2 cars regularly put on better races than F1 cars on the same circuits, and then conclude the track are at fault.

The restrictions on car aerodynamics need to go further. But with none coming at present I don’t expect to see an improvement in 2010.

What do you think is to blame for poor racing in F1? Or do you think the amount of overtaking that happens is about right? Cast your vote above and have your say in the comments.

More on overtaking

120 comments on “Track or car design – what’s to blame for F1’s passing problem? (Poll)”

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  1. 100% car design for me.

    Paddy Lowe’s comment should be taken with a grain of salt. The drivers are only identifying the corners where they can overtake under the current car regulations. Give them a car with no wings and fat tyres and they’ll soon be picking four or five spots where they can overtake on the same track where, today, they can only identify one!

    1. 100% car design for me.

      100% Agreed.

      1. Agreed here too, but not quite 100%. That doesn’t excuse most of the new circuits being totally boring though.

        1. Keith,I think you should have added one more option to the poll.


          1. Keith,I think you should have added one more option to the poll.


            lol… You mean, Vettel with a rock in his hands?

      2. 100% too

        1. My 2 cents,As I posted in the forum a short while ago:

          Brawn took off like a rocket and left the rest of the field at the first of the season.Everyone behind them were having battles.The rest of the field were outfitted with double diffusers and we were back to square one.I applaude Brawn for thier clever way of finding the loophole but,it totally underminded what the Overtaking Group worked towards.Racing slicks,no winglets,no refueling,,no traction control….we are getting close to better battles…NOW BAN THE DOUBLE DIFFUSERS!

    2. Another 100% agreement !

      Until F1 grasps the nettle and gets rid of the massive effect Aero produces they’ll never get really good racing.

      And I know a lot of GP2 fans who think the F1 teams are like the Emperor with his new clothes. Everybody outside F1 can see the problem but F1 teams CAN’T or WON’T.

      Come on guys….get real !

    3. It’s diffuser related mostly, the diffuser has more of an effect on cars following due to height of the ‘dirty air’.

      Any disturbance coming off the rear wing on a 09 car is negligible. The air of the high rear wing would be mainly upflow and much higher than the front wing.

      The DDD has less drag on car but then has big trail of turbulence after the car, this is exasperated by the angle of diffusers, and how it mixes up with lower body work…to top it off the air is then pushed down on to ground before then producing a low LONG trail of uplifting air at a height that will interfere with the front wing of the cars following.

      So… low down, longer trail of uplifting dirty turbulent air from DDD (more so than std 09 diffuser) that will come directly in contact with the front wing of car following and in turn cause understeer and a host of other aero dramas for following cars.
      If we reduce the diffuser of even the angle it’s allowed to work at…

      Don’t forget to thank Brawn and Co for the dirty 09 air…

      The rear wing is not the problem.

  2. Reading you article here keith, I am inclined to the conclusion that the engineers will look elsewhere than their own technical developement, because they would rather have the expensive, cutting edge tech, [read jobs] than admit to a simpler design would improve the racing, for me, take away all the extraneous aero, work on ground-effect, to maintain the high speed, make the drivers ultimately responsible for extracting the best out of a car…

    1. work on ground-effect, to maintain the high speed,

      Ground-effect disappears when bottoming occurs – it is very dangerous. With a ground-effect dominant car, that can mean the car losing almost all of its downforce instantly, leaving the driver helpless to correct the problem and rendering him just a passenger in a careening, out-of-control missile.

      Ground-effect should not be brought back.

      1. Thanks Hakka, in its infancy it was dangerous, but with the massive advances in cfd, and much greater understanding of all things aero, perhaps with some clever thinking, ground effect could be used in conjunction with some clever bodywork?

        1. It could indeed. I was going to write something similar, so I’m glad to see I’m not alone! American racing has employed ground effects for years by opening up the floor of the car for development. If this was done in combinations with reducing aero from bodywork and wings (such as the awful endplates and additions we see now), and adding four blocks to the corners of the main chassis’ underbody to prevent bottoming, racing would be improved in leaps and bounds.

