Bringing back refuelling will not solve F1’s overtaking problem

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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.


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.


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

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

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  1. “Bringing back refuelling will not solve F1’s overtaking problem”.

    Couldn’t agree more Keith.

    As a comparison did anyone get to see the Indycar race from Sao Paulo today? Actual passing at the front for the win! A great track albeit with premier race issues, but way more interesting then the F1 snoozer.

    1. just watched the highlights of that race seemed like a good one alright and the bumps in the baking zones that spiced it up!

      1. I’d say that the entire Bahrain circuit was a baking zone on Sunday…

  2. I think that refuelling masked the problem that F1 cars had in overtaking each other and now it has been exposed. I agree that we shouldnt mandate pitstops as this removes another variable in a sport that is becoming more and more standardised but i believe reducing the durability of the tyre is a good idea, especially if people want more pitstops. What gets me really depressed is that its too late to change the cars now, what should have been one of the best seaons in recent history wont ever be able to live up to its expectations or anywhere near them. A sad day for F1 was sunday.

    1. Totally agree Zahir. Refuelling has masked just how little action was happening on track over the last few years! Softer tyre compounds will help, but it really is an aero issue.

  3. They’ve been trying to allow the cars to run more closely for years. The engineers are smarter than the rule makers. It’s like protecting a network against hackers. While vulnerabilities can be patched new ones are soon exposed.
    How can this be achieved without dumbing down the sport. The IRL has plenty of passing but is that what we want from F1? Maybe less mild and more drastic changes need to be made that will cut downforce by a HUGE amount. However, in a few years I am sure much of the lost Aero efficiency will be re-attained.

  4. StefMeister
    15th March 2010, 1:05

    Can I just note something.

    If refueling was so great for racing then why is it that according to the overtaking stats, the level of on track passing has decreased massively since refeuling was brought back?

    There was an immediate & massive drop in overtaking from 1993 to 1994 & its continued to go down ever since.

    The stats alone show that overtaking took away from the on-track action.

    Also, was todays race really any more ‘boring’ than many races over recent years?

    I saw overtaking today, I can think of at least 10 on track passes from memory & there was likely more. I’d bet there was more overtaking today than the 9 on track passes we got at Silverstone last year.

    Was todays race more dull than the 3 on-track passes we got at Hungaroring the last 3 years running or the 1 on-track pass we got at Imola in 2006 or the zero at Monaco in 2003?

    Todays race wasn’t great but it was far, far, far, far from been anywhere close to the worst we’ve had in the past 30 years.

    1. It might be considered worse because we all know the racers were not really racing, they were conserving. I see more aggression in endurance racing.

    2. StefMeister, I agree with you and Keith, I agree with every point you just made. This hysterical reaction against the refuelling ban is so misguided, it’s stunning.

      The real problem is the ludicrous level of dependency on aerodynamics, the lack of mechical grip, and the regulations that force people to drive conservatively such as the forced engine rationing and the rev limiters. These are nothing new, this wave of stifling regulations has been slowly building to a crescendo over the last few years, ever since about the mid 2000s. It is all due to short-sighted gimmickry on the part of the FIA and Bernie. They don’t realise that this aero nonsense is a school of F1 technology that, in terms of generating real excitement, wore out its welcome years ago. And yes, also the dull tracks like Bahrain are to blame too, they don’t test anybody’s bravery.

      If you don’t think you can have an exciting race without refuelling, you are very wrong, and obviously ignorant of the history of the sport.

    3. That’s a really interesting link, thanks StefMeister.

    4. dude if there were only 20 cars on the grid, you can sure as hell have expected zero overtakings. Formula1 was boring in 1992-93, there was no action, hence the need to refuel.

      1. And that had nothing to do with the fact that during those years one team had a car which was two seconds per lap faster than anything else?

  5. StefMeister
    15th March 2010, 1:09

    Little update.

    For all the talk of a dull race, There was apparently 19 on track passes in todays race, According to this:

    1. 19 on-track passes – and it was still boring. That is some achievement, then.

      I have drifted off to sleep very often while watching F1 in the last 16 years – but this was the first time it happened in the first 30 mins.

      F1 probably needs more battles. Not just overtaking, I guess. 19 is a good number, but if we feel there werent many, that means they weren’t memorable.

      Also, something about yesterday’s race on Star Sports made it even more dull. Visually. I couldn’t get a handle on what it was.

    2. Wow. Someones gotta spam that fact/link in response to every comment made just so people actually realise how stupidly they are overreacting, and how poorly informed they are.

    3. graham228221
      15th March 2010, 10:40

      wow, 19 passes. of course, 12 of those were overtakes on the Virgin/Lotus/HRT guys and 4 were on Buemi.

      So really that’s 3 passes of interest, including 1 pass involving both Saubers cars which must have been so very challenging for both.

