Is It Worth It?

Atlas F1

Is It Worth It?

by Rob Paterson, Canada

Is it really worth it? Overtaking that is, or even attempting to. When you consider the pitfalls, the possible consequences, and the results, it probably isn't. Hence we have grand prix racing at probably it's lowest point when it come to on track passing. It seems that the ethical ramifications of botching an important overtaking maneuver have made many drivers think better of it far too often rather than attempting to pass a rival on the track. If you examine a few of the causes of this current dearth of passing you can find the answers relatively easily.

The Problems

First off, the current configuration of an F1 car rely far too heavily on aerodynamic grip. Basically modern F1 cars can't follow one another close enough to even try an overtaking maneuver. For a driver to get close enough in the "dirty air" of a rival's car, he must risk the balance of his car by driving with severely limited aerodynamic grip from the front wing . This is then compounded by grooved tyres, which seem to give a possible overtaker, even less confidence because he has even less grip to help out while he's in dirty air. There is also the fact that the rear wings of the cars create so much dirty air that the danger area behind the leading car has increased in recent years.

Eventhough the FIA has tried to crackdown on exotic brake caliper compounds, braking distances are still relatively short. As the pinnacle of motorsport it should be expected that F1 cars would have the shortest braking distances of any category. Unfortunately, this does nothing to increase overtaking. Grooved tyres were an attempt to increase braking distances, which they have, but at the cost of driver confidence. Also the fact that the cars are so light and nimble make braking distances shorter. As I have said, F1 is supposed to be the pinnacle of motorsport, shouldn't the cars be the most nimble?

The success of overtaking in the pits has done little to inspire drivers to try to "have a go up the inside", it's more often, "we're calling you in so you can get him after his stop". Micheal Schumacher and Ross Brawn turned pitlane overtaking into a science at Benetton, thus setting the standard for all the other teams. It hasn't taken long to figure out that if another car is holding you up, and there is a gap in traffic for about thirty seconds behind you, that you can gain a position on a rival by gaining ground behind him, provided you're on the same pit-stop strategy of course. The other ways of pitlane overtaking involve having a few really good laps after a rival has pitted to gain position, or to short fuel a faster car, should both contesting drivers come in on the same lap, or even one lap after another.

This year we can also add the fact that there is so little parity in the circus. McLaren is a fair bit better than Ferrari, who are a fair bit better than Benetton, who are better than Williams, who are better than Jordan, and so it goes. We have seen a few mid-pack scraps between the Benettons and the Williams', or Irvine and either of the Benettons, but relatively little has come from it. The result of overtaking anybody other than a McLaren driver recently has been a net gain of either one or two points. If the Spanish grand prix' Irvine/Fisichella incident is what one can expect as a result of an overtaking try, then why would any driver even bother, especially if all it will get you is an extra point.

Schumacher's vilification after his incident involving Coulthard at the Argentine GP vexes me. Mostly because any attempt to overtake leads to an outcry from the aggrieved party, and the press from his country of origin. Yet that same press will consistently bemoan the lack of overtaking in formula one. Overtaking maneuver happen in a split second, yet because they are examined frame by frame afterwards, the viewing public expect that the driver had the same amount of time to make his decisions that they had while watching a slow motion replay. I'll admit it, when I watch a replay I analyze it to death, all the while apportioning blame as though if I was in the cockpit, I would have done something different. Of course in the driver's seat, with only the limited vision of a crash helmet a driver can't possibly see everything. Compound that with the fact that a driver defending his position, thus having to rely on his mirrors, has even less visual input with which to make the proper decision. Is it possible that we expect F1 drivers to be super-human too much of the time?

Any Solutions?

I'd like to think that we could just look at Champ Car, for some of the solutions to the lack of F1 overtaking. That's probably a little too simplistic, but we can trace the roots of the abundance of overtaking in that series. Firstly, champ cars are much heavier than F1 cars, and have slightly lower tech steel brakes, thus they have longer braking distances. They also still allow ground effects on their chassis bottoms, which increases mechanical grip, which isn't affected nearly as badly by dirty air. Also, they have a smaller aerodynamic package, even in roadcourse trim. Finally, the close competitiveness of the equipment available, and the point system tend to reward a midpack driver more greatly than they do in F1.

Certainly most of us wouldn't want to see the F1 chassis get substantially heavier, or brake technology dwindle. Again I come back to the pinnacle of motorsport argument. But, perhaps cutting back on the aerodynamic package, and reintroducing ground effects would help. The main drawback being advertising space would dwindle, as the wings are a major site for sponsors logos. Though such a solution might be in the best interest of the sport, it would take a very bold decision on the part of the FIA to institute such a change.

The point system could be modified, or what would make me happier is there be better monetary rewards for finishing seventh through tenth, or twelfth. Perhaps even a preset payoff, which is known to the F1 viewing public that spells out how much more for example fifth is worth than fourth. That would leave the points system as it is, which would have it maintain it's historical relevance, but give a driver an incentive to better his position. The drawback being it makes the sport appear to be even more greedy than it already is, and also I'm not sure if a battle for say eighth would capture the viewer's attention as much as if it was a battle for points.

Another thing that may help is the elimination of refueling. By limiting the time spent in the pits, it also limits a drivers strategy options. It all comes down to how well tyres hold up. It's my opinion that some races are run with more pitstops now than in the past because of refueling. Because pitwork would be less frequent, or at least less time consuming, which leads to less personnel in the pit lane during a race, pit lane speeds could increase. Then if a driver makes a tyre stop he isn't likely to think that he can gain much of an advantage by having a quicker stop than his rivals. This in turn could lead to drivers going with a tyre conservation strategy more often. And having a driver ahead on poor tyres could increase the likelihood of a mistake leading to an overtaking attempt.

If you ask me, a pass in an F1 race is an amazing thing. As a rule you are seeing the best drivers in the most hi-tech equipment in the world doing what is probably the hardest part of their raceday driving. Passing matters a lot during an F1 race. Although I'd like to see a fair bit more of it, I also wouldn't want the experience cheapened by a bunch of silly rules simply designed to increase overtaking. Should the FIA decided to substantially rewrite the technical rulebook it must be with the entire concept of keeping F1 safe and increasing overtaking opportunities. Some of the above mentioned solutions may well help the spectacle of F1, but the spectacle must remain. A well executed pass is a joy to behold, I'm all in favor of having more of it.

Rob Paterson
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