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

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

  2. 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.

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

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

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

    Make the drivers change their own tyres :)

  5. 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.

  6. NDINYO said on 15th March 2010, 5:08

    Keith

    Though you are emphatic on FIA not re-introducing refuelling, you are very quiet on what should be done to improve racing in the absence of using artificial means – at least in the short term. Personally i am for the re-introduction of refuelling while the OWG does more research on other options.

    It is starting to look like these other options will include a relaxation of the technical rules to a large extend and some form of budget cap to hold in the bigger teams from grabbing on-track dominance.

    With engineers having more leeway with technology – be it KERS, adjustable height, movable wings, higher revving engines, a selection of tyres, widths, types and manufacturers, a wider selection of fuels including green power sources etc etc,- cars will be more differentiated technically and strengths will vary more with circuits providing more racing. Just having Michelin for example used to producing some very interesting racing because of the variability in the two tyres available on the grid those days. Back then, Ferrari had to use the full might of the FIA to keep the Michelin shod cars behind them. I can imagine what that would do in this era of more equitable racing.

    However, budgets would have to be capped to prevent big teams from covering all bases through sheer muscle power and thus holding the sport back in the no overtaking characteristic.

    From your analysis, you quote the tightly spec-ed GP2 Asia series as having all the right ingredients. Unfortunately, F1 cannot go that route for two reasons: 1 – that formula never had the status of F1. Despite the fact that there is now a gap as the formula is coming to an end, F1 going that route would be perceived as a down grade. 2 – F1 is a competition of technology and drivers not just drivers. This is the concept that puts F1 apart from all others. It is upto the organisers to find a way of how to make this formula exciting because inherently it holds a lot of potential for some really passionate racing.

    F1 needs to reflect the real world. Eventually technology should move from F1 to the road. To do this, there has to be more freedom to tinker with F1 technology. Indeed the only reason i would support banning refuelling is that in a technologically freer F1 world, teams would have to make more efficient power plants that would some day find their way into my bonnet. I would say that the sports that “can be done at home” ultimately have more appeal and competition than the ones that cannot – read football, cycling, athletics etc. For F1 to rival these sports in fanship, the guy on the street has to be able to see a link with with a growling McLaren on the grid.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th March 2010, 8:33

      you are very quiet on what should be done to improve racing in the absence of using artificial means – at least in the short term.

      I’m glad you asked that – I was going to add a couple of paragraphs on the end of the article on that but I didn’t want to make it over-long or distract from the point too much.

      The bad news is there’s probably no useful short-term fix for the aero problem. This isn’t IndyCar racing where everyone has spec chassis and you can just change the cars – which happened in that series last year and the governing body handled it very well by doing just that.

      For F1, changes in the technical rules are what’s needed and that can’t happened until 2011.

      There are a few things I would change in the meantime. I’d scrap the Q3 tyre rule and the rule forcing drivers to use each compound during the race. That should reduce the imperative for drivers to be so conservative in their tyre choices.

      • The teams might be more aggressive with tyres in future races, but the cars’ relative speed and the timing of the first (only!) pitstop will always be dictated by the weakest link in the chain.

        • This definitely isn’t the comment I thought I was replying to, Keith! I’ll re-post in the right place…

          In reply to this point, though, I agree with all the above, including with your proposed changes (as did Alain Prost!). A little more radically, I like others’ suggestions that all four tyres should be available to the teams before the weekend. Does anyone know how many different types of tyre Goodyear brought to each race in the early 90s, when they had compounds A, B, C and D?

          The biggest problem with the new tyre regs as they stand is that all the drivers are trying to conserve their tyres in the early stages, but as soon as the first car in the train decides it’s time to change tyres, the others also have to. Button could have stayed on the super-softs for ten more laps, he said, but McLaren’s pace on the medium was immediately 3+ seconds quicker, so he’d have disappeared into the midfield!

      • Accidental Mick said on 17th March 2010, 17:22

        “The bad news is there’s probably no useful short-term fix for the aero problem.”

        If I was an aero engineer, one of my objectives would be to make my car as difficult as possible to overtake.

        I don’t know how it is done but car manufacturers publish figures on the “slipperiness” of their cars through the air and a slippier car will, by definition leave less turbulance.

        Instead of trying to out-smart the aero engineers with detailed specification changes, just set a maximum level of turbulance that a car can leave behind (tested in a wind tunnel) and let the engineers do whatever thay like within that parameter.