          1. Agree on having some form of ground effects and less reliance on wings, the way it is set up now is that there’s still too much air being thrown out of the path of cars following (see Ruben’s trailing smoke from an oil leak he had for an example, the smoke was literally pushed yards off the track).

          2. and adding four blocks to the corners of the main chassis’ underbody to prevent bottoming

            Debris will have the same impact to ground-effect as bottoming, and you can’t stop debris from going under the car with the four blocks you mention.

            CFD will certainly remove pitch-sensitivity and porpoising problems, but no amount of CFD will solve the fundamental problem with ground-effect dominant cars, which is the suddenness with which it can disappear, leaving the driver completely helpless.

            It’s a single point of failure. With wings, you can distribute the failure between the front and the back and hence leave some vestiges of downforce even under failure scenarios.

            (such as the awful endplates and additions we see now)

            The very endplates you disparage in F1 help with generating vertices that seal in the low-pressure zone under the car and increase the existing ground-effect in F1 cars.

    2. I’ve always wondered why F1 won’t reconsider ground effects. Yes, they were dangerous and unpredictible in the day, but ground effects aren’t affected by turbulence from the leading car as much as wings are. The FIA could bring them back with regulations, such as a specific cross-secion of the venturi tunnels. Here in the states, IndyCar/ChampCar/whatever have used ground effects safely for decades. In the late ’90s early 2000’s ChampCar produced some exciting wheel to wheel action without a turbulence problem. (Now their fuel rules were insane, producing a string of 15 cars that didn’t have the fuel to race each other!)

  3. Jonesracing82
    10th November 2009, 7:13

    barcelona ’91 was wet also, which helped the Senna Mansell duel!
    the cars could overtake this year UNTIL the bloody diffuser were put on the cars, watch Melb, Sepang and to some extent china (even tho it was wet) again, then loom at Bahrain and rest of the season……
    in Melb we even had non kers cars overtaking kers cars!

    1. Yes but in Melbourne we had a massive disparity in the tyres with one set that simply did not work properly.

  4. Jonesracing82
    10th November 2009, 7:17

    also, the “flip ups” we now see once again on front wings is also to blame! they creat more aero grip than any other part of the car and r the most effected by turbulance, yet there’s NEVER any restrictions on how many elements they can have on them! add the turning vanes which were meant to be outlawed as well at the stupid wings/mirror mounts they have and there’s the issue, none of this was used in the early season and we had passing galoer in the 1st 3 races, then the diffusers etc came in and nothing again

  5. Car design. With an effective racing formula, any track could put on results that we typically see at Sao Paulo or Spa.

    1. I agree with Paul. All tracks have corners, therefore all tracks have passing opportunities. The problem lies in the fact that the turbulence from the car in front prevents the following car from getting close enough to make a move on the approach to a corner.

      Somehow the air leaving the back of the cars needs to be cleaned up, so that following cars can get close enough to make moves.

      I think part of the problem is also physiological. If the drivers hear enough times that a track is no good for passing they might start to believe it. Look at Kobayashi he hasn’t had enough time to believe that you cannot pass in a formula 1 car, and he’s pulling off all type of exciting moves.

      1. I think part of the problem is also physiological

        Its a very important point that you mention over here Pinball. At the end of the day its the driver who overtakes, not something else.

  6. Tires are problem / I dont know if banning refueling will ad more overtaking becuase if a car that weights 630kg cant overtake a car thats 50kg heavier we have a problem. Ok i know that heavier cars will produce more driver mistakes but its still a problem. I dont know how the tires strategy will change but i think that maybe most of the drivers will start with hard tires and with a light car go on the soft ones / I just hope that all of those changes will produce better racing but dont now what will be the results

  7. the OWG’s focus seems to have been on minimizing the damage done by driving in a car’s wake. i think it’s obvious that emphasis should be placed on reducing the dependence on aero in the first place.

