Does Formula 1 really have an overtaking problem?

The 2009 season will bring a completely new look to Formula 1, with one of the most drastic and far-reaching overhauls of the rulebook in the sport’s history. The only comparable change I can think of in my lifetime is the rules brought in for 1998 (grooved tyres and narrower cars), but even that pales in comparison to what will happen for 2009.

The new rules are being brought in partly to remedy the perceived lack of overtaking in F1. The various aerodynamic devices that have appeared over the past decade or so are said to create ‘dirty air’ which makes it very difficult for one car to follow closely to another, therefore reducing the amount of overtaking. These devices will be outlawed from 2009.

Furthermore, rear wings will be made taller and narrower, and front wings will be wider. F1 Wolf has tried to describe what the new cars will look like. If you have a copy of the August 2008 issue of F1 Racing, you will see a good illustration of a typical 2009 F1 car on page 102–103.

The FIA was basically forced to admit that the problem with ‘dirty air’ had become serious when Fernando Alonso was penalised during qualifying for the 2006 Italian Grand Prix for supposedly impeding Felipe Massa. You can view a video of the full lap including the infamous incident below.

The car in front of Massa is Fernando Alonso, but he always stayed a large distance in front of Massa. But Massa stumbled on the final corner of the lap, Parabolica (at 1:05 on the video). Even though Fernando Alonso was so far ahead of Massa, the ‘dirty air’ caused by Alonso was deemed to have prevented Massa from setting a fast lap. No wonder, therefore, that overtaking is such a rarity in F1.

But is overtaking as rare as the doom-mongers make out? The way some people go on, you would think that there were only about a dozen overtaking manoeuvres all season. But according to the June 2008 edition of F1 Racing, there were in fact 270 on-track overtaking moves pulled off in the 2007 season. Interestingly enough, Felipe Massa topped the table, completing a total of 20 overtaking manoeuvres during the season. The Japanese Grand Prix alone contained 46 passes.

To clarify, this does not include positions gained in the pitlane or as a result of retirements. Nor do the figures include any passes made on the first lap of a race. Because of the methodology adopted by F1 Racing, the statistics will also omit any instance where a driver overtook then got overtaken again later on in the same lap.

My own view is that the theory that there used to be more overtaking in F1 is utter bobbins. For a start, no-one seems to be able to agree when F1 did have more overtaking. Most people talk vaguely about the past. Many people on the BBC’s 606 discussion board decided that there was more overtaking in F1 ten years ago. But an article on Grandprix.com bemoaning the lack of overtaking in F1 was written thirteen years ago — and could as easily have been written today.

Is it not possible that these people are all looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles? It is notable to me that when harking back to the past it is often the same few races that are cited over and over again.

Yeah, so there was an ace wheel-to-wheel battle between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux in the 1979 French Grand Prix. But that wasn’t emulated in any other grand prix in 1979, nor in any GP in 1980 or 1978 either. In other words, it was a one-off. Note Murray Walker’s commentary: “There has never been a more exciting battle for a major position than this one” — and that was before the real fireworks started!

You can argue whether or not F1 needs more overtaking or if it has the balance just right. We all like to see a great overtaking manoeuvre. But the reason an overtaking manoeuvre is so great is precisely because it is so rare. If you artificially encourage overtaking, it will become devalued.

Keith Collantine had a great post about this last year. The last thing F1 should do is follow the “Nascar example”. Overtaking is so common in Nascar that a move is scarcely worth mentioning — so what’s the point? I would agree that GP2 has the balance right.

GP2 does have its own boring processions from time to time. But the occasional boring race is inevitable. Unless you want your sports dumbed down to a horrendous extent like they are in America, true sporting contests are not always designed to be entertainment spectacles. A processional F1 race is like a 0-0 draw in football. We don’t like it, but we live through it for the high times.

One of the proposed changes for 2009 threatens to devalue overtaking. I have mentioned the wider front wings already. What I didn’t mention is an extra feature the front wings will have — an adjustable flap. The flaps are huge and drivers will be allowed to adjust them by six degrees as much as twice per lap.

This, to me, is just a terrible idea on so many levels. For one thing, it smacks of A1GP-style gimmickery. Formula 1 is supposed to be about pure racing — a fast person and a fast car, end of. “Push to pass”-style schemes can be left to the mickey mouse series as far as I am concerned.

