The problems of overtaking under the current rules
At the moment overtaking is extremely difficult, at times near impossible. With so much importance placed on aero grip over the last few years all the teams have been concentrating mainly in this area to find performance. At the moment around 80% of car development is aero related. This has been to the detriment of overtaking with aero bits hanging everywhere including the likes of: Horns, bunny ears, triple wings, anvil/shark fins along with many other types of winglets and flip ups, which create a huge wake of turbulent behind the car and has a major effect on the aero of the car following on behind.
When following another car around 20-25% of downforce is lost and the car suffers from understeer. So the car is effectively losing a sizeable chunk of its performance. You could relate this to trying to push against a hard cushion, that’s how hard it can be to follow another car in F1. The problem is at its worst in the fast corners which is why overtaking has become so less frequent at tracks like Silverstone and Catalunya. On the other hand the downforce loss is halved (10-12.5%) in slow corners making overtaking a bit more feasible if there is a long straight following it. A sequence of a slow corner followed by a long straight following by another slow corner makes overtaking more realistic. This sequence is seen on tracks such as Bahrain and the Fuji speedway. Therefore you are always likely to see more wheel to wheel racing at these tracks.
Another interesting example is to compare the Adelaide hairpin at Magny-Cours and the hairpin on the Hockenheim circuit. The corner before the hairpin at Magny-Cours is Estoril, which is one of the fastest corners on the circuit. Therefore the drivers find it very hard to stick to the opponent in front in this corner. Due to this they can’t make the most of the overtaking opportunity that the Adelaide hairpin represents at the end of the following straight. At Hockenheim the corner before the long drag to the hairpin is a very slow one. This allows a driver to stick closer to the car in front and have a chance of passing him into the hairpin.
The “dirty or “turbulent” air or whatever you want to call it is also quite hot and can effect the cooling of the cars. Drivers also say that being in someone else’s dirty air for a long period of time can grain the tyres (bits of rubber coming off the tyres). This affects the team strategy. At times a driver may be told by an engineer to stay between 1 or 2 seconds behind the car in front to avoid graining and overheating and try to find a way past during the pit stop phase.
At the moment to get a slipstream from the car in front and get past fairly comfortable you need to be around 1.5 to 2.0 seconds quicker (on average) than your rival in front. At circuits better for overtaking such as Bahrain and Fuji that I mentioned earlier you can be around a 1.0 second faster and have a good chance of overtaking. If you are not fast enough to get the slipstream then to overtake you need to take a big risk or hope the driver in front makes an error
What is changing for 2009 and will it improve overtaking opportunities?
The OWG (overtaking working group) comprises of talented engineers and technicians from teams such as Ferrari and Mclaren and their task was simple: Find ways of improving overtaking in Formula 1! After a long time of research and wind tunnel work the team came up with a set of proposals for the FIA. These are going to be put into place for next season in the biggest changes to Formula 1 cars for a very long time.
Overall the 2009 cars will look very different, with such a vast number of big changes. It is said that the cars will look very similar to the ones in the 90s. The first change is that all the upper aero devices such as winglets, shark fins and horns etc will all be outlawed. The front wing will be lowered from 150mm to 75 mm and made wider. The rear wing on the other hand will become raised so that it is parallel with the engine cover and made narrower.
On the front wing will be an adjustable flap, which the drivers can adjust upto 6 degrees a maximum of 2 times per lap. They can lower it when they are following another car so that they stay closer to them, especially through corners. Bargeboards will also disappear next season. That area of the car will look very different. Also the diffuser will be longer and higher than it was before and will become less powerful.
The other two main big changes are the return of slick tyres and the introduction of KERs (Kinetic Energy Recovery system). Basically this will allow drivers to use energy and heat that has been stored in the car to give them a speed boost upto 2 times a lap. So rather than the energy being wasted the drivers can use it to their advantage instead.
All these aero changes will see the cars around 2 seconds slower than the 2008 cars. However with the re-introduction of slick tyres, which have more grip than the current grooved tyres, these 2 seconds lost will be gained back straight away. I don’t expect much of a difference in lap times in 2009.
