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?