  7. mac v2 said on 15th March 2010, 5:13

    I’ve been following the F1 for 25 years, or maybe more, and let me tell you, this race was an interesting one. Not the action packed race of our dreams, but an interesting one nonetheless. In fact, it had more drama than many many other season openers. F1 has never been comparable to MotoGP, IRL, the defunct CHAMP car, and much less NASCAR, it is a totally different sort of Show.

    We follow it because its pinnacule of Motorsport, because of the technology and because of the history… Ferrari, Mclaren, Williams, Renault, Who is KV? Who Is Gannassi? Tell me the name of a team in NASCAR.

    Yes, I agree, a handful overtaking manouvers and a round of pitstops wasn’t what we had expected. We never thought Mclaren to be so far, and we never believed Mercedes was so off the pace… but they are. Blame the Hype, blame “the Best Season in many years…” that the “pundits” yelled at the four winds. That’s the cause of your dissapointment, not the formula one.

    Blame the tracks, Multimillion Ratmazes designed by a German that has never understood the passion of races, just the logistics, safety and business side of the tracks.

    Bring more Spas, Interlagos, Nurbürgrings and Jerez more “organic” circuits with bends created by the mountains and valleys not by the deft pencil of an architect.

    It’s not the car, but the circuit.

    • There is always a lot of Tilke bashing whenever a race isn’t interesting. In my opinion it’s really unfounded. As track designers, Tilke GmbH (Tilke’s firm) are limited by constraints – proposed location, FIA rules, track owner preferences etc.

      If for example a country wants to build a track in the middle of a flat desert, it limits the longitudinal grading of the track. If the land is flat you cannot have multiple uphill, downhill sections, crests, sags, dips etc. You are pretty much limited to a fairly flat track. Similarly, if the FIA regulations specify that there are to be 8000 miles of runoff at each corner or specifies a maximum longitudinal grading, it limits freedom that the designers have with the layout of the track. Then if the client specifies that they want 4 or 5 track combinations within the circuit, it further limits what the designer can do.

      Tilke and his employees have to work within these constraints, and I imagine they stive to do the best they can given all the constraints they get burdened with.

      For people to claim that Tilke and his employees are not passionate about motorsport I think is down right insulting too them. I dare say most of them have dreamt of designing race tracks their whole life, just like the drivers have dreamt of being F1 drivers, and the engineers have dreamt of being F1 engineers their whole lives.

      If you want to blame anyone for boring tracks, you should be pointing fingers at the FIA, FOM/FOA and the track owners. The FIA set the design criteria, FOM/FOA choose what tracks are included on the calendar and the track owners select and buy the piece of land for the track and set the commercial objectives of the track.

      Give Tilke Gmbh some good rules and good land, and they’ll probably give you an awesome track.

      • jamesd said on 15th March 2010, 6:43

        I agree with you that Tilke and his employees are undoubtably passoinate about their work and, seeing how many tracks they’ve been asked to design they are surely very highly thought of by those people in the know.

        My question is that if they end up designing an uninspiring track because of constraints placed upon them then do they not have enough influence on the process as a whole such that they can suggest the relaxation of some rules to get a better outcome?

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 16th March 2010, 0:22

        Give Tilke Gmbh some good rules and good land, and they’ll probably give you an awesome track.

        Which is pretty much what’s happened with Motorland Aragon in Spain, where F1 isn’t racing and is going to Catalunya and Valencia instead…

        • Elevation changes aside, what is there to recommend it though? There are no fast corners, a horrible chicane in the middle of the back straight and no ‘flow’ (something that appears to be anathema to a Tilke track). Compare Aragon to somewhere like Watkins Glen – no contest!

          Otherwise, I’m with you on all points raised. I despair when people talk about pitstops improving the racing. They might mix up the field, but isn’t *racing* supposed to be about the action on the track – not in the pitlane???

          *Sigh* :(

  8. perveze7 said on 15th March 2010, 5:18

    Bahrain was the first race & as a f1 fan i was also lookin for some wheel to wheel racing. Unfortunatly that did’nt happen , thanks to heavily fuel loaded cars & aero packages on these cars.
    Hope , atleast the concerned will take steps & bring back the sheer excitement which f1 actually is.

