Bringing back refuelling will not solve F1’s overtaking problem

The first race of 2010 was a processional affair

The first race of 2010 was a processional affair

After months of anticipation and despite a mouth-watering line-up of teams and drivers, not to mention the biggest grid in 15 years, the Bahrain Grand Prix was a damp squib. And that’s putting it politely.

But the F1 community – be it the fans, the teams or the rule makers – should not be too hasty to jump to conclusions after just one race.

And blaming the refuelling ban for yesterday’s uninspiring race would overlook more serious problems with competition in F1 that need to be fixed.

Long-time readers of this site will know I never had much time for F1’s refuelling era and was glad to see it dropped. Artificial jumbling of the running order holds no excitement for me.

I enjoy proper wheel-to-wheel racing. Genuine passes for position on the track and robust defensive driving. Neither of which we saw much of yesterday – or in quite a few races last year for that matter.

Blaming the refuelling ban for the lack of overtaking yesterday is a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction to a problem which has been around much longer and whose roots are more complicated.

Cars

Over the winter the designers were left free to push the development of their cars’ aerodynamics without new restrictions. And, as has always been the case when they’re allowed to do that, the cars now produce more downforce and so are more sensitive to running in the air of a leading car.

That much was clear in the opening stages of yesterday’s race when Lewis Hamilton was unable to get within half a second of Nico Rosberg despite having a car that was up to a second faster per lap in clean air and the fastest in a straight line.

The improved aerodynamic performance of this year’s cars has been accompanied by a reduction in mechanical grip due to the narrower front tyres. The balance of the cars’ performance has shifted away from mechanical grip – which is not impaired by running behind another car – to aerodynamic downforce – which is impaired by running behind another car.

But it’s not just aerodynamics which has made it harder for one F1 car to follow another closely.

Running in the hot air of another car causes cooling problems, as we saw when Fernando Alonso caught Sebastian Vettel in the later stages of yesterday’s race. Alonso had to pull out from behind Vettel on the straights in order to keep cooler air flowing into his radiators.

This brings us to a third problem – the need to conserve car and engine life. Felipe Massa was being urged not to run closely behind other cars to avoid overheating his engine, which will have to do at least one, possible two more Grand Prix distances after this one.

In short, since the last race of 2009 it’s become harder for F1 cars to follow each other. And with none of the cars able to use KERS for a handy power boost, hardly anyone was able to get in range to make a pass.

The circuit

From the moment we first laid eyes on the revised Bahrain circuit, used for the first time by F1 this year, people were saying it would be no good for overtaking.

From the satellite photo alone you could tell it was too tight, too slow and too narrow. The race proved the organisers’ promise the section would “provide new overtaking opportunities” was well wide of the mark.

It wasn’t just in the F1 race that cars found it hard to pass on the new section. The GP2 Asia drivers couldn’t do much with it either but could still pass on the rest of the circuit. Incidentally, these are cars with tightly restricted spec aero, spec tyres, and no refuelling, and have consistently produced the best single-seater racing I’ve seen over the past six years. Sadly last weekend was their last scheduled outing.

The sheer length of the track played a part as well. The longer the lap a car has to do the less likely it is to encounter other cars. At around two minutes per lap every car on the grid could circulate five seconds apart. It’s no coincidence that Interlagos, which consistently produces some of the best races we see, is also one of the shortest tracks.

At the very least the circuit organisers should switch back to the normal layout for next year’s race. It’s no classic, but it’s far better than the configuration they used this year. And if they really want to make things interesting and increase opportunities for overtaking, they want to use their shorter ‘outer’ track.

Expectations

The first race was always going to struggle to live up to the pre-season expectations. We all wanted to see Schumacher battling with Alonso and the fight for supremacy at McLaren. What little racing there was seemed to be between the Virgins and Lotuses at the back of the field.

And in one respect we were unlucky. The Vettel/Alonso/Massa battle for the lead was getting close when the Red Bull driver’s exhaust packed in, spoiling the fun.

But we shouldn’t judge the entire season based on one race. The first Grand Prix of 2002 was a thriller but the rest of the year was largely forgettable. Was yesterday’s race really any worse than Istanbul or Singapore were last year with refuelling? I don’t think so.

The real problem

The fundamental problem is still that cars can’t follow each other closely. This is what the FIA needs to fix. Bringing in more mandatory pit stops and reintroducing refuelling would be like putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg.

Instead of over-reacting in a panicky fashion with ill thought-out changes the rule makers need to look at the big picture and understand how many of the technical changes in recent years have conspired to make it hard for cars to follow each other: engine use restrictions, rev limits, double diffusers and more.

Even after the Overtaking Working Group’s changes last year, F1 cars still can’t follow each other closely enough often enough. Encouragingly the FIA has already taken a step towards fixing it by banning double diffusers for 2011.

But they need to go further and consider not just cutting back downforce, but also looking at this problem of cars overheating when they run close behind a leading car.

That’s the real heart of F1’s overtaking problem. And solving it is much more challenging than just forcing more pit stops or bringing back refuelling.