  8. You point out that GP2 races have much more overtaking on the same tracks – that’s true, but that’s partially because (inevitably) the driving standards are not as high as in F1 so mistakes are more common. The fewer mistakes drivers make the harder overtaking will be!

    Also F1 technology helps remove driver errors. One example – because of the semi-auto gearboxes we have now it’s impossible to miss a gear. So one of the major causes to overtaking moves (the driver in front missing a gear) vanished.

    We need to make F1 cars a bit harder to drive as well… a consdierable drop in downforce would help with this I’m sure!

    1. yes indeed, the semi-auto gearboxes with paddle shifters and no gears will be missed as it will be upshift and downshift in sequence.

      we need gated H-shifters back and foot clutch too!

      this will indeed slow down the cornering speed of the cars as drivers will face problems upshifting when cornering compared to current upshift without problems where both hands are on steering wheel.

  9. For sure its car design 100% As and more aero went on the cars then less and less overtaking happened, also refuelling gave the drivers no incentive to overtake on the track, am glad that’s banned again.

    Jenson has proved this year that if you’ve got the balls and the skill you can still overtake in today’s Formula 1. He showed us that on many many occasions this year, throughout the year, even against the KERS cars.

    1. There are a few exceptions of course, but the general mentality of drivers is that you cannot overtake on a Tilkedrome. Half the problem arises when teams themselves discourage drivers from overtaking.

      “Why overtake when you can pass him in the pitstops ” mantra was what won Schumi all those races.

  10. Prisoner Monkeys
    10th November 2009, 8:24

    Relax regulations on circuit design. Tighten regulations on car design, especially around the front wings. Back when the likes of Villeneuve and Arnoux were scrapping for position, the cars had very simple front wings. Not ones that looked like the front end of a combine harvester. Get rid of the winglets and appendages that generate downforce – make the cars difficult to drive and lss dependent upon aerodynamic grip and then we’ll see some killer races.

    1. I agree 100%

    2. Please DON’T tighten design regulations, just change them. They’re already far too tight, there’s hardly any room for innovation. The cars are basically designed for the teams, all the engineers can do is add little appendages here and there, maybe slightly change the shapes of some surfaces.

      The whole point of F1 is that it is not a spec series and that there is both competitive driving and engineering.

      1. i agree chimp. dont tighten the aero rules leave them as they are. the fia needs to loosen up the mechanical rules, there is no leway to introduce something new, and if you do the fia will ban it after two races, but the encourage it.

        at the begining of the year they said “we have tightened up the aero deveolpment so engineers can focus in making mechanical inventions to gain an advantage through mechanical thinking” yet the only development we have seen this year is aero.

        take mclarens brake steer, worked well, was safe but was banned because other teams didnt have it and it gave mclaren an unfair advantage. now how does that fit in with “we want teams to develop new mechanical technologies”

  11. I think its car. There are so many compenents on the car now which are close to perfect the the human element is a less significant variable in the race car. I don’t like these ultra efficient brakes, I also hate the fact that the start is done with clutches. The reason racing was so much more exciting in the past is because these technological advancements where not present and this meant the human aspect was more significant. Sure there may have been crashes as a result of this but there were also touches of brilliance. By removing these ultra efficent compenents which contribute nothing to the show you will be more able to identify the natural, raw talent, something which has been difficult in recent years. He who has the fastest car prevails currently.

    1. start done without clutches*. Sorry

      1. Terry Fabulous
        10th November 2009, 10:49

        Regardless you make some very good points.

        Many overtaking moves in the past were aided and abeted by a driver error from the man being overtaken.

  12. Aero is the issue. F1 is no longer the absolute pinnacle of technology – it’s been watered down over the last few decades with ground effect, turbos, active suspension, ABS, traction & launch control, 2-way telemetry, etc, all banned in the name of safety – which is fine.

    But given that why must we continue to have the same poor responses to poor racing thrown at us who ultimately pay for F1? Aero is the problem. So the solution is to reduce the reliance on aero for grip. This idea is not new but is still ignored by F1 rule makers.

