Will Gray

Technical Talk: How to improve overtaking

Will Gray

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This season promised the return of overtaking to Formula One but little has been seen of the new era of wheel-to-wheel racing — so is Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali right to suggest the regulation changes were all a waste of time?

Domenicali's Ferrari team was pushed down the order in the regulation-induced grid shuffle this season, and in a recent video on Shell.com he suggested that although the rules have achieved what some people wanted in giving the sport a fresh new look and a mixed-up order they failed to meet the main objective of creating more overtaking.

There were several elements that were changed in a bid to increase overtaking, the main three being a change in aerodynamics (reducing downforce and adding in a driver-adjusted wing), a return to slick tyres to provide more mechanical grip and the introduction of KERS, the power-boost system that provides acceleration from stored brake energy.

Despite these measures, a long-term analysis on F1 overtaking backs up Domenicali's comments that little has changed in terms of on-track excitement — and, in fact, little has changed in more than a decade.

Last weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix, for instance, produced just three overtaking moves — the exact same number as there was in 2008. Sure, Hungary is one of the worst tracks for overtaking, but the statistics are not looking good for this season's other races either.

According to the research, a comparison of the overtaking moves in the 10 races so far against the equivalent races in 2008 shows that only three races saw an overtaking increase, one stayed the same and six had fewer passing moves than in 2008. Not very successful then.

The one element that's had an effect is KERS, with the boost clearly offering those cars equipped with it greater scope for overtaking those without it. That said, of course, it is being scrapped next year — and for good reason. Its advantage this year is mainly because some cars have it and others don't and if all cars had it, the effect would pretty much be cancelled out.

The adjustable front wing has seemed to make little difference while the reduction in downforce may allow cars to follow closer to each other but there is still rarely enough overall differential between the cars to allow one driver to fight past another.

But that is the nature of Formula One. Looking back over the last 13 years (including this year), the stats show that the average number of overtakes per race is just under 17, with a lowest average of 12 in 2005 and a highest of 20 in 2003. This year is currently averaging 15.

The statistics are not available, but it would be interesting to see whether the 'good old days' showed a difference to this, or whether F1 is always viewing its past through rose tinted spectacles.

Unpredictability is what creates overtaking opportunities and, by definition, Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsport so should have the fewest elements of surprise. Drivers are, in theory, the most talented in the world, so they don't make many mistakes that create overtaking opportunities, and the technology is so advanced that there are no gearbox changes to miss and few reliability issues that could cause temporary glitches on the cars.

The unpredictability, therefore, can only come from the weather — as it has done on numerous occasions this year — be it temperature changes that affect the tyres or a downpour that creates an slippery circuit and offers an opportunity for driver talent to shine through.

Malaysia was rain affected and overtaking increased by 54 percent over the dry race in 2008, while China, which had just 9 overtaking moves in 2008, started in the wet this year and clocked up a massive 61 passes - a record over the last 13 years. In fact, 13 of the 15 races with the most overtaking on record have been run in the wet.

More concerning for the boffins who created this year's supposedly overtaking-inducing regulations, though, is that none of this season's Grands Prix make it into the top 20 races with the most overtaking moves over the last 13 years.

So the Technical Working Group can ponder and ponder over ways to improve overtaking — but it seems the only element that can really create overtaking opportunities is the weather. And, much as he would like to, Bernie Ecclestone cannot do much to control that.

For more information on overtaking statistics in Formula One, visit Brian Lawrence's blog.


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