Overtaking and the refuelling ban

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397 comments on Bringing back refuelling will not solve F1’s overtaking problem

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  1. antonyob said on 18th March 2010, 21:08

    well if you think watching Moss hold a car against its will at 150mph in a 4 wheel drift is just rallying then you truly dont know anything about F1. A truly fatuous statement.

    As for Mansell, Prost & Senna being the 3 greatest drivers of all time, well you are too far gone to be even helped. Senna is top 5 possibly, Prost top 15 and Mansell maybe top 30. Im a huge Mansell fan btw, loved him buti loved watching Gascoigne i dont think he was the worlds greatest player.

    But i guess its difficult to teach the playstation generation much that doesnt happen now or buzz in their hand. More red bull than red wine.

  2. antonyob said on 18th March 2010, 21:51

    well you dont need stats to know overtaking has reduced. And this is proving to be a more difficult point to get across than i thought..however, ive been watching F1 since 1978 and my dad since the beginning and beyond and overtaking isnt the only measure of a good race. In the early days you werre lucky to see any overtaking, or even the full circuit..of course the mind only remembers the good bits. And i dont care which survey says what, you ask fans if they want blue or red hotdogs and you’ll get an answer.

    Quite alot of f1’s audience are casual thrill seekers and i really dont want a sport that i support by actually going to be dictated by someone sat in his dressing gown munching on his cornflakes ready with the remote if no one crashes or takes 12 cars in one corner.

    In essence its way to early to be changing the rules just cos the 1st race wasnt good enough.

  3. antonyob said on 20th March 2010, 12:43

    right im going to try this one more time for the slow lad at the back. Clearly there is a problem with overtaking in F1 and despite their best efforts the FIA dont seem to be able to solve it and no-one else has come up with a guaranteed solution eiter. Still with me? right, so if we cant solve that problem lets look at other ways the spectacle can be livened up. One of the great joys of watching racing is seeing a driver balance a car at high speed in a controlled drift. Something we havent seen in F1 for way too long but maybe something that could be engineered in. Its a longshot but hay so is overtaking at the moment< why not think out of the box? SO… i dont prefer a car sliding to overtaking, im not a fan of rallying and i agree overtaking livens up a race no end. ok?

  4. SennaRainho said on 20th March 2010, 22:38

    As Keith and others mention; the aero cannot change until 2011 but we have to hope that 2010 will be eye-opening enough for drastic changes to be introduced by then. If difusers are the main cause of turbulence then why even discuss single vs. double – why not scrap then completely?

    Some of my other suggestions would probably be too liberal for the FIA but here goes:
    1. (Can be effected right away to save 2010) No more tire rules. Goes for Q3->start and throughout the race. Use as many of any tire you like. The benefits should be obvious.
    2. (Can also be effected right along with 1) No pitstop rules. Stop five or zero times as you prefer.
    3. Smaller wings.
    4. If not deemed too complicated; introduce a spec for drag/turbulence as suggested by someone above.
    5. Introduce wider and stickier tires.
    6. Remove the rev limiter BUT keep the limit on total number of engines.
    7. Don’t limit the number of wheels on the cars!

    I think we would see more diversity in the designs have some teams benefit on slower tracks while others on fast tracks.

    As someone else suggested I think it would be a great idea for FIA to open a forum for suggestions. Not only would they be bombarded by ideas they would have never though of themselves but in the process they would project a much less arrogant face.

  5. good suggestions, a limit on down force could also work, tested at a certain speed, teams would get to this point and they have to develope other thing which may help

  6. petrolhead86 said on 23rd March 2010, 22:55

    SennaRainho, great suggestions. I would like to add that standardizied underbody tunnels be introduced to accompany the smaller wings. Varying powerplant configurations should be allowed as well. Ideas 1,2&5 are fantastic.I dont agree with 7 though.

  7. Chaz said on 28th March 2010, 17:28

    Whether there is refueling or not is sometimes irrelevant. Personally I prefer it as it adds another variable into the mix although like everything else this too develops an element of predictability. It seems to me they put the horse in front of the cart and expected the cart to pull itself along i.e. they should have fixed the overtaking and following issues before going to single race fuel. That said, lets hope Todt knocks some heads together to address this issue radically.

    I like when we have big changes as it throws the cat amongst the pigeons and produces unexpected and unpredicatable results as well as levels the playing field for a while, that is until the wizard engineers with seemingly unlimited or should I say much vaster resources are able to identify and get on top of the challenges.

  8. Ashley said on 17th May 2010, 8:02

    They need to bring back refueling with 6 races gone the most entertaining races were Australia,Malaysia, and China which were partly wet races.With the dry races Bahrain,Spain and Monaco there was hardly any overtaking as drivers are just trying to consevre their tyres till the end of the races.With refueling it will enable dirvers to change tyres aswel,therefore increasing the amount of racing and overtaking.Unless every race has a chance of rain then there not going to be as exciting as previous seasons.

  9. Jonathan Weston said on 18th May 2010, 1:23

    bring back smaller tanks and refuelling asap – add a tire manufacturer choice and it could get exciting again.

  10. Garry Westwood said on 19th May 2010, 7:58

    Bring back refuiling Bernie,You made F1 boring i use to look foward to watching F1 now i fall asleep watching it.

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