    Two options:
    1. Remove the big front wings and go with the CART oval track type of front wings and a degree of ground effect. If the FIA can give the teams a common centre section for the front wing then they can also give them a common undertray to use. Ground effect is not that badly affected by following another car (which is why GP2 has on track passing) and it would reduce costs. Simple.

    2.Get rid of wings altogether. MotoGP has great racing and sorts the men from the boys and they have no wings and lots of power. Remove the wings from an F1 car and then see who could drive them. Teams would then invest their aero budgets into reducing drag, which would have positive spin offs for manufacturers trying to reduce drag on their road cars (how many mainstream manufacturers have cars which produce downforce? That’s right – none). Braking distances would be longer, giving drivers more opportunity to overtake. Cornering speeds would drop dramatically, making all tracks instantly safer as the run off would be far more than needed.

    Seems an easy fix to me…

    1. how many mainstream manufacturers have cars which produce downforce? That’s right – none

      plenty do. not “drive it upside-down” amounts, but some. forget the porsches and corvettes, my 2006 infiniti (nissan) has some underbody fairing that negates lift at the rear wheels.

    2. but then noone will watch f1. they’ll pay far less to see a dtm race or v8 supercars or any other sports car category. the point of f1 cars is that they go round corners at exceptional speeds. i know i wouldn’t be interested in f1 cause it wouldn’t be f1. it kind of defeats the purpose to dumb it down to that level. i’m not an engineer/physicist so i won’t pretend to know the answer but slowing the cars down dramatically will cause f1 to lose its appeal, especially for casual fans.

      1. Mark Hitchcock
        10th November 2009, 15:39

        Tom has a point. Something needs to be done but any major changes to car design run the risk of alienating people and making F1 just another single-seater series. Make F1 cars much slower and they lose their appeal.

        This overtaking thing is a difficult problem to solve while keeping the essence of F1. I’m tempted to say that if you need overtaking then why are you watching F1? Don’t expect F1 to change, go watch something else.
        But the cars do need to become harder to drive again. Eau Rouge and 130r should be scary, difficult corners, not flat-out non-events.

  13. I voted for mainly car but partly tracks,
    they need to focus to change more on the car less on tracks. Starting on the heavy downforce generated by the car…

  14. 51% track design
    49% car design, i would say

    on some of the new tracks like Valencia or Singapore the non-ideal line (without any rubber) is so slippery, and the walls are so close, that noone would take the risk, and i just can accept it.
    besides that, if you’re driving behind another car for a while, the tyres will get grainy.

    i think F1 need tracks like the Paul Ricard, with a relatively wide asphalt, asphalted runover reas instead of sand, for easier recovery from a mismade overtake, and finally, that track has sparger features, so they can create a full wet track in a moment, and i guess i don’t have to say how radically more overtakes take place in wet conditions.

    1. you say we need more places like paul ric, with large runoff? look at abu dhabi! there is more runoff at that place then there is track. and it was a completely boring non eventful race.

      take albert park and interlagos, not much runn off but good racing, because these tracks were aproaced by a designer who did not come along and say “ok how can i make this challenging and where can i make over taking oportunities”, when track designers designed those tracks the didnt have that idea in there head and they came up with a place to race which was there main intention. look at tilkes tracks, they are way to over thought! he aproaces a track with inspiration from the old nurburgring (he has said that all his tracks have been inspired by the green hell many of times) he analises the topography of the land and then he attempts to model a track onto that before the track even starts to get drawn up in plan.

      track design is way to developed in my opinion, what was the designer of the nurburgring inspired by when he thought up the track layout? nothing! they just built that track onto the land when they got there, and it is the best track in the world, and it doesnt have any super corners like turn 8.

