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. Peter said on 15th March 2010, 2:02

    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.

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

  3. mr zing zang said on 15th March 2010, 2:19

    Wider tracks. No double diffusers. simple

  4. inc0mmunicado said on 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.

  5. rfs said on 15th March 2010, 2:23

    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.

  6. 000o00 said on 15th March 2010, 2:25

    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?

  7. William Wilgus said on 15th March 2010, 2:35

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

    • Florida Mike said on 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.

  8. 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

  9. Toby Bushby said on 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.

  10. Mouse_Nightshirt said on 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.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th March 2010, 8:28

      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.

      • Mouse_Nightshirt said on 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.

        • BasCB said on 16th March 2010, 6:55

          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?

  11. Matt said on 15th March 2010, 3:29

    Why don’t the FIA just put you in charge?

  12. Rob said on 15th March 2010, 3:56

    We should have seen this coming…

    Last year the Red Bull worked brilliantly in clean air, but struggled in dirty air. Christian Horner was quoted as saying as long as they had clean air they’ll be okay (I think it was just before Turkey last year).

    Now that so many of the teams have gone to varying degrees of copying last years RB5 aero design we have a field that can’t deal with dirty air.

    I was hoping that the tyres would spice up the action but the prime tyre is too durable.

    I’m resigned to the fact that without a complete redesign of the cars aerodynamics we will have a precessional season. The diffusers need to go.

    Maybe for this season they should just take one type of tyre to the track that is chose beforehand by a random draw e.g. hard tyres at Monaco, supersofts at Albert Park, or ditch the 4 compounds and have one (that would save heaps of money) and maybe spice up the action.

    It would not be fair to the teams like Ferrari and Red Bull who seem to have the best cars on the grid to change things now, but this ‘classic’ season we were hoping for I think will never eventuate.

  13. HarryD said on 15th March 2010, 4:26

    Scrap the 3rd quali same tyre rule…. and we should see some fireworks….

  14. Dane said on 15th March 2010, 5:00

    Make the drivers change their own tyres :)

  15. jamesd said on 15th March 2010, 5:05

    Why not force all these clever designers and engineers to come up with solutions for overtaking on the track?

    How about a points system which gives some points for the saturday qualifying but the bulk of the points come from the race. Then have a reverse championship points grid.

    The up shot would be that anyone who can make a car that can overtake should win the championship.

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