  9. David Smith said on 15th March 2010, 6:36

    F1 needs to go back to the 1980’s 1990’s I remember watching my first race brazil 1989 and all the overtaking that went on.

    Think Keith Sums it up when he says the cars are just ‘too’ Aero efficient and cant follow witness yesterday with Alonso catching Vettel and also the Engine usage needs to go again witness Massa being told to slow as he needs to save the engine.

    But One thing F1 doesnt need to do is bring through a host of knee jerk reactions, maybe a second mandatory pit stop would work who knows?

    I think the FIA need to open up a site where fans can again send in their ideas for better racing, after all…
    No Fans = No Sponsors
    No Sponsors = NO Money
    No Money = No F1
    Its refreshing when we hear team principals / drivers saying we need to improve the show for the people that pay…..

  10. Jonesracing82 said on 15th March 2010, 6:53

    there are 2 problems! 1 the tyres are too durable, they they “fell apart” (for want of a better term) after 10 laps we’d see action, like the start of last year when the tyres were too soft, and the biggest issue is still aerodynamics, pure n simple!

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 15th March 2010, 11:14

      I think the tyre situation is a lot more complicated than that. Remember how in practice the cars were destroying their tyres after a couple of laps, but it wasn’t a problem in the race?

      I wonder if the teams were a bit spooked by how the tyres weren’t holding up in practice and treated them very conservatively for the race. Remember the had zero testing in these temperatures in the off-season.

      I suspect that, armed with the information they got from tyre performance in yesterday’s race, they’ll be able to use them a bit more aggressively in future races. That’s what I hope, anyway.

      But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the aerodynamics is the biggest problem here.

      • The teams might be more aggressive with tyres in future races, but the cars’ relative speed and the timing of the first (only!) pitstop will always be dictated by the weakest link in the chain.

        (This reply has been re-posted having put it in the wrong place before).

      • Jim N said on 16th March 2010, 17:00

        Actually after a lot of thought, I think this boring race might just be the best thing for F1 for years! The drivers over the last god knows how many years have been relying on race strategy to win races, ie clever fuel loads, pit stop windows calculated to the second etc etc. That was the best and safest way to gain track position, overtaking on the track was only for when they were desperate and the strategy wasn’t working and so was very rare. It was almost always a team decision even to try to overtake as was clear from the pit radio. But now it seems there is no sensible race strategy to gain track position after the first corner. Eventually it should therefore dawn on the brighter racers that the only way to gain places it to risk it and try to overtake, lock the brakes, slither round the corner exactly the sort of thing that we often see in the first corner, but we have rarely seen later in the race for many years. Yes 9 times out of 10 it won’t work, sometimes it might end in tears, but sometimes it will succeed. I think this might finally break the “only overtake if it is safe to do so” attitude that seems to prevail, and if it does then …. Hooray!!

        • Gilles said on 16th March 2010, 21:02

          Jim,
          I couldn’t agree with you more; after 20 odd years of ‘pitstop overtaking’ it’s time the drivers earned their money to do their jobs: race & overtake other cars !
          After all, Jackie Stewart didn’t wait for the pitstop to overtake, did he ?

  11. BasCB said on 15th March 2010, 7:05

    So the FIA, FOTA, FOM and GPDA have to look at all tracks to get rid of fiddly bits. And agree on bringing KERS back this year (having teams choose the McLaren/Mercedes system or the Ferrari system, with outsider Williams – all of the shelve solutions)

    In the mean while make Bridgestone bring softer tyres to the race but make them softer, so the softer lasts only 5-8 (10-20% of the race) laps but be really fast and the harder tyres last only 50-60 % of the race. Maybe bring a 3rd compound lasting all the distance, if the driver takes care of his tyres.
    Get rid of the rule having the top 10 race on the tyres they qualified with and the mandatory use of 2 compounds.

  12. BasCB said on 15th March 2010, 7:08

    If they do not want to get rid of the qualifying tyre rule, maybe what James Allen said can be done:
    Have tyres with a little bit smaller differences, so qualifying will be on mixed tyres. Then the pit stops will be on different parts of the race as well, mixing it up a little bit.
    This still requires the soft tyres not to last for 50% of the race, though.