      spa for example. look at eau rouge. thats just an old brige that went across a river before the decided to start racing cars over it, now i can garentee that when the bridge designer came along he did not look at it and think how he was going to build the most spectacular corner for racing cars to drive through he just came along and figured out how to get across the river! it just turned out that it is now the best corner in f1. i will put money on it that if tilke was the bridge designer he would have come along and put a chicane right before the bridge, to “try make good racing”

      ive drifted off topic a bit but i hope you can see my point. the cars have had alot of work, so why not put some work into the tracks, oh and please ban tilke from doing that work

  15. spanky the wonder monkey
    10th November 2009, 8:59

    aero grip needs to be reduced as do all the devices that generate turbulence.
    simple yardstick is the 180r at suzuka. aero needs to be reduced to the point where that corner needs to be driven rather than simply taken flat.
    same could be said for the run out of eau rouge in belgium.
    we need the drivers taming the beast, not the beast emasculating the drivers.

  16. There should be one more option.

    6. FIA Safety rules

    Thanks to them, circuits


    have slow corners, extensive run-off areas and minimal elevation change.

    Cars will continue to be developed no-matter-what. Loopholes will always be found in the rules and some new aerodynamic component will be added which increases downforce and makes the wake of the car impossible to follow in.

    Ross Brawn, found a loophole in his own rule and developed the double decker diffuser :P :P

    F1 Cars these days are pretty safe, its time some of the rules on track design are relaxed, giving more freedom to Tilke. That he could come up with a gem like Turkey inspite of so many handicaps speaks volumes of his capability.

  17. It has to do with the car design.
    tracks must be more challenging too!!

  18. I’ve always wanted a reduction in aero grip but I do not think it’s totally to blame.

    The chicane at the end of the 2nd straight at Abu Dhabi is a classic, pointless chicane (turn 11 I think). This could have been a 90 left corner. It would have allowed the cars to carry on battling near to each other for the next few turns. Instead one always fell back behind the other.

    So, I’m partially track design and majority aero on my vote.

  19. I voted for mainly cars.

    I was surprised the FIA didn’t close the loopholes exposed in this years regulations regarding double diffusers, the winglets and airflow conditioners the cars still have. Ross Brawn pointed out that the loopholes existed when the rules were written up. I can understand them not changing the rules for the current season but I thought they would have for 2010.

    One of the problems is that after any changes they make F1 cars still have to be the quickest cars around, so just getting rid of aero completely wouldn’t work. I am not that technically minded so I don’t know what changes could be made to get the balance right.

    No matter what changes are made to the cars though there will always be some circuits where it is harder to overtake, whether it is a tight street circuit or a circuit where it is very dusty off line.

    1. PJA makes the point i was going to make.

      To reduce the downforce of an F1 Car you have to reduce the downforce of all single seater formulas buy the same percent.

      You cannot have a GP2/F2/F3-Euroseries car lapping within the same bracket as an F1 car. Martin Brundle made this point on the BBC F1 Forum a while back after a dull race, and he concluded it wouldn’t happen without major changes to all single seater aero packages. This won’t happen!!

      In my opinion, If you want overtaking you need to start the quickest cars at the back of the grid. It is completely against what i hold dear as F1 and sport, but we all remember the great races when fast cars started at the back (Hungary ’06, Suzuka ’05) and they produced the best races, wet weather or not. This Could Happen!

      For great racing and overtaking, we need less areo, steel brakes, manual gearboxes (preferably a stick), no refueling, and a few more ballsy drivers. This Might Happen Hopefully

  20. I thought there was a bit of “not me guv” in Sam Michael’s comments: easier to blame the tracks. I mean he also said

    If you look at tracks like Barcelona where nobody overtakes, and take exactly the same cars to tracks like Monza, Hockenheim etc, there’s plenty of overtaking.

    I’d imagine the Monza car’s aerodynamics are completely different from the Barcelona one – or maybe that’s why Williams did so badly at Monza this year.

    But I hope this debate leads to a review of unnecessary chicanes everywhere. Someone who went to the Abu Dhabi race said in the forum that Turns 5 & 6 (before the hairpin) should go, and I agree – they’ve even built a straight bit of track already, as if they knew all along!

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