Many fans feel overtaking is one of the most exciting parts of a Formula 1 race. Every driver wants to finish the race first and so overtaking is one of the most important parts of a race to a driver. There are two main types of overtaking – gaining track position over an opponent by physically passing them on the track, and overtaking in the pitlane when one team has a better pit stop than another. This is more of a strategy that ‘proper’ overtaking.
Overtaking is usually because one car is faster than an another and the second car is going sufficiently faster than the car in front to make an overtaking attempt. The higher the speed difference, the easier the overtake should be. However, most Formula 1 cars have roughly the same performance meaning overtaking is carried out with only small differences in speed. This means overtaking requires a lot of skill, commitment and bravery from the driver.
As a Formula 1 car gets closer to the car in front, it moves into an area of turbulent air. The up-side of this is that it will be ‘towed’ by the car in front, because the lead car slightly reduces the air resistance of the car behind it, allowing the following car a slight performance advantage. However, the down-side is that the reduced airflow on the wings of the second car will reduce aerodynamic downforce significantly, particularly during a corner. This means grip is decreased. Drivers will often drop back in a corner, or follow a slightly different line so they drive in ‘clean’ air to ensure they keep good grip whilst cornering.
Overtaking manouevres can also be made under braking – either at the end of being ‘towed’ into the corner, or because the second car has better braking than the first. If the second car has more grip than the first, the driver may also be able to overtake around a corner by taking a different line to the ‘optimum’ race line and overtake around the outside.
If a driver has another driver directly behind him, he will probably adopt a very defensive manner of driving. This means he will try to reduce the angle available for the car behind to use whilst going into corners, where there is an increased chance of overtaking happnening. Providing the driver ahead changes only his line going into the corner and does not deliberately attempt to block the overtaking car, there are no problems. Narrowing the car behind’s angle through corners can make the overtaking car take a later apex and it may run wide. This means that if the overtake is successful, the overtaken car may still get back in front again becuase the overtaking car may be too far off line. Defensive driving tends to slow both cars down siginificantly which is why battling drivers may put in slower lap times than the other cars around them.
Event officials are constantly monitoring overtaking battles to ensure the drivers are playing fair and no dangerous driving is taking place. If the officials do see any dangerous driving, the drivers will be called before the race stewards and they may be penalised.