Following the incredible Chinese Grand Prix two weeks ago, I started gushing into a new post about how wonderfully F1′s new technical environment has worked out.
Then I got the flu for two weeks and realised we’ve only had three races and it’s still far too early to tell just which of the three new ‘toys’ for 2011 are worth keeping. If you are not sure what I mean by F1′s new toys, have a look at this explanation from Michael Schumacher.
On the face of it, the results speak for themselves; three races, three fascinating contests. However, many are arguing that this latest set of regulations are creating some sort of artificial racing, making passing too easy and taking the skill out of an overtake.
I don’t buy into that.
DRS has probably been the more controversial innovation.
The Drag Reduction System allows a driver to activate a movable section on their rear wing that reduces the downforce, enabling the driver to achieve a higher top speed and assist with an overtake. Some have criticised the rules regulating the use of the system: “It can be used at any time in practice and qualifying (unless a driver is on wet-weather tyres), but during the race can only be activated when a driver is less than one second behind another car at pre-determined points on the track.”
Others simply suggested that it makes overtaking a formality removing the skill from the activity.
While it is easy to conclude that if in a straight fight between two cars, one car can use a button that the other cannot, then the system is unfair. However this assessment ignores a key advantage that the car in front maintains; the turbulent air following the car. Formula1.com provide this explanation:
“One of the most important factors in Formula One overtaking is that of aerodynamic efficiency. As a car gets progressively closer to the rear of an opponent’s car, it moves into the ‘bubble’ of turbulent air being created.
This has two effects, one positive and one negative.
On straights this bubble gives what is known as a ‘tow’, slightly reducing the air resistance of the car behind and (all else being even) allowing it a slight performance advantage – hence the reason cars are often seen very close together just before an overtaking attempt.
“The problem comes with the second aerodynamic effect, found in corners, where the reduced airflow acting on the wings of the second car will dramatically decrease aerodynamic downforce, and hence grip – meaning that the car behind will typically be forced to drop back, or to pick a different cornering line in ‘clean air’.”
In the early part of this video Martin Brundle describes the effect of the turbulent air when following Mark Blundell through the Maggots and Beckets complex of fast corners at Silverstone.
While the driver behind does have the benefit of the ‘tow’ on the straight, they are frequently unable to get close enough through the corners leading to a straight to take advantage of it.
The movable rear wing is designed to enhance the tow to give the driver a chance to get close enough to the back of a car after the exit of a corner, creating an opportunity to fight for position.
We have seen in numerous instances DRS does not result in a guaranteed pass.
In China, Alonso had a long battle with Schumacher and Nico Rosberg missed the corner apex when attempting to pass Felipe Massa, resulting in Massa retaking the position and Mark Webber going past both of them. What DRS does do create an opportunity that does not exist in two relatively evenly matched cars.
The counter-point to this argument is that if a driver is skillful enough they will find a way to get the pass done. In some cases this is true but I have sat through more processional grand prix over the years than I can remember, which suggests that engineering and aerodynamics often trump driver skill.
Few would argue that Fernando Alonso and Vitaly Petrov are in the same class when it comes to driving skill, yet for all of his skill Alonso could not find a way past Petrov for the bulk of the championship decider at Abu Dhabi last year.
For me, regardless of the technical regulations, when a race car is driving within a meter or two of another car at 320km/h and attempting to overtake while slowing to less than 100km/h and take the correct line through a corner, the racing is absolutely authentic.
How well these new regulations work out overall remains to be seen, but if the choice is between a clever aerodynamic solution to an old aerodynamic problem or processional races where qualifying and pit strategy determine the finishing order, and even the most skillful drivers can not make a pass, I’ll take the clever solution with on track action any day of the week.