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

  1. A very impassioned response there Keith, I like it, although I do wish people would lay off this “real racing” nonsense they just end up sounding like Jeremy Clarkson.

    You describe refuelling as an “Artificial jumbling of the running order”. It’s not though is it? It doesn’t jumble anything. It’s an additional strategic facet that provides greater opportunity for competition.

    I agree with your points about the circuit and I agree with you when you say “Blaming the refuelling ban for the lack of overtaking yesterday is a simplistic”. But if you were talking about position changes as opposed to overtaking then there would be a good argument to be made.

    I don’t think my expectations were unreasonable, in fact I quite enjoyed the race in part just because quite simply I’m glad F1 is back and the season has started.

    With regards to “the real problem” I’m not convinced as to how much of a problem there actually was/is and how much of it is just people blindly buying into ill-founded rhetoric. The double diffuser “debate” is a case in point. The most experienced and esteemed opinion that I’ve read on the subject (an opinion that was published on this blog) said that double diffusers make no difference to the ability of an F1 car overtake. You yourself Keith said “Whether it will help cars follow more closely – and thereby increase overtaking – is a subject of much debate”.

    Anyway despite being pro-refuelling I’m willing to give the ban more of a chance than just one race, when I think of all the crazy rule changes that blight the sport it comes out as one of the more sane ones.

  2. Einar AI said on 15th March 2010, 0:57

    Keith, although I commend your approach towards the problem, the refuelling ban was always going to exacerbate the existing problems in modern Formula 1.I was never really in favour of the refuelling ban, and despite your earlier predictions, I see my expectations coming true.

    Refuelling and the two pit-stop phases it entailed made even the most boring races (such as this one) watchable. Maybe my opinion is strictly restricted to myself, but even Istanbul and Singapore last year were diversified by the action in the pits. True, I would prefer action to happen on the track rather than witness “artificial” changes to the order, but at least refuelling guaranteed some action.

    Without refuelling there was technically no racing after the first pitstop rush (after lap 20 approx.). In fact, if Vettel did not slow down with his exhaust problem, we would have seen simply a succession of 50 parade laps.

    The starts and the opening 10-lap rush were nowhere to be seen. Cars are heavy, and what is worse, they are equally heavy. In previous years, “race-fuel qualifying” for all its vices, ensured that we get some decent action in the opening laps when lighter cars got inevitably stuck behind the heavy ones.
    What’s more, the diversity in strategy did not materialize and while Renault and Williams experimented a tiny bit, we’ve seen an identical strategy from the first eight. This only entailed minor changes to the order, while in the past years we have seen how a successful fuel strategy can decide the outcome of a race. I have read many complaints about the faults of “predictable strategy” of refuelling, but now that the teams can’t predict each other’s actions, they just opt to copy each other and refrain from losing out.

    I consider myself an f1 purist, and was never in favor of artificial rules such as “race-fuel qualifying” or mandatory pit-stops. But let us face it, if the drivers are made to preserve their destroyed tyres for most of the race, we wouldn’t see any natural changes to the order i.e. overtaking. What’s worse, the significance of pit-stops also dropped.

    What this leaves us with a situation where the best qualifiers finish first with those behind having little opportunity to change anything. Hence, the best cars will always win and that was not the case a year ago. So I’m not really surprised at having witnessed an altogether dull non-race.

    I’d give the refuelling ban a few more races but not much more than that. Bahrain does not typically produce thrilling races, but if this farce continues in Melbourne, I say bring back 2009 rules by Monaco so we don’t screw up the season completely.

  3. DMW said on 15th March 2010, 0:59

    It was quite obvious to me and many others that with the ban on refueling there would not be some mind-numbing ramification of stragetic options and thrilling wheel to wheel battles. The opposite seemed more likely. Specifically, the fact there were only two types of tire and one energy versus mass tradeoff permitted at the start means that there would be one optimal time to pit for all.

    The theory, heard much here, was that the lack of the ability to perform a cowardly, unsporting pass in the pits would force drivers to race on the track. Of course, all it has forced them to do is to drive like old ladies—not risking a flat spot or slide—and hope that in the very final stages, their quarry would have done poor math and have ruined his tires, or something.

    Reprising old issues with being unable to follow closely, effectively homogenized engines, what happens in GP2, and the tracks, is not on point. The issue here is what banning refueling did to the racing, other things equal.

    As a case in point, Hamilton’s vacation behind Rosberg was due as much to the ban as to turbulence or whatever. He could not put Nico under sustained pressure because, as the team was telling him, he needed to make the tires last, so that his second stint arithmetic would hold up. Anywyay, because everyone is running way below the limit, if he did push harder, Rosberg had the option of using up a little more tire to defend every margin of speed Lewis showed—or giving way to maintain his own strategy. So, in a real sense, they were never even really “racing” anyway.

  4. I agree with much of what’s been said– very little movement in the field except for technical failures– but I think another part of thep roblem was a boring track. Very little visual excitement, too few fans, too long a lap, and a fussy layout. We got rid of races in Europe for this??? And I knew I’d miss refueling.

  5. F1Yankee said on 15th March 2010, 1:03

    perhaps the time will soon be right for active suspension? with some cuts in aero freedom, it would provide stability, literally and figuratively, and let cars get as close as they want.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSi6J-QK1lw

  6. “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.

    • beanzoo said on 15th March 2010, 12:13

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

  7. Zahir said on 15th March 2010, 1:04

    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.

    • Harold said on 15th March 2010, 3:41

      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.

  8. rmstrong said on 15th March 2010, 1:04

    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.

  9. StefMeister said on 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.

    http://www.cliptheapex.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=51&t=822

    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.

    • rmstrong said on 15th March 2010, 1:11

      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.

    • Rob R. said on 15th March 2010, 1:38

      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.

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

    • Jomy John said on 15th March 2010, 4:19

      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.

  10. StefMeister said on 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:
    http://www.cliptheapex.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=51&t=1482

    • 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.

    • David said on 15th March 2010, 8:48

      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.

    • graham228221 said on 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*

      • MacLeod said on 15th March 2010, 15:23

        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)

        • graham228221 said on 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.

  11. dans said on 15th March 2010, 1:18

    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.

    • Mouse_Nightshirt said on 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.

  12. Adam said on 15th March 2010, 1:35

    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.

    • Mouse_Nightshirt said on 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.

  13. Gusto said on 15th March 2010, 1:57

    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.

  14. Brad D said on 15th March 2010, 1:58

    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.

  15. Prisoner Monkeys said on 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.

    • Mouse_Nightshirt said on 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.

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