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Better racing – but is it fake?

In Monaco before Christmas, Formula 1′s governing body held a meeting to discuss one of the key and most controversial aspects of 2011 – the Drag Reduction System or DRS.

Introduced amid much controversy and no small amount of trepidation in some quarters, questions about the validity of the overtaking aid, not to mention the wisdom of employing it, decreased during the season. So much so that, at the Monaco meeting, it was decided that only small refinements needed to be made to its use for the 2012 campaign.

But while the FIA and the teams all agree that DRS has played a valuable role in improving F1 as a spectacle, they are determined to ensure it performs in the way intended. In particular, no-one wants to cheapen one of the central aspects of a driver’s skill by making overtaking too easy.


Sebastian Vettel enters the DRS zone at the Spanish Grand Prix. Photo: Getty

To recap briefly, DRS was introduced in an attempt to solve the perennial problem of there being too little overtaking. After years – decades even – of discussions, F1′s technical brains hit on what they thought could be a solution: DRS.

DRS does what it says on the tin. When deployed, the top part of the rear wing moves upwards, reducing drag and giving a boost in straight-line speed. In races, drivers could use it only if they were within a second of the car in front at a “detection point” shortly before the “DRS zone”. The DRS zone was where DRS could be deployed, which was usually the track’s longest straight.

The idea was to make overtaking possible but not too easy.

There is no doubt that racing improved immeasurably as a spectacle in 2011 compared with previous seasons. But how big a role did DRS play? And did overtaking become too easy at some tracks and remain too hard at others?

It is a more complex issue than it at first appears because it is not always easy to tell from the outside whether an overtaking move was a result of DRS or not.

In Turkey and Belgium, for example, several drivers sailed past rivals in the DRS zone long before the end of it, leading many to think the device had made overtaking too easy.

But, armed with statistics, FIA race director Charlie Whiting says appearances were deceptive. What was making overtaking easy at those two races, he said, was the speed advantage of the car behind as the two cars battling for position came off the corner before the DRS zone.

Whiting showed me a spreadsheet detailing the speeds of the respective cars in all the overtaking manoeuvres that happened in the Belgian GP.

“This shows very clearly that when the speed delta [difference] between the two cars at the beginning of the zone is low, then overtaking is not easy,” he said. “But if one car goes through Eau Rouge that bit quicker, sometimes you had a speed delta of 18km/h (11mph). Well, that’s going to be an overtake whether you’ve got DRS or not.”

According to Whiting, the statistics show that if the two cars come off the corner into the DRS zone at similar speeds, then the driver behind needs to be far closer than the one-second margin that activates the DRS if he is to overtake.

“One second is the activation but that won’t do it for you,” Whiting said. “You’ve got to be 0.4secs behind to get alongside into the braking zone.”

Confusing the picture in 2011 – particularly early in the season – was the fast-wearing nature of the new Pirelli tyres, which led to huge grip differences between cars at various points of the races. A driver on fresher tyres would come off a corner much faster and brake that much later for the next one. That would have a far greater impact on the ease of an overtaking move than DRS ever would.

Critics of DRS might argue that while it may be useful at tracks where overtaking has traditionally been difficult, like Melbourne, Valencia and Barcelona, for example, it is debatable whether there is a need for it at circuits where historically there has been good racing, like Turkey, Belgium and Brazil.

According to Whiting, DRS does not diminish the value of an overtaking move at tracks where it is usually easy to pass. It just means that DRS opens up the possibility for more. In other words, it works just as it does at any other track.

McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe is an influential member of the Technical Working Group of leading engineers which came up with DRS. He said people had been arguing for years that engineers should alter the fundamental design of cars to facilitate overtaking.

However, tinkering with aerodynamic design was never going to be a solution, according to Lowe, because F1 cars will always need downforce to produce such high performance, and that means overtaking will always, by the cars’ nature, be difficult.

“What’s great [about DRS is] at least we can move on from this debate of trying to change the aerodynamic characteristics of cars to try to improve overtaking,” added Lowe.

“We’ve found something much more authoritative, much cheaper, easier and more effective, and adjustable from race to race.”

Whiting thinks DRS worked as expected everywhere except Melbourne and Valencia.


Valencia’s DRS zone could be extended for 2012. Photo: Getty 

So for next season’s opening race in Australia, he is considering adding a second DRS zone after the first chicane, so drivers who have used DRS to draw close to rivals along the pit straight can have another crack at overtaking straight afterwards. As for Valencia, traditionally the least entertaining race of the year, the FIA will simply make the zone, which is located on the run to Turn 12, longer.

There is potentially one big negative about DRS, though.

There is a risk that its introduction could mean the end of races in which a driver uses his skills to hold off a rival in a faster car. Some of the greatest defensive victories of the modern age have been achieved in this way. One thinks of Gilles Villeneuve holding off a train of four cars in his powerful but poor-handling Ferrari to win in Jarama in 1981, or Fernando Alonso fending off Michael Schumacher’s faster Ferrari at Imola in 2005.

The idea behind the introduction of DRS was for a much faster car to be able to overtake relatively easily but for passing still to be difficult between two cars of comparative performance. In theory, if that philosophy is adhered to rigidly, the sorts of races mentioned above will still be possible.

However, once an aid has been introduced that gives the driver behind a straight-line speed advantage that is an incredibly difficult line to walk, as Whiting himself admits. “You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth to a certain extent,” he said.

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