Why F1 is in danger of devaluing the art of the overtake

On Tuesday morning, the FIA announced that changes will be made to Formula 1’s technical regulations ahead of the 2019 season in order to promote more overtaking. At face value, this proposition is mouthwatering to fans who enjoyed the novelty of seeing Daniel Ricciardo tear from sixth to first in a frenetic 10 laps during the Chinese Grand Prix.

However, could an early step towards the new-look F1 of 2021 be a dangerous distraction that could ultimately devalue the art of overtaking?

 

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Image Credit: Octane Photos

 

The approved changes for 2019 include; “a simplified front wing, with a larger span and low outwash potential, simplified front brake ducts with no winglets and a wider and deeper rear wing.”

These changes were approved by the F1 Commission and will now require rubber-stamping by the FIA World Motorsport Council. Key to the approval was the timing of the proposals. The deadline for technical changes to be made for next season without unanimous agreement was April 30.

In some instances, if prior to this date four teams agree with terms laid out by the FIA, F1 and promoters, a policy can be actioned and that is exactly how F1’s latest regulation overhaul has come to pass. Four of the category’s 10 teams agreed with the 2019 proposals and as a result of an e-vote, Tuesday’s news became news.

According to Autosport, Williams, Mercedes, Force India and Sauber agreed to the changes while the rest were in opposition. Here is a group of teams who are rarely seen in agreement – F1’s leading manufacturer banding together with two teams at the bottom of the constructors’ championship and the category’s loudest small team Force India.

Evidence that, for once, this is not a political discussion about shifting the balance of power. There is the potential that the four teams who voted in favour fancied a technical shake-up for next season. More likely is the fact that they acknowledged the need to improve the show as soon as possible. After all, 2018 has delivered three exceptionally entertaining races so far, yet two of them needed a safety car intervention to bring them to life.

These 2019 changes are somewhat of a preview of what F1 could look like in ’21 and beyond. Ross Brawn, Pat Symonds and former Ferrari technical chief Nikolas Tombazis are all involved in the group currently evaluating what 2021 should look like.  It was Tombazis who picked out the proposed changes that could be fast-tracked for implementation next season.

The argument against the changes is that they are a potential distraction from what is important. 2021 is the year in which F1 is set to overhaul its sporting, technical and political landscape and throwing a curveball for ’19 is simply adding a further complication.

F1 has made knee-jerk reactions in the past and given that the desire to change 2019’s technical regulations came in response to what was an Australian Grand Prix void of overtakes, this could fall into the same category.

Research into the matter has been conducted by all 10 teams in the interim period, but to have noticed an issue, discussed options and developed a solution in a matter of five weeks is either the work of a determined group of people with a clear focus or work with a hint of desperation.

And desperation can have disastrous consequences.

The primary concern is the “wider and deeper” rear wing. This change is specifically intended to enhance the power of DRS. While it is unknown as to how much difference the new regulations will make, enhancing the effect of an already unpopular invention – which was originally introduced as somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction in itself – could easily have drawbacks.

The problem with DRS is that while at some circuits it is ineffective enough that it only allows a driver to close in before then requiring an audacious use of the brake pedal to complete an overtake, it can promote simple ‘drive-by’ overtakes if its power is underestimated.

This risk is only enhanced with a more powerful DRS. It will mean that an even thinner tightrope has to be negotiated when mapping out DRS detection and activation zones.

A positive, at least, is that front wings are set to be simplified. It is believed that the FIA had asked for bargeboard complexity to also be slashed, but the teams rejected this element of the changes.

Simplification of front wings has been a suggested fix for several years. A huge amount of turbulence for following cars is created as a result of the front wing outwash, as teams wrap air around the front tyres in order to have a less disturbed airflow to the rear of the car. This effect post-dates the work carried out by F1’s Overtaking Working Group, who helped shape the 2009 regulations and has been a growing issue as front wing complexity has increased.

The ability to follow another car more effectively should be enough of an alteration, at least in the case of these piecemeal changes before 2021’s overhaul. Combining it with a more powerful DRS could easily make overtaking too simple.

Overtaking has to be possible. If it is not, then race outcomes are predictable and viewership declines. That, at least, is a simplistic argument. If it becomes too easy and too commonplace, then the value of an overtake declines.

We all watched in awe of Ricciardo in China. Watching him work his way to the front of the field, demonstrating supreme skill and commitment, was enthralling. If the overtakes were instead an inevitability and simply opening the DRS on the straight was enough to cruise past a rival, then the race would have been less impactful and far less memorable.

You can have too much of a good thing. At face value, more overtaking should be an effective way of enhancing the show, but it would be very easy for F1 to find itself facing another issue whereby motorway style overtakes draw negative headlines.

Let’s hope Liberty Media, the FIA and the four teams in favour have all worked their way onto the right side of the argument.

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