Expect to hear a lot more drivers complaining about being stuck in traffic in the next rounds of the championship.
The next four tracks on the calendar are on average 1.2km shorter than the first four. They include Monaco, the shortest and narrowest track in F1, where traffic will prove a major headache in qualifying and the race.
With four more cars on the track than last year, and six of them lapping considerably slower than the rest, F1’s front runners are having to cope with traffic much more than they used to.
Three of the next four circuits are less than 5km long and that means we’re going to hear a lot more about traffic in the next few races.
It’s a particular concern in qualifying. Vitantonio Liuzzi has repeatedly blamed traffic for his poor performances in qualifying. The Force India driver has been out-qualified four-nil by team mate Adrian Sutil so far this year.
With the entire field trying to set a quick time in a 20-minute segment in Q1, mostly at the end of the session when the track is at its quickest, the teams and drivers both have roles to play in making sure their car has clean air to lap in.
The teams carefully choose when to send their cars out on track based on who’s already out and when they’re likely to come in. Have a look at McLaren’s commentary during qualifying on their website to see this in action.
For the fastest cars this means having enough space in front of them so that they won’t catch another car. For the likes of HRT it means having enough space behind them that they won’t be caught.
To get an idea of just how difficult this is, let’s crunch the numbers for Monaco.
The Monte-Carlo circuit measures 3.34km long. Virgin say their car is 5.5 metres long, so let’s assume that’s typical for the grid. Therefore if all 24 cars are out on track nose-to-tail that leaves 3.208km of ‘clean air’ to race in.
If we space out all the cars evenly that leaves just 134m between each car. As we saw last week the HRTs are at best 6% slower than the Red Bulls. So if Sebastian Vettel starts his flying lap behind Karun Chandhok he’ll gain 189m on the HRT driver over the course of his lap.
On top of that remember drivers need to keep out of the ‘dirty air’ of the car in front. Expect them to need at least 100m for that. When Fernando Alonso was penalised for holding up Felipe Massa in qualifying at Monza four years ago the gap between the cars was around 80-90m.
Given that, it’ll be a surprise if we get through Saturday at Monte-Carlo without at least one grid penalty for impeding.
At least in qualifying drivers can get out of the way on their out- or -in-laps. In the race they won’t want to lose too much time letting the leaders by. Fortunately for the front runners F1 has strict blue flag rules which force backmarkers to get out of the way quickly.
Even so, leaders can still lose time behind lapped cars and getting by them quickly is important – especially if the leader has a rival on their tail. Here the track layout plays a big role. Some circuits offer more convenient places to get by lapped cars than others.
If Alonso is leading at home in Spain and he catches Lucas di Grassi on the Circuit de Catalunya’s long main straight the Ferrari driver can breeze past without a worry.
But he won’t want to catch the Virgin driver in the final sector where the corners come thick and fast with little in the way of straights. Worst of all would be to get held up at the chicane, allowing a chasing rival onto his tail on that main straight.
With traffic set to be such a concern in the next few races no wonder the FIA wanted to make sure the drivers have wing mirrors they can actually see out of. This is the correct approach – the onus on getting past slower cars should fall to the drivers.
Traffic isn’t a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’ with longer, wider tracks. Nor do we need even tighter blue flag rules – they already make life rather too easy for the leading drivers.
Finding a clear spot for a qualifying lap and getting through traffic in the race is part of the challenge of being an F1 driver. Keep that in mind if we hear a chorus of whingeing about traffic in the coming weeks.
Read more: Should blue flags be banned? (Poll)
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