  13. Jonesracing82 said on 15th March 2010, 7:08

    all you peaople who say bringing back refuelling will solve the problem are kidding yourselves! we have had refualling in for years and in all honesty thats been no better than what we saw last night! look at last year for example! by early season were all complaining about how they cant follow each other etc, that has nothing to do with fuel loads, it’s all aerodynamic! the flip ups etc that have re-appeared on the front wings, sidepod wing mounts, and double diffusers, not to mention wings in general! thats the real issue here! i reckon “keith for OWG president” is the way to go, at least he listens to the fans and has a lot of common sense and doesnt want any gimmicks!

  14. It’s worth noting that some of just want refuelling back.

    Not that we believe it’s the panacea for all ills in F1.

    • TommyC said on 15th March 2010, 9:45

      seriously, who didn’t like the occasional pit lane fire? or driving off with the hose attatched? they were the good old days… well actually, i guess it wasn’t that good for those involved. poor kimi…

  15. BasCB said on 15th March 2010, 7:37

    In the long run, all stakeholders (The F-3 and GPDA) should really try to:

    1. increase mechanical grip (wider tyres, more powerfull engines, some ground effect). This will partly lessen the need to have the aerodynamical efficiency for grip
    2. Have more differences between cars (enabele someone to have a more powerfull engine, other car being lighter and nimbler but less powerfull etc, then some klever gizmos for overtaking, etc.). Bring back individual inventiveness and have teams follow their own development paths.
    3. Do this in a way not to mushroom the investments and spending (some spending restrictions or just having several solutions but make it hard to get all in 1 car at 1 time).

  16. Marc Connell said on 15th March 2010, 7:39

    I would hate to be a designer now…spending all that time to design a car what can accommodate a large tank. Engine designers to design a more efficient engine … all the rules to be all changed AGAIN? keep the no refueling for a few years. Maybe it will get better. Maybe bringing back turbos will give more overtaking…

  17. Lustigson said on 15th March 2010, 7:50

    If the powers that be so desperately want overtaking, take off the front and rear wings. That reduces aerodynamic dependency and would allow cars to follow eachother more closely through corners… and reduce lap times at the same time.

  18. Vincent said on 15th March 2010, 7:58

    Dear Keith, I’ve been following F1 for over thirty years myself, our reactions are not the one of amateurs, all you’re doing/saying si simply trying to save your own job/blog here. Don’t worry, hardcore fans will never leave. That said F1 is in real trouble, so here’s the deal, and just like so many other racing categories:

    TWO RACES THE SAME DAY:

    A 30 minutes sprint in the morning

    A one hour race in the afternoon

    NO MORE PIT STOPS

    • Lachie said on 15th March 2010, 10:37

      Of all the things people have said in this thread that would make them stop watching F1 this is it for me. Sprints and Enduros etc. are not Grands Prix. A Grand Prix is a special event and it is one race around 2 hours long. Done and dusted

    • beanzoo said on 15th March 2010, 12:26

      sounds like a gp2 or lower formula race weekend to me i’m not sure about that idea. as for the race it was no classic but i’ll be back in frount of the tv for the next one( unless someone wants to fly me there from ireland)

  19. Peter said on 15th March 2010, 7:59

    Keith,
    I disagree! I think the tension of the race was beautiful. This was the first race with the new rules and new cars and new front tires and new teams. I think we have to give them some time to get used to it, to get new strategies requires that you know what normally happens so you can try to overcome that. Thjis was the race necessary to get the normal things.
    I think Australia will be much more exciting because it normally is a better racing circuit than the Bahrain sandbox.
    What you see here is raw speed of the drivers and their cars. By the end of the race both wearing down.
    Besides, there was a lot of overtaking in the mid- and back- field. So cars not following each other is nonsense. At the front overtaking is harder but that is because the cars are so evenly matched. I mean Vettel took a 2 second lead in the first two laps and that was it! Alonso was still on his tail all the race. No mistakes allowed! I like that. We will see a lot of different race winners this year.

    • TommyC said on 15th March 2010, 9:48

      so you do agree…

      • Peter said on 15th March 2010, 14:59

        Yeah I think, re-reading makes the world look different ;-)

        I sometimes wonder if some of the posters here enjoy the pre-season more then the actual season. I can’t wait for the next race.

        I was looking at a few ESPN Classic Retro F1 shows lately and although F1 looks different the race is pretty much the same. That is why we all like it so much.

  20. John H said on 15th March 2010, 8:06

    Bridgestone need to make the tyres softer. That’s all.

    I’m not sure the overheating was a real problem, other than with the Ferraris because they had already changed both engines.

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