Atlas F1

The Responsibility of Overtaking

by Ewan Tytler, USA

After Sunday's San Marino Grand Prix many drivers and team owners expressed displeasure and frustration about overtaking backmarkers. "[traffic] seemed particularly bad here, worse than I can ever remember, and a couple of the drivers didn't seem to respond to the blue flags," said McLaren's David Coulthard. "I think the circuit marshals did a reasonable job in using the flags, but [certain competitors] were not too keen to move over."

His team boss, Ron Dennis, echoed his view, saying "David's chance to win the race was taken away by the behaviour of several backmarkers and I am disappointed in the lack of sporting behaviour from their team managers."

Jordan's Damon Hill too expressed concern: "Towards the end of the race I was closing on Barrichello, but the backmarkers were causing me problems and then I had to let Michael Schumacher go past, so I lost time and was not able to catch him."

In order to explain the subtleties of these comments, here is a look at the rules which govern overtaking that Formula One.

The 1999 FIA Formula One World Championship Sporting Regulations cover overtaking under "incidents":

"Incident means any occurrence or series of occurrences involving one or more drivers, or any action by any driver, which is reported to the stewards by the race director (or noted by the stewards and referred to the race director for investigation) which:

- caused an avoidable collision;
- forced a driver off the track;
- illegitimately prevented a legitimate overtaking manoeuvre by a driver;
- illegitimately impeded another driver during overtaking.

The stewards may impose a 10 second time penalty on any driver involved in an Incident."

This quite clearly bans using physical contact to overtake and prohibits blocking a driver attempting to overtake.

Formula One drivers are also governed by the FIA International Sporting Code which covers all motor racing events that they organise. First let's look at what the blue flag really means, which is explained in Appendix H to the International Sporting Code:

"4.1.2 d) Light Blue flag:

This should normally be waved, as an indication to a driver that he is about to be overtaken. It has different meanings during practice and the race.

At all times: A stationary flag should be displayed to a driver leaving the pits if traffic is approaching on the track.

During practice: Give way to a faster car which is about to overtake you.

During the race: The flag should normally be shown to a car about to be lapped and, when shown, the driver concerned must allow the following car to pass at the earliest opportunity."

This is very clear - if you are a backmarker and a blue flag is being waved at you, then you are about to be lapped and you must yield right of way.

The rules governing overtaking are given in Appendix L to the International Sporting code. These rules are a bit jumbled as they throw in the issue of dangerous driving along with the overtaking rules.

Chapter IV: Code of Driving Conduct on Circuits

1 - Overtaking

a) "during a race, a car alone on the track may use the full width of the said track. However, as soon as it is caught up on a straight by a car which is either temporarily or constantly faster, the driver shall give the other vehicle the right of way by pulling over to one side in order to allow for passing on the other side."

The first rule has many implications. This states that a slower driver should yield to a faster driver. There is not distinction between overtaking for position and lapping a backmarker. Inclusion of the word "temporary" to this rule also allows teams to order one of their drivers to move aside to allow the team leader to pass. It also allows a driver to unlap himself if the leading driver slows down.

b) "if the driver who has been caught does not seem to make full use of his rear-view mirror the flag marshal(s) will give a warning by waving the blue flag to indicate that another competitor wants to overtake."

This rule is designed to warn a driver who appears to be oblivious to a faster driver behind him.

"Any driver who does not take notice of the blue flag may be penalised by a fine imposed by the Sporting Stewards."

Though shalt not ignore a blue flag. If you do, you will pay for it.

"Systematic or repeated offences may result in the exclusion of the offender from the race."

He who make a habit of ignoring the blue flag will be given a black flag.

c) "curves, as well as the approach and exit zones thereof, may be negotiated by the drivers in any way they wish, within the limits of the track. Overtaking, according to the circumstances, may be done either on the right or on the left."

Part one of this rule is both comprehensive and vague. At first sight, it seems as though you are allowed to choose any racing line you want and can overtake in any way you please. However...