For another thing it seems to me that the drivers will quickly find out where the optimal time to adjust their wing is during practice. If each driver is able to make two adjustments per lap, they will make those two adjustments at the same two points on every lap. So the cars will all go faster and slower in the same places. How is this supposed to encourage overtaking?

15 comments

  1. There was a time when there was a lot of overtaking in F1 and no-one ever complained about it. Gilles Villeneuve used the dirty air argument to complain about the lack of overtaking. The problem really started in the late 70s when aerodynamics started to get more sophisticated and tracks started to be slowed down and the chicane epidemic started.

    The problem is simple the cars are simply to fast for the tracks. The only way to improve the racing is to drastically cut the aero and preferably remove the front wing and slow the cars down.

    Forix used to have a list of lead changes in GPs and it was not uncommon in the 60s for the lead to change 40 times and none of that was due to pit stops. In races at Monza the number of lead changes was simply stunning and bear in mind these are only lead changes at the start/finish line. I read an item about JYS recently in either F1 Racing or Motor Sport where he was talking about GP at Silverstone where he thought he and Rindt exchanged the lead about 30 times. Imagine Hamilton and Raikkonen running nose to tail for a race distance and challenging each other’s postition at every corner. Does that really sound boring. Overtaking is boring in NASCAR because you have a huge pack of cars which looks like a fast motorway. You cannot compare NASCAR to real racing.

    People who saw GPs from the 60s into the 70s still think that was the best era regardless of what they saw before or since. We now have a lot of people who think F1 has to be a technology showcase but there is no doubt the best racing was produced when practically everyone ran Cosworth DFVs and Hewland garboxes. Wings should have been banned as soon as they appeared and had that happened we would not have been deprived of proper racing for 25 years and no-one would have told us that we should think of motor racing like chess.

    Next years rule changes will not solve the problem.

  2. I totally agree. I’ve used the football comparison before myself. A goal is worth so much time and effort, and getting close is so much more exciting and stressful exactly because it doesn’t happen often.

    I hope you are right and the new rules don’t spice up the action, at least not much.

    However I do like the way GP2 cars don’t seem to have to follow the racing line as much as F1 cars need to, and if this is an aerodynamic thing, then I welcome those sorts of changes.

    KERS is another story. The problem I have with push-to-pass is that it promises a free ride. Even if it doesn’t work out that way, it’s gimmicky and takes away from being a professional. Anyone can press a button; it takes confidence and experience and often being a smart-arse to get a slower driver to ‘let’ you through.

  3. I’m not sure that the new rules won’t work. I’m sure they won’t do what Max intends, but I think they may help to create overtaking opportunities at existing circuits, where current aerodynamics are making it too hard to pass. For example, back straights like in Bahrain, Malaysia and the Nurburgring may be long enough to get a good slipstream with cleaner aero.

    The real problem is that we may not know if these rules work for a couple of years, as some insiders (I think notably Gascoyne and Symonds) are talking about a larger gap between car speeds next year, as all teams will try (hopefully) different things to optimise these rule changes.

    As always, I am both excited and extremely nervous to see what Mad Maso Max-a-Million has forced down our throats this time! And if it doesn’t work, there’s always the Centre Downwash Wing or whatever that bright vision for the future was called….

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone!

    By the way, I forgot to mention in the post that this is the first of a two-part post. A couple of you have touched on KERS, which I focus on more in the second post which is due to be published tonight.

    Steven: Thanks for letting me know about the lap changes in the 1960s. I did spend quite a while looking for some decent statistics about overtaking, but couldn’t find any.

    But I have to disagree with you when you say that constant changes in the lead would not be boring. For one thing, if the guys are overtaking each other 30 times a lap, a move doesn’t even mean anything, because his opponent is as likely to get him straight away again. Today if someone pulls off an overtaking move it was a herculean effort and he is more likely to keep the place. For me, that’s what makes it so special. Plus, if overtaking because as common as 30 times per lap per driver it will become almost as mundane as just taking a corner. It’s good to see a driver take a corner well, but it’s nothing special.

