x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Twists and turns ahead for Yas Marina Circuit

As changes are considered, Gary Meenaghan and Graham Caygill take a look at the areas in question at the capital's F1 venue.

Jenson Button leads the way out of Turn 7 during last year's race in the capital.
Jenson Button leads the way out of Turn 7 during last year's race in the capital.

As Yas Marina Circuit officials ponder whether to make changes to the two-year-old track, doubts remain about the effect of the possible alterations - and if they are even necessary.

The track set a deadline of May 31 to make a decision, and officials are examining how the alterations would affect racing, the cost of such changes and whether they are still needed in light of new regulations in Formula One.

The proposed changes would affect Turns Five through Nine. While ostensibly being made to ensure the track is race-ready for a potential MotoGP event - possibly as early as next year, but more likely in 2013 - Yas organisers were also keen to respond to feedback they received from drivers after last year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The changes were intended to aid overtaking, a reaction to the criticism received following November's season-ending race where Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, while competing for the world championship, found himself stuck in traffic and unable to pass Vitaly Petrov's notably slower Renault.

However, with new Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (Kers) and adjustable rear wings having been introduced this season, Formula One racing has appeared rejuvenated. This month's Turkish Grand Prix witnessed 79 successful on-track passing manoeuvres, more than any race since 1983.

As it stands at Yas, the three quick turns that lead into the long back straight - a weaving kink followed by a hairpin - allow for only one car at a time. If two closely matched cars approach the section of the track together, with only one clear driving line, the car slightly behind is obliged to concede to his rival.

Then, negotiating in tandem, the driver behind can only watch as the car in front accelerates out of the Turn Seven hairpin and disappears down the straight towards Turn Eight.

Unless the trailing car has a notable speed advantage in a straight line it is, to borrow the term used by Jean Todt, president of the sport's world governing body, almost "impossible" for them to close back up to the car they are chasing before they enter the braking zone at the end of the straight.

This was the situation Alonso repeatedly found himself in during his doomed chase of Petrov last year.

There are naturally exceptions, and overtaking has been evident during the circuit's two grands prix, but more often than not it has been due to a car advantage or driver error.

In 2009, Kamui Kobayashi's Toyota passed Jenson Button's Brawn-GP, but that was primarily due to a weight difference courtesy of Button's earlier refuelling.

Likewise, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton both managed passes at Turn Eight last year, but were competing in far superior cars to their competitors and had fresher grip at the time of their attacks.

The proposal by organisers to widen the track is unlikely to increase passing in Turns Five through Seven, but by allowing two cars to pass through simultaneously it offers variable driving lines, resulting in a faster exit out of Turn Seven and tighter battles on the straight - a change that could be made all the more exciting by the sport's new regulations.

Christian Horner, the team principal of Red Bull Racing, the constructors' champions, said that driver Webber had, in Malaysia and China, "passed about 20 cars, which is probably more than he's done in the past five years".

Horner said: "It's certainly assisted the drivers and, historically, those two races have been quite static races. Strategy is now a crucial element and part of that strategy is that you've got to overtake and certainly the tools that we now have encourage that."

After China, where Webber fought from 18th on the grid to finish third, the Australian said that overtaking was becoming too easy. Such a school of thought has caused Yas Marina officials to consider whether their planned changes are required anymore, or whether they can hold off.

Also, closing the track for upgrading would result in loss of revenue from other motorsports events that the circuit hosts.

Regardless of whether the alterations take place this year or next, Heikki Kovalainen, the Team Lotus driver, does not believe they will make much difference to Abu Dhabi's annual race.

"The problem at Yas is actually Turn Three and Turn Four," he said. "I don't know if the changes discussed will work at all, because Three and Four are too fast, so you struggle to follow and get close enough to make a move by the time you arrive at Five. It sounds like it might not help the problem."

Organisers are also set to modify turns Eight and Nine - the chicane at the end of the back straight - to make it more conducive to overtaking. The chicane would be widened and softened so cars can negotiate it at higher speed. Currently, as the driver approaches the end of the back straight, under heavy braking, there is only one line through the chicane that leads to the track's second lengthy straight. With the proposed redesign, an alternative line will be available leaving drivers with various options as they look to exit the chicane.

A tighter defensive exit from Turn Nine may be cleaner and a more likely way of holding a position if challenged, but it might not be as fast as a wider exit, which could allow more speed to be built up on the straight for the next corner.

Again, it would not guarantee overtaking, but it would provide the driver behind with an opportunity and the one in front something to think about.

With the cars' new regulations, however, drivers argue that the track design is no longer so crucial in the quest for overtaking, while some circuits provide great racing even if they are not conducive to passing.

"You've got circuits like Brazil, which always delivers good races," Horner said. "But there are certain circuits, like Monte Carlo, that don't lend themselves to good overtaking yet always have the habit of throwing up good races."