"However, manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers such as premature direction changes, deliberate crowding of cars towards the inside or the outside of the curve or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited and shall be penalised, according to the importance and repetition of the offences, by penalties ranging from a fine to the exclusion from the race."

Part two of this rule appears to be the FIA's definition of dangerous driving, which is not defined anywhere else in the rules. In effect it bans suddenly changing your driving line for any reason (including stopping someone passing). This part is also both comprehensive and vague, probably so that the Stewards of the Meeting have a bit of discretion.

"The repetition of dangerous driving, even involuntary, may result in the exclusion from the race."

He who ignores this rule will also be given a black flag.

d) "any obstructive manoeuvre carried out by one or several drivers, either having common interests or not, is prohibited. The persistent driving abreast of several vehicles, as well as fan-shaped arrangement, is authorised only if there is not another car trying to overtake. Otherwise the blue flag will be waved."

This rule prohibits driver(s) of one or more teams from obstructing the progress of a driver from a competing team.

e) "the penalty inflicted for ignoring the blue flag will also be applied to the drivers who obstruct part of the track and shall be more severe in the case of systematic obstruction, thus ranging from a fine to the exclusion from the race. The same penalty shall be applied to drivers who swing from one side of the track to the other in order to prevent other competitors from overtaking."

This rule is a bit redundant as rule 1d also prohibits driver(s) of one team from systematically obstructing the progress of another driver and rule 1c bans suddenly changing your driving line to stop someone passing. The only thing new is the penalties for breaking rule 1c and 1d.

So, the Formula One Overtaking Rules in a Nutshell are: You can take any racing line you desire, within reason, around a track in an FIA event. You can yield right of way to a team member. You can unlap yourself. You can overtake under a green flag either on the left or the right-hand side of the track.

You cannot drive erratically, ignore blue flags, overtake under a yellow flag, deliberately obstruct a driver from a competing team, obstruct other drivers trying to overtake you, force a driver off the road in order to overtake them or to avoid being overtaken by them.

The 1998 Canadian Grand Prix provided two clear examples of violation of these rules. In one incident Damon Hill deliberately blocked Michael Schumacher in a contest for position. Hill was in the wrong here as this is forbidden under rules 1c, d and e. In the second incident Schumacher's exit from the pitlane resulted in Heinz-Harald Frentzen going off the track to avoid him. In this case, Schumacher was in the wrong because he should have observed the stationary blue flag at the end of the pitlane and should not have put Frentzen in a position where he had to go off the track.

Other incidents are less clear-cut as parts of these rules are vague. The collision between Coulthard and Schumacher at Spa is an example of this. The rules state "the driver concerned must allow the following car to pass at the earliest opportunity." On a soaked track it is hard to decide when the "earliest opportunity" occurs and that is probably a reason why the Stewards of the Meeting ruled this as a racing accident without assigning blame, which was the correct decision.

So what about the complaints at Imola last weekend? Were the justified?

The chicanes at Imola has reduced the number of passing places and the combination of grooved tyres and high downforce has made overtaking more difficult than it used to be. The race was unusual because, by the end, everyone was a backmarker apart from Schumacher and Coulthard. Olivier Panis was in the wrong for not yielding right-of-way to Coulthard when he was being lapped, but he was well within his rights to unlap himself when Coulthard went wide. Panis, to his credit, was not driving erratically. The Stewards of the Meeting could have pulled in a number of drivers, including Panis, for a 10s stop-go penalty for ignoring blue flags. These penalties tend to destroy races and I can understand their reluctance to do this.

Do the overtaking rules need revision?

The current FIA rules are clear and logical in some places but they are vague in other places. They do not give drivers a clear guideline of what to do under different weather conditions. It is odd that there is no mention of a "racing line" and there is no indication what constitutes the "right of way" around a corner. There are no clear rules defining what is dangerous driving or what is unsportsmanlike behaviour. With clearer guidelines we could get cleaner and safer races.

Ewan Tytler© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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