    Friend of Max: I think the reason GP2 cars can do that is simply because they are slower than F1 cars. You could increase the amount of overtaking at the click of a finger simply by increasing the braking distances — but this would conflict with the raison d’être of F1 which is speed.

    Toby: I doubt you will see any overtaking on long back straights because engines are limited to 19,000rpm at the moment which means that acceleration hits a brick wall halfway through a long straight. See this post on F1 Fanatic for more. Unfortunately the video is no longer there, but it convinced me that Keith from F1 Fanatic is right on this one.

  5. I dunno. I remember watching a MotoGP race a few years back (if I may be forgiven for speaking about our unmentionable two wheeled cousins on an F1 forum) with Rossi and Gibernau battling for the lead. They traded blows lap after lap, and it seemed every corner one overtook the other for the lead.

    It was thrilling, edge of your seat stuff, and I barely breathed until the end. That was what F1 racing should be.

    Although I guess you have a point that it wouldn’t be so thrilling if that happened every race – but I’d like the chance to test that theory out.

  6. This year’s MotoGP race at Laguna Seca was a bit like that actually. However, it was followed by a dull procession in Brno which — even worse — was also affected by F1-style “tyre war” woes where Bridgestone clearly had the upper hand and Michelins were nowhere (yawn).

    Something I forgot to mention in my last comment was that you don’t even need drivers to be trading blows lap after lap for the outcome to be uncertain. The 2006 San Marino Grand Prix was thrilling, and you just didn’t know who was going to win — but there was no overtaking. On the other hand, you could argue that that grand prix perfectly demonstrated the problem F1 has, which is that Alonso was clearly the fastest driver but couldn’t get past Schumacher.

  7. What nonsense:

    1] 270 passes is incredibly pi** poor when in 1983 there were 666 passes

    The worst races of 2007 being:
    he 2007 overtaking figures for the road course/type tracks:

    Australia 8
    France 6
    Spain 5
    Hungary 3
    Monaco 2

    Lucky for those wet/partial wet races.

    2] GP2 has ground-effects channels and slicks witch F1 doesn’t have. It had once when there where over 600 passes but not now.

    3] The FIA was basically forced to admit that the problem with ‘dirty air’ ever since they begun reducing the size of the wings in the early 1990s in the hope to reduce downforce the wake turbulence it caused.

    4] A1GP trickery ?!

    Movable aero comes from the awesome CAN-AM Chaparrals of the great Jim Hall witch F1 borrowed on the 1968 and early 1969 cars.
    But these adjustable wings where high mounted to get them out of the slipstream, and when they where banned the problem really begun.

    This is the problem with modern “media”.
    Everyone with a keybord and internet access becomes an expert.

  8. …including you, I notice.

    DOF_power, I suspect you have missed my point. Your statistics about the amount of overtaking in the past say nothing about how exciting people found them. My post was designed to ask whether quantity of overtaking is really worth sacrificing the quality. You have told me that quantity above all is what is important, and have failed to engage in the question I actually asked.

    Steven Roy says that F1 had more overtaking in the 1960s, and you say it had more overtaking in the 1980s. I don’t dispute this. But given that F1 as a sport is multiple times more popular, and as a business is infinitely more successful, than it was in the 1960s, I think it’s quite a valid question to ask if people really want just sheer numbers from their overtaking or if they want to see quality moves.

    I really do have to disagree with you about quantity being so important. The Villeneuve-vs-Arnoux battle is a fine case in point. It is a thrilling battle to watch, but they only pass each other a few times. It wasn’t the amount of overtaking that made that battle exciting — it was the quality of the racing that captivated.

    To clarify, my problem with the adjustable front wing flaps is that they are arbitrarily limited to six adjustments per lap — an A1GP-style push-to-pass system. Now I don’t think I’m unusual in thinking that this is a bad idea because I think an overtaking manoeuvre should not be something that a driver can do literally at the touch of a button or the flick of a switch as though he were playing a video game.

    Old-style adjustable aero, where there is no limit to the amount of times a driver can use it, I have no problem with because then all drivers will always have the option rather than having this odd limit, so using it will become another part of the skill of driving.

    The same goes for adjusting particular engine settings because that is about balancing speed against the need not to put too much strain on the engine, and I think it’s fine that the drivers should be able to find the right balance there. But for drivers to be told where the limit is? No way, not for me.

