x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Formula One's passing fancy: A special report on overtaking

Race in Istanbul earlier this month had the most on-track position changes since 1983. A look at the changes that have made overtaking easier.

There were plenty of overtaking opportunities at the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park on May 8 this year.
There were plenty of overtaking opportunities at the Turkish Grand Prix at Istanbul Park on May 8 this year.

There is something in the water in Turkey, and it is not the colossal oil tankers that dot the Bosphorus Strait.

In 2010, the top of the Formula One World Championship standings changed nine times during the 19-race season. But on only three occasions did the lead in a race change thanks to a successful overtaking manoeuvre.

Two of the passes took place at the Turkish Grand Prix held at Istanbul Park and both arrived in the space of a few seconds. With nine laps remaining, Lewis Hamilton was overtaken by McLaren-Mercedes teammate Jenson Button before returning to the front of the pack three turns later having usurped his usurper.

Overtaking was such a struggle and so scarcely seen that new devices aimed at making it more possible were introduced this year.

The Drag Reduction System (DRS) and Kinetic Energy Recovery System (Kers), as well as new quick-wearing tyres, have all proved successful in their objective of increasing the racing spectacle.

Last week at Istanbul Park, the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix did not produce much of a contest for the lead - pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel was flawlessly unassailable - but it did offer up plenty of overtaking behind Red Bull Racing's dominant German.

In fact, Turun Sanomat, the Finnish daily newspaper, reported that the 79 on-track passes that occurred in Turkey on May 8 is the highest number of overtaking manoeuvres since the United States Grand Prix West at Long Beach, California, in 1983.

That ease of passing contrasts sharply with the problems drivers faced last season, problems epitomised by Fernando Alonso's inability to get past Vitaly Petrov with the season championship at stake at Yas Marina Circuit.

"It is day and night in terms of difference and that's a mega-success," Michael Schumacher said.

"The best example I can give you is Fernando last year in Abu Dhabi, clearly being quicker, and fighting for the championship, and being stuck in traffic in a normal race traffic situation.

"That used to be our life, that if you weren't quick in the right point of the track you wouldn't pass, even though you were miles quicker than the guy in front of you."

The debate surrounding overtaking, and the lack thereof, was for many years focused on whether the blame lay with the cars or the circuits at which they raced.

This year's mechanical innovations have undoubtedly improved drivers' ability to pass, but Abu Dhabi Grand Prix organisers still intend to implement changes to their two-year-old circuit.

Following criticism from the F1 fraternity last year and in a bid to accommodate a MotoGP race in the future, turns six and seven and the hairpin bend that lead into the track's first long straight will be widened to allow two cars to pass through simultaneously; the two turns at the end of the straight will also be altered, according to media reports. Richard Cregan, the Yas Marina Circuit chief executive, said he hoped the changes would "add to the show".

The precise attributes that make a track good for overtaking are clear, said Heikki Kovalainen, the Team Lotus driver.

"You need two slow corners and a straight line or a little kink and a hairpin and a straight line," he said. "Or two straight lines and two slow corners; that's guaranteed."

Mike Gascoyne, Kovalainen's chief technical officer at Lotus, said that altering track layouts is no longer a necessity now that Pirelli have provided the 12 race teams with "a very cost-effective way to get very exciting racing".

He also suggested that it remains too early to draw any conclusions on the effectiveness of the new regulations.

"We've tried many times to change the cars to promote overtaking and it's proved very, very difficult, almost impossible," he said.

"But with the changes that we've made on the tyres and the type of racing that's now giving us, we need to wait and look at some of those circuits that traditionally have been very processional races."

The calendar's next two events - this weekend in Barcelona and next weekend in Monaco - could provide a litmus test. Historically, neither track is conducive to passing.

The Circuit de Catalunya in Spain has been host to the Spanish Grand Prix since 1991, yet even with recent alterations it has failed to produce anything other than processional races with the last 10 grands prix all being won by the driver who started the race at the front of the grid.

"Barcelona is the real test," Kovalainen said. "I suspect we will have more overtaking, but if we don't, we have made a mistake somewhere."

Monaco, meanwhile, is one of the most popular races of the year, yet with its narrow winding track, overtaking is notoriously difficult.

Concerns have grown regarding the principality's race after the FIA announced DRS will be available. With such a tight and twisting track, safety is paramount and the options for the DRS zone - the area of the track in which drivers may use the power-enhancing adjustable rear wing - are limited.

Hispania Racing's Vitantonio Liuzzi, however, has faith that the world motorsport's governing body, will act sensibly.

"It's a difficult choice, but I'm sure the FIA will make the right decision," he said.

"For sure, DRS is making racing more artificial because the difference in speed is huge once you use it and overtakes are much easier. But the problem is that when there was not much overtaking, people complained, too."

Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver who in China last month was able to fight his way from 18th on the grid up to third, had said recently he thought passing was becoming too easy; sentiments echoed by Renault's Petrov in Turkey last week.

However, the Ferrari pair Alonso and Felipe Massa believe it has improved the sport, while Schumacher said it makes racing "more fair".

Kovalainen believes the FIA have got it just right and that further changes could damage the sport.

"If we can improve on what we have had in the past by way of these new regulations, which seems the case, then it's fine," said the Team Lotus driver, whose car is not fitted with Kers. "But I don't think we need any more than this because then it becomes too artificial, too easy and it's not interesting any more. We should not go any further than this."


F1 explained

What is Kers?

Kinetic Energy Recovery System is a device that stores the energy generated from braking and redistributes it as additional power, made available to the driver in fixed quantities by way of a “boost button” affixed to the steering wheel. Around 80 brake horsepower is available for up to 6.67 seconds per lap, which can reduce lap times by close to 0.4 seconds. Drivers tend to use Kers on long straights where they can most benefit from the additional acceleration. Kers returned to the sport this season after a one-year hiatus, although not all cars have chosen to install it because of its high cost.

What is DRS?

The Drag Reduction System, operated by way of a steering-wheel-mounted button, involves the car’s rear wing being able to open and close at specific times. This improves the car’s aerodynamics by reducing resistance and can provide a driver with up to an additional 13kph. It can, however, only be activated inside the pre-determined DRS zone and only when the driver is less than one second behind another car. With the operating car enjoying a surge in speed in a key overtaking section of the track, it makes it more possible to pass a less aerodynamic rival.