Saturday, June 11, 2011

Has F1 made overtaking too easy?

There have been five grands prix so far in the 2011 Formula 1 season and every single one of them, in its own way, has been a cracker.

The introduction of faster wearing tyres from new supplier Pirelli, the DRS overtaking aid and the return of Kers power-boost systems has led to a perfect storm of close racing, overtaking and pit stops.

This has made for an exciting season even though Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel is running away with the championship after four wins and a second place in five races.

Yet there is disquiet in some parts of the Formula 1 paddock.

There is a purist view that what the world is seeing is some kind of pale shadow of what F1 really should be. Superficially the racing has improved, some are saying, but is it real? Is this F1 or a tainted, cheapened version of it?

After years of complaints about overtaking being too difficult in F1, about races tending towards the processional, about a general lack of entertainment, it might seem a somewhat perverse thing to say.

But the sense, in some quarters, is that in trying to spice up the show, the sport has veered a little too far towards showbiz and lost some of its true essence.

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He is careful about he expresses it, but Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber is one of the chief exponents of this view.

Ironically, Webber has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new rules so far.

In China, where he qualified close to the back, the Australian used a clever strategy to benefit from the huge grip differences between new and old, hard and soft tyres, as well as the DRS, to climb up to third place by the end of the race, just seven seconds behind winner Lewis Hamilton.

So great was his pace advantage over his rivals in the latter stages that had the race been three laps or so longer Webber would have won. From 18th on the grid. In a race in which there was only one retirement. Even allowing for the superiority of the Red Bull, that is astonishing.

And yet Webber said afterwards that it felt a little hollow. Sure, he had enjoyed himself, and he was pleased with the result. But passing tough, world-class competitors such as Fernando Alonso so easily when they were effectively defenceless did not feel quite right. The racing, he says, is "less intense" than it was.

Webber brought up the subject again in Spain at the weekend, pointing out that the lap times F1 cars were doing on worn tyres and high fuel loads were only eight seconds faster than those of the GP3 cars, two categories down the motor racing ladder.

"We still need to be the pinnacle," Webber said. "We need to be able to push the cars to the limit throughout a grand prix and have very strong lap times, man against machine.

"Pirelli are working hard but we need to make sure the degradation and pace is still of a sensible magnitude and the cars can be put on the limit and not get too far on the showbiz side of things."

It's not just Webber, either. Last week, influential Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo weighed into the debate, too.

Di Montezemolo said: "Listen, I want to see competition, I want to see cars on the track. I don't want to see competition in the pits.

"A little bit, yes - but in the last race (Turkey) there were 80 pit stops. Come on, it's too much. And the people don't understand anymore because when you come out of the pits you don't know what position you're in.

"I think we have gone too far with the machines, too many buttons. The driver is focusing on the buttons, when you have the authorisation to overtake. We have gone too far."

Much of the criticism has, as Di Montezemolo said, focused on the DRS. This is a clever device that moves a part of the rear wing, reducing drag, and therefore increasing straight-line speed.

A driver can use it in a specified zone on the track, on the longest straight, when he is within a second of the car in front at a predetermined point before the DRS zone. The driver defending his position cannot use it.

The idea was to make overtaking easier - but not too easy. The problem is that people have looked at the Turkish race, and the number of times drivers sailed past rivals down the long back straight, and concluded that DRS is making overtaking like driving past someone on the motorway.

That, though, is a misunderstanding of what is actually happening. In Turkey, as in so many of the other races, what promoted the overtaking was the differing grip levels of the tyres at various stages of their lives.

As Charlie Whiting, the race director, points out, in a lot of the cases in Istanbul, the driver behind already had a massive speed advantage over his rival even before he got to the DRS zone. Because his tyres were providing him with so much more grip, he could slingshot out of the preceding corner so much faster.

In those circumstances, the pass would have been easy regardless, DRS or not.

"Our view has always been we shouldn't make it easy, we should make it possible," Whiting says.

"In Melbourne we didn't have quite enough length (in the DRS zone). I think it worked perfectly in Malaysia and China. But we're all learning here. I definitely don't think we've made it too easy.

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"I don't think anyone is under any illusion that it's the DRS that's allowing the overtaking. Opinions vary presumably, but tyres probably have a bigger part to play at the moment. I don't think we've gone over the top with the DRS, and we certainly don't want to. We've got no intention of doing that. We believe it's a good tool and hopefully you agree."

Although I share some of Webber's reservations, I also do not want to see fast cars stuck for ever behind slow ones just because the laws of aerodynamics dictate that drivers cannot follow closely enough to overtake. The DRS is a way of using technology to get F1 out of a hole that technology has got it into.

So, fundamentally, as long as governing body the FIA can find the right balance, I think Whiting is right on this, and the proof came in Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix.

Vettel spent the first 18 laps bottled up behind the fast-starting but slow Ferrari of Alonso. Red Bull tried to jump the Spaniard with an early first pit stop, but just failed when Ferrari responded and got out in front.

So they tried again and despite Vettel having to pass three cars on his out lap and Ferrari responding next time around, the German blasted past the pit exit just as Alonso was emerging.

Last year, with much slower wearing Bridgestone tyres meaning smaller pace differentials between the cars, Vettel would never have been able to pass three cars on his out lap, and he may well have spent the entire race behind Alonso.

At the same time, the difficulties all drivers had in passing down the main straight, the DRS zone, when they were able to pass elsewhere - around Turns Four, Five, 10 and 11, for example, where overtaking was previously very rare - proved that it was the tyres not the DRS that were making the difference.

"Barcelona had the possibility to be a drone-a-thon," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race. "Two years ago here, Sebastian drove around looking at the exhaust of (Ferrari's) Felipe Massa for the whole grand prix.

"This has really changed the dynamics of that and a track where it's traditionally difficult to overtake and produce close racing has produced an absolute thriller. The regulations have obviously contributed and created that. They're working."

It's true that the tyres' fragility is stopping the drivers exploiting the full potential of their cars all the time. This may not always be desirable but, as my colleague Mark Hughes points out in his column, this season it probably is.

If the cars were all on rubber that allowed them to push to the limit in the race, Red Bull would probably be able to tap into more of the speed that gives them such a huge advantage in qualifying. In which case Vettel wouldn't just be winning, he would be driving off into the distance. The tyres appear to be making the racing close, and introducing competition that might not otherwise be there.

Despite Vettel's domination, all the races have been close and exciting to watch and that is having a startling effect on the television audience.

You might expect, for example, that a German winning nearly everything would cause TV audiences to switch off in the UK, but in fact the opposite has been the case.

The BBC F1 audience has been up at all but one race so far this year. China had the highest number of viewers that race has ever had. During the Spanish race, the peak audience was 1.2 million higher this year than last.

But far more telling is the behaviour of the audience during the race. In the past, there would usually be a peak at the start, a significant dip in the middle, another peak at a moment of high excitement - a crash, a pit stop etc - another dip and a peak at the end.

This year, though, the audience has started higher than before - and stayed there throughout the race. People dare not switch off for fear of missing something. Far from the races being too confusing - as some newspapers have said - they are proving to be gripping from beginning to end.

I'll leave the final word to Jenson Button. He was asked if F1 had veered too far towards 'showbiz'.

"There are more positives than negatives," he said. "Of course it's a show; that's what any sport is. We need viewers to exist and the viewers have gone through the roof supposedly. I don't think we've done anything wrong. We've definitely gone in the right direction."


Geoff Lees Gijs van Lennep Arthur Legat JJ Lehto Lamberto Leoni Les Leston Pierre Levegh

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