    And was there really such need for you to be so rude about me on Total F1?

  9. I am with Pink Peril on this. Rossi against Gibernau when they were leaning on each other all the time was fabulous.

    I cannot believe that so many people have bought Max’s line that too much overtaking can be boring. People go and watch Formula Fords and the like and rave about them for one reason. There is a lot of overtaking. People rave about F1 in the 60s and 70s because there was a lot of overtaking. Look at Monza 71 when there were five drivers going into the last corner with a chance of winning the race and the guy who did win I think was fourth. How boring does that sound?

    To me if a driver is in fourth position the only way he should be allowed to get third position unless the guy ahead has a problem is to go and take it off him. Gaining positions in the pits through strategy is pathetic. At Imola one year Schumacher went from 12th to second and made one overtaking move. What has that got to do with motor racing.

  10. I don’t buy the entire ‘dirty air’ argument or grooved tyres & so on. I don’t think that there’s incentive to over-take & that the issue of lack of over-taking (or rather lack of exciting races) is due to a combination of factors starting with the pointing system.

    The top-six (10-6-4-3-2-1) was the fairest & best way for F1 racers to compete. Coming in third is one thing, but that extra two points are worth fighting for, & from second to first those four points are worth the risks. Even today I don’t look at the finishers bellow the top-six.

    Of course, F1 is a battle of the constructors & naturally some cars do better on this or that circuit than others & drivers also have their own circuits & so on. Incidents also come to play.

    Yes, there is ‘dirty air’ & yes it is difficult to over-take but it’s always been the case. Over-taking was not meant to be easy & is always dangerous, but it’s up to drivers to find a way past. Massa (after his fatal start from Pole in Malaysia’s Sepang in 2007) tried everything to get past Hamilton while Alonso (who slipped past him on the first turn) was already building a healthy lead.

    Massa frantically fighting Hamilton very nearly made it past. I think had they had grooveless (slicked) tyres the battle would have been even more exciting, & no doubt we can see more exciting races with some passes more often only if the drivers had something worth fighting for, that is, the victory.

  11. – Ban Gear Ratio changes (how you programme the transmission at the start is how you finish)

    – Front/Rear Wings to be standardised but length/width to remain the same as 2008-spec & exhaust ports to be modified.

    – Slicked tyres

    – Top-Six pointing (10-6-4-3-2-1) with constructors eligible for prize money for the top 11 finishers.

  12. Well at the first race in Australia it seemed like the problem was solved to an extent. But now we still have faster cars getting stuck behind slower ones. I wonder if the double decker diffusers are to blame.

  13. During the second Nurburgring session Friday, Crofty and Ian Phillips made a convincing argument that overtaking is a silly thing to fuss over. They made the point that in the olden days, passes usually happened because a driver had forgotten or bungled a shift.

    I remember reading about these scenarios from Jackie Stewart’s book almost forty years ago… He was always amazed when he could pass the better drivers that way. But for the lesser drivers, often businessmen or inheritors of wealth who were spending money to look cool in front of women, missing a gear change was not so unusual. Nowadays the sport is full of professionals assisted by excellent technology, so it doesn’t happen.

    (Excepting Bourdais, the entire field in Germany this year is well within two seconds of Webber.)

    Phillips said “Nobody remembers more than about ten favorite passes across the history of the sport.” This strikes me as true, and all the aerodynamic shenanigans in the world aren’t going to help.

    You want overtaking in Formula One? Here’s what you do: Just before the outlap, you make Tamara Ecclestone go out to the start line wearing a short skirt, and make Flavio Briatore give her a dime. She tosses the dime four times. If it comes up heads all four times (6.25% probability), you flip the field… Maybe once per season. Or have her do it three times, and Sutil leads the pack twice per season.

    No fewer tosses than that, though. That’s plenty likely enough that a few races will have tremendous mixes of talent across the grid through the race, but it won’t make people less likely to try and qualify well.

    Dare to innovate! KERS is for weenies! Blue flags are for wimps!

    ———

    Meanwhile, be glad you’re not a NASCAR fan. I saw a NASCAR race on TV in a bar last weekend. I hadn’t realized all those guys are on the same lap in the same corner all the time. It’s not racing, it’s turtles in a herd.