Overall I do think these changes will see an increase in overtaking. According to the OWG’s wind tunnel research a car will now need to be around 0.5 seconds faster to overtake. This is a huge improvement over the 1.5 to 2.0 seconds needed currently as mentioned earlier. I think drivers will definitely feel the difference and will struggle less whilst in the turbulent air zone.
Lowering the front wing and removing all the upper body devices is definitely a very good move. When the front wing was raised and new upper devices started popping up in 2005 a lot of drivers said straight away that it was harder to follow cars. As more and more development went on with these new devices the sensitivity to the turbulent air has become greater and greater. Also removing the bargeboards is another very good step in my opinion, this helps reduce the turbulence.
Overall these changes will create a much finer balance between aero grip and mechanical grip. These last few years it has all been about aero grip. Whilst this makes the cars very fast it creates a bigger wake of turbulent which the cars are so sensitive to. Mechanical grip on the other hand creates no such major problems whilst following another car.
However it’s not all good news. A few leading pundits have expressed some disappointment in the changes in the diffuser regs (the diffuser is designed to speed up airflow under the car by extracting it). According to leading technical experts the diffuser can reduce the turbulent air behind the car, especially if it is made more powerful. In this new set of rules the diffuser has actually been made less powerful. So the OWG may have missed a trick here
The other problem I can see is the intelligence of engineers in F1. I can see engineers being able to find ways round some of these rules and being able to get the downforce back in certain areas of the car. This could end up eventually making the turbulent airflow as bad as it was before. The reduction in aero downforce for 2009 is quoted as being around 40%. I would have gone even furthur and enforced a 60 or 70% reduction so that we see an even bigger emphasis on mechanical grip and make it easier still to overtake. Even F1 engineers would find it very hard to get all that aero downforce back. I think these new rules go part of the way for making F1 cars easier to overtake but I think they could have gone even furthur.
The other potential problem is due to the scale of these changes we could see a bigger spread in the field. Currently the spread from front to back is under 2.0 seconds. This could very easily get alot bigger. Some teams will adapt brilliantly and some including those with a lesser budget won’t. A field that is more spread out could produce less close racing. Although in 2003 the field was more spread out (due to new regulations), we still saw great racing, as there were groups of teams within the field that were close together. Therefore this may not be a problem however it could be if one team does a far better job than anybody. That could turn 2009 into a season like 2002 or 2004. Let’s hope 2 or 3 teams are closely matched at the front!
The KERs could prove interesting. However whether it will improve racing I am not so sure. When a driver behind presses his boost button the driver in front could very easily press his button as well and counter it. However it will be all about when the driver decides to press the button. It could add an interesting tactical element. However I think being able to use 2 boosts a lap is far too much. I would have allowed drivers to boost 10-15 times over the course of a GP. I think that would have made the tactical element even more challenging. A driver who uses all his boosts too early could get themselves into big trouble later on in the race.
So in conclusion I think these new rules with regards to overtaking are a definite step in the right direction. However I think the FIA could have gone the full distance to make overtaking even more feasible and make it harder for engineers to reclaim a large quantity of the aero downforce in other areas. The other problem is we may end up with other unforeseen problems. For example will the new larger front wings get damaged more easily?
However in my opinion there are other changes still required to spice up the show along with these proposed changes. For example engines will still be rev-limited to 19,000 rpm and we will still be using control tyres (supplied by Bridgestone). These are two variables, which have disappeared. You need to have an advantage somewhere to overtake and varied engine rev limits and teams using different tyre suppliers were both interesting variables. We now have fewer variables where an advantage creating an overtaking opportunity exists than in the past.
As well the races will still be effectively 3 or 4 sprints thanks to re-fuelling during pit stops. Research has shown that there is a correlation between the time re-fuelling was introduced, and a lower amount of overtaking moves since then. Another thing as I mentioned in one of my recent articles is the points system, I don’t believe the current system motivates overtaking enough so I think that needs to be changed too.
Part two of my F1 2009 regulations article will focus on which teams will adapt best to the 2009 rules. I will publish this sometime during the weekend.