      *SLOW CLAP*

      1. The numbers shows in the wet is lots more overtaking. What about 50% all races must be in the Wet? If’s not raining just artifactial let it rain. (not in the hot countries)

        1. graham228221
          16th March 2010, 11:31

          you’d *really* be happy to sprinklers dousing the tracks half the time?

          why not just adjust the engine revs in proportion to their position, 1st at 10,000, 2nd at 10,500, 3rd at 11,000 and so on. That’s about as crap an idea.

  6. Been saying this for years, seems no one is listening though.

    Softer tyres, smaller wings and ground effect worked in GP2, remember Hamilton in 2007?

    That and get rid of this stupid compulsory stops, want to see 0 stops vs 3 stops but the tyres have to be right too.

    1. Mouse_Nightshirt
      15th March 2010, 3:25

      Softer compounds would be good. Make shredding tyres more common; you don’t want a tyre that everyone can make last 3/4 race distance.

  7. Kieth. You have tried to convince me on many occasions that banning refuelling was a positve for F1. Since the news broke many months ago i was completely against it. I remember stating that a load of fat F1 cars cruising around conserving tyres waiting for the best time to get the hammer down is not my idea of the pinnacle of motorsport. I didnt even take into account engine conservation.

    I understand that people enjoy different aspects of F1 but personally i enjoy flat out racing, an intelligent (sometimes unusual) strategy, aggressive attacking, desperate defending, and the occasional 2nd guessing of other teams tactics. IMO F1 got really close to that 2006/7/8 and even part of 09 although i agree also there were issues that needed attention through those years. Then came the issue of cost cutting which as we all agree the sport needed.
    But, correct me if im wrong, in those years refuelling did “mix it up” so to speak. It added and exciting element that teams had the freedom to explore with intelligent strategists working hard to take into account the track, compounds of tyres, weather, drivers ability sudden racing incidents and more all before and even during the race. All of this, the standard of driving and more had me completely in awe of the sport and the spectacle it produced.

    Obviously aero needs looking at but being as im not technically minded ive no idea what the resolution is with that.

    Banning refuelling however, for me and many others removed a huge chunk of the sport which we really enjoyed and paid a shed load of money to follow.

    Im an avid fanatic and have been for a long time. Its my first port of call and am very respectful for the work you put in and love the fact we can all agree and disagree but surely you can agree with me when i say like me there is a hell of a lot of other fanatics that are incredibly concerned and outspoken about this.

    1. Mouse_Nightshirt
      15th March 2010, 3:24

      I’m mostly in agreement. There is definitely one optimal strategy now. At least previously there could be much variation in the optimal strategy last year.

  8. I,ve been very surprised by the reaction to todays race and refuelling, its not the first boring race I,ve seen and I found it interesting in a everybody testing the water sort off way. Dont forget that in the past everybody would have the same fuel after there final stop and there position would be due to a computer simulation E-mailed to the Pit wall from there HQ sometime in the first 10 laps (exaggeration but you get my point). Bridgestone supplied a tyre that was to durable which will be easily remedied for future races, Bahrain is a Lemon of a track and Aero Aero Aero.

  9. I didn’t read everyone’s post so my bad if I repeat someone’s ideas.
    Making changes here and there and one at time really won’t help anything. They need to make several changes and really think how they will affect the field as a whole. I mean really think it out. Banning refueling may be a good idea, but it seems like the FIA didn’t look at all the options and what exactly might happen as a result. I think there are several ways to make it more exciting in my opinion.
    1. Get rid of the refueling ban.
    2. Make the fuel tanks very small.
    3. Increase the minimum weight of the car by A LOT. Maybe 50-75 kilos or more.
    4. Have two required pit stops during which tires must be changed and cars refueled.
    5. I’m on the fence for this last one: require every driver to pit on the same lap. Or maybe P1-P10 on lap x, P11-P20 on lap x+1, and the final drivers on lap x+2 or maybe the completely opposite. Then one more time later in the race of course.

    The heavier cars might make for more passing opportunities but the drivers would complain of course.
    Smaller tanks will mean teams will put in similar amounts of fuel in when they pit. Less fuel along with fresh tires at each stop will allow the drivers to push extremely hard. Mandatory refueling and tire changes will eliminate tire and fuel strategies within each team (for better or for worse) but will still have the tire option. Because they’re all pitting close to each other, teams won’t be able to know the other teams’ tire choices which may mix things up. Having the drivers pit in groups on designated laps will mix the field and bring the cars closer to each other with traffic all over the place. If P11-P20 pit one or two laps after the leaders will give them the opportunity to put in some quick laps on low fuel (seems unfair, which it probably is, but remember they will have to start heavier) Yeah, bringing the cars close together will cause other problems like overheating but deal with it. And requiring pitting, especially on the same lap, will drive people crazy saying it eliminates team strategy, but I’d like to see more racing on the track rather than in the pits.

  10. Prisoner Monkeys
    15th March 2010, 2:00

    The fundamental problem is still that cars can’t follow each other closely. This is what the FIA needs to fix.

