Overtaking in Formula One still a problem?

The Formula One technical regulations in 2009 were significantly changed in order to improve overtaking during races. Amongst the most notable of these changes were a much-welcomed return to slick tyres banned in 1998, a complete clean-up of the car bodywork with fins, winglets and other ugly pieces of aerodynamic junk to be chopped off.

Another significant change was the size of the front and rear wings with the front wing being lower, wider and the rear wing being narrower and taller. These changes were put into place by the Overtaking Working Group – a collection of engineers from some of Formula One’s top teams with the aim being to reduce the amount of dirty air that has seen overtaking opportunities severely limited for several years as when one car follows another, aerodynamic handling is compromised by the hot, dirty air. With the addition of the KERS device it was hoped that this would aid overtaking too.

 The cars overall looked a lot more attractive too, but would these changes improve the action during a Grand Prix? The Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne was exciting and seemed to show that the cars were definitely capable of following much closer and being able to overtake. The trend continued into the Malaysian Grand Prix where we also got an entertaining four-car duel for third place between Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Timo Glock and Rubens Barrichello… until the early evening monsoons came along and spoiled the race courtesy of Bernie Ecclestone’s ridiculous idea to start the race later just to cater for fans who were too lazy to get up early.

The Chinese Grand Prix was another entertaining race but this time the rain intervened as normally races at the Shanghai track are horribly dull affairs. Then when the F1 circus arrived in Bahrain we had the first dull race of the season… a blip? No… every race since then apart from Spa, Monza to an extent and the midfield action at Silverstone have seen a return to the dreaded processions we had hoped to see the last of from 2008 had returned… but why? In this article we intend to look into why we still have processions.

We are losing more and more “classic” circuits from the calendar, with Montreal falling foul of Bernie’s greedy money games. Most of the dull races this year have been on tracks designed by much-despised track designer Hermann Tilke, he has also taken some of our favourite classic tracks and butchered them to the point we no longer recognise them… Hockenheim for instance. Tilke designs his tracks to be very wide but puts in corners which he appears to be obsessed with, the most common one being a long straight leading to a pointlessly super-tight hairpin and lots of very short straights and long, unimaginative corners. The Circuit de Catalunya whilst not designed by Tilke is a track that has only ever produced two exciting races since its introduction to the calendar back in 1991, so it’s no surprise that the 2009 race was going to be another yawn-fest.

The next race sees a welcome return to the classic Suzuka circuit which was built by the late John Hugenholz who also designed Zaandvoort another classic which is still used in other forms of Motorsport, will we see a good race at Suzuka this weekend? We also have Interlagos to come, but then the season finale takes us to the new Yas Island Abu Dhabi circuit another Tilke creation and I don’t like the look of it… however we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover just yet.

An interesting aspect to look into is the driver psychology, because at this year’s Australian Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel attempted to defend his second place from a very fast Robert Kubica in the closing laps. The two collided as a result and both cars retired from the race. Vettel was very apologetic but the FIA stewards took a very dim view to this and hit Vettel with a 10 place grid drop for the next race. Since then Vettel appears to get nervous when he is trying to defend or overtake now particularly at Turkey when he tried to get past Button on a very light fuel load the same way Lewis Hamilton did on Felipe Massa in 2008. This may be a result of Vettel hesitating due to the FIA being eager to dish out overly harsh penalties for drivers messing up when trying to overtake.

A lot of the key factors still also lie in the design of the cars, when the Overtaking Working Group began to design the 2009 regulations they were designing them around the principles that downforce is greatly reduced and the cars rely a lot more on the driver and mechanical grip. There is still a lot that could be done to increase mechanical grip and one good way this could be done is by re-widening the cars back to 1997 regulations. This would in turn make the car “bulkier” and would allow a bigger hole in the air to be “punched” by the car creating a bigger and more effective slipstreaming effect, thus in turn allowing for a much better overtaking opportunity.

Due to the increase of braking technology the braking distances are becoming shorter and shorter and this is one theory which forumula1.com user scotty believes is hampering overtaking. Next year sees the banning of the ugly and unsafe wheel-rim covers which are designed to improve brake-duct cooling, so drivers theoretically may either have to brake more gently or brake earlier.

Whilst on the subject of regulation changes for 2010, the front tyres will be made narrower allowing for better car balance when turning in and refuelling during a race is to be banned. This will turn the races into economy runs and the most successful drivers will be the ones able to manage their fuel load and not run out in the closing laps. Whether this improves the action remains to be seen, but we can remain hopeful because it has worked before.

We now come to what could be the biggest cause of the overtaking problems which we still see the Double Decked Diffuser. At the start of the season there was a big row over the diffusers as used by Brawn, Williams and Toyota as others claimed they were in breach of the 2009 technical regulations, although eventually the diffusers were declared legal and Ross Brawn revealed that he offered to assist the teams in identifying the “loopholes” in the regulations that allowed the manufacture of the diffuser.

In the first two races of the season the only teams to run the Double Decked Diffuser were obviously Brawn, Toyota and Williams. Now you may remember that I mentioned the first two races in the dry were very entertaining, it wasn’t until China when Renault, McLaren and BMW were adding interim diffusers to the cars, and this was a wet race, when we got to Bahrain, the action we saw in Melbourne and Sepang was gone, and now everybody is using Double Decked Diffusers. A coincidence? Maybe not… at the start of the Australian Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello got caught up in some first corner drama and his diffuser was damaged, but he was still on the pace and able to overtake other cars, and these were cars not yet using the diffuser. In that race, the only cars that struggled to overtake were the Toyotas when they came up to Fernando Alonso whose Renault started the season with KERS and he was using it to defend.

If it is the Double Decked Diffuser that is causing overtaking to still be problematic have the teams realised this yet? What else can be done to improve overtaking? We all yearn for a return to V10’s, 3.5 Litre engines or Turbos but with the current FIA in place this may never happen. What is certain is that the Overtaking Working Group need to get their thinking caps back on.