    I’ve always said it, but in order to do that, they need to regulate aerodynamics. Don’t just make diffusers single-piece affairs, make them spec pieces, and make them ultra-simple. The same goes for any serious aerodynamic piece. Ban McLaren’s snorkel, and kill shark fins to dissuade anyone from trying the same. Because otherwise, developers are just going to go bananas and the gap between cars will increase.

    1. Mouse_Nightshirt
      15th March 2010, 3:22

      I was under the impression that diffusers were less affected by air disturbance infront of the car, they just created a huge wake.

      Instead, make the front wings and upper aero giblets even more restricted. McLaren’s snorkel could hardly count as making aerodynamics more important. It stalls the wing when you move your leg. I doubt it would affect or be affected a great deal in regards to aero behind or infront of the car.

  11. Rather than mandating more pit stops, there
    should be no mandatory pit stops.

    The problem now is arising because everyone
    is forced to the same strategy. Two doesn’t gain,
    and one is required.

    If there were guys going into Q3 with hards and running to the end versus guys on softs and changing there would be a bigger speed difference on track.

    Rene Arnoux moments should NOT be banned.

  12. This news circuits don’t help any regulation!

  13. mr zing zang
    15th March 2010, 2:19

    Wider tracks. No double diffusers. simple

  14. inc0mmunicado
    15th March 2010, 2:22

    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.

    Note: the Red Bull exhaust is mounted lower than everyone else’s, which was probably a huge factor in causing Alonso’s overheating.

    1. inc0mmunicado
      15th March 2010, 2:22

      The first paragraph was supposed to be quote. I forgot the tag for that…

  15. I agree with Keith. Races were boring before the refueling ban, and I didn’t find this race less dull than, say, Abu Dhabi or Singapore last year. The Overtaking Working Group need to get back together urgently to find a new solution though, because this has become a very serious problem for F1.

  16. Some quickfixes that can be done straight away;
    – scrap the same 3rd quali and race tire rule. Currently there is only 1 optimal stratey, which is softer compound for quali and early stop. By scrapping this rule at least there will be some variablilty in the stop strategies

    – Increase the number of tires allocated on the race weekend so the drivers can try and be slightly more aggresive in quali as well as the race.

    – Increase the number of engines available for the season, and hopefully encouraging teams to pursue a more risker engine tuning stratgey to chase race wins.

    – abolish the 18k rev limit – again to promote more risk taking with the teams.

    what is everybodies thoughts?

    1. Bring back a gear stick and clutch, problem solved.

  17. William Wilgus
    15th March 2010, 2:35

    It’s very simple: get rid of the wings!

    1. Florida Mike
      15th March 2010, 2:51

      Excellent suggestion. Or at least limit the front wing’s width to the distance between the front tires, which might eliminate a lot of the contact.

  18. okay..this is probably the dumbest question you all have heard…but since downforce works by pushing down on tyres without increasing their work load as weight does..would it not be possible to use hydraulics to push down on tires??? almost like an active suspension..that would not have any wake and still keep speeds up

    1. Florida Mike
      15th March 2010, 2:56

      I would think that aerodynamic downforce has the same effect on the tires as does a heavier car, and that the tires don’t know the difference.

      1. as far as traction goes..weight and downforce are equal…but as you add weight the workload required by the tyres increases..slowing cornering

  19. Toby Bushby
    15th March 2010, 3:03

    True, Keith. Bringing back refuelling or enforcing more pitstops is a band-aid that ignores the bigger problem. But I would suggest one band-aid that might (and I stress might) fix the one-stop problem at least – ban the driver-controlled front wing adjuster immediately. It obviously does nothing to improve overtaking, which is what it was brought in to do, but it does allow the drivers to manage their tyres more. That’s one small and easily implemented thing.

  20. Mouse_Nightshirt
    15th March 2010, 3:19

    Keith says:
    “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.”

    Well, why would anyone think there would be fun there? Lewis was unable to get close to a car a second slower per lap with much less straight line speed. The Ferrari had an even smaller margin than that. The exact same thing would have happened.

    1. Well, why would anyone think there would be fun there? Lewis was unable to get close to a car a second slower per lap with much less straight line speed. The Ferrari had an even smaller margin than that. The exact same thing would have happened.

      Perhaps, but what condition were Vettel’s tyre in? If they’d gone off and was only going to get slower from that point he’d have kept backing the Ferraris up – perhaps to the point that one of them could have tried a pass.

      1. Mouse_Nightshirt
        15th March 2010, 11:55

        If, and it was a very big if.

        I still think Vettel would have held it with little bother. He didn’t manage to mice his soft tyres, and although the RBR has been suggested to eat its tyres, Vettel managed to drop his laptimes considerably in the last few laps of the race and keep Nico behind him. Not the sign of tyres that had died.

        1. Would it have really mattered, if Alonso did not get past Vettel but had a serious try for say 3-6 laps i a row?
          Maybe even make Massa and Hamilton get closer to them and push a little themselves?

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