Sunday 15 May 2011

A Formula transformed: Thoughts on F1 in 2011

An awful lot is different about Formula One in 2011. The various regulation changes effectively have brought in a new formula. Depending on who you spoke to in advance of the season start it was either going to prove as unnecessary and counter-productive tinkering, or a healthy means of improving the show from 2010's high level. Now, four races in and the European season having started last weekend, seems a good point to look back on how it’s all gone.
F1’s new formula seen in 2011 is certainly new. And what has been served up in a race on Sunday in 2011 is unrecognisable to recent previous years, and such a switch between seasons is barely precedented in the history of the sport. Even though 2010 was commonly accepted as a great season, it was hardly a secret that F1 had a conspicuous shortage of overtaking and had done for years. After much wrestling with the regulations over time, and many a false dawn, it appears that finally F1 has cracked the problem. And then some.

Webber and Alonso dice in the Turkish Grand Prix
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Finally, we have the F1 racing again. According to the Clip the Apex excellent historical overtaking analysis (you need a log in but it’s free – I highly recommend a look), the Turkish GP produced 126 passing manoeuvres. The previous record (since the start of 1982) was 79 overtakes in the 1983 Long Beach Grand Prix. Further, there has been an average of 74 passes per race in 2011, which compares to 28.8 last year and 14.4 in 2009. There’s already been more overtakes in 2011 in four races than there were in the whole of 2009. Indeed, by a distance there’s been more per race than in any year since these things were first analysed in 1982 (the previous highest annual average was 41.6 in 1984).

And such a transformation in the stats is certainly noticeable in terms of what we’re watching. Gone are the days of processional Grand Prix racing with the order set (at least until the next stops) well in advance. You can now barely turn your head away from your TV screen for the whole hour and a half, for genuine fear of missing something. Hey, the TV director’s even taking to not showing all of the front runners’ pit stops due to the captivation of the wheel-to-wheel action on track. A formula transformed, as I said.

This transformation has been down to two things in the main: DRS (the Drag Reduction System, or movable rear wing) and tyres.

DRS, by far the most radical of the new rules, remains a work in-progress. It seemed rather stingy in the first round in Melbourne, leading many to declare that the new rule was a busted flush. But it seemed just about right in Malaysia and China, getting cars close enough to make overtaking possible without making it too easy. In Turkey the advantage from the system probably went too far, allowing cars to breeze past each other on the main straight almost like road cars overtaking on the motorway. It served as a reminder that too easy overtaking is as undesirable as having it too difficult (overtaking, like anything, loses its meaning if it happens too often). Still, hopefully that’s all part of the learning curve, as the positioning and length of the DRS zone will no doubt be tweaked over time, as indeed it was in the course of the weekend in China. So, DRS continues to get a thumbs up from me.

Criticisms of DRS have been widespread however. Many see it is a gimmick, and trying to create overtaking through such ‘synthetic’ means as anathematic to what F1 is about, given that DRS means that not all of the cars operate to the same rules at all times. Niki Lauda, among others, thinks it absurd that the FIA should proscribe an ‘overtaking zone’.

While these criticisms are honourable and have some validity, I’d take what we’ve got now over what we’ve grown used to on a Sunday for the previous decade and a half any day of the week. And whatever we’d been doing in that time to aid overtaking, it wasn’t working. A radical solution therefore had to be sought, and short of un-inventing downforce it’s difficult to see what better answer was available. Especially as tyre strategies used throughout the field will likely converge over time, losing us a variable.

But it’s not all about DRS. This season has shown us what we (should have) known all along. Variation in the pace of the cars creates overtaking, and this increased variation of the cars’ pace as the new Pirelli tyres degrade is creating much of it. By contrast, in many previous years F1 cars have been able to run close to the limit at a consistent pace for most of the race's duration, and Pirelli have done precisely what was asked of them by producing tyres with a limited life span for 2011. Think about the overtakes this year, and plenty have taken place outside of the DRS zone. Yes, you could again argue that it’s ‘not F1’ for the tyre supplier to make sub-standard product on purpose, but frankly that particular ship sailed long ago (see engine freezes, grooved tyres etc etc).

Lap one at the Australian Grand Prix
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
There have been unintended consequences from F1’s new blueprint. Position gained in qualifying is now less critical, meaning not before time Sunday’s relative importance to Saturday has been increased. Talk though of the death of qualifying is greatly exaggerated. Track position still matters and has shown itself to matter many times this year already, even though overtaking is now possible. The likes of Massa in Malaysia (and Turkey), Alonso in China, and Lewis in Turkey showed that your race can unravel pretty rapidly once you get into traffic, if nothing else you’ll likely wear your tyres out more quickly. Still, there is a clear advantage from saving unused sets of tyres for race day (seen, most graphically, in Webber’s run through the field to finish 3rd from 18th on the grid in China), so fewer runs in qualifying will become the aim, as most likely will only running once in the final qualifying session (as Vettel and Webber did in Turkey, and Lewis did in China), effectively bringing back one-shot qualifying.

Some of the apocalyptic predictions made by F1 figures prior to the season about how the new Pirellis would have to be used has not come to pass, not entirely surprisingly. ‘Granny’- like driving (to use Lewis Hamilton’s parlance) being required as drivers strove desperately to keep tyres in shape hasn’t manifested itself, and neither has tyres ‘falling off a cliff’ and losing several seconds of pace after a handful of laps’ use. Indeed, the new formula is instead rewarding those who are prepared to use their tyres with a view to making an extra change, this was certainly the case in China and Turkey. However, doing a stop fewer worked better in Australia and Malaysia, so the optimum strategy hasn’t quite settled yet, and may vary from round to round.

Multi-stop races have indeed become the rule in 2011, what with the wear rate of the Pirellis. The Melbourne race, with two stops made by most of the field and Sergio Perez eking out a one-stop strategy, was a red herring as that track is particularly easy on tyres. Two or three stops was the modus operandi in the next two rounds, and four stops was the way to go in Turkey. There were 82 pitstops in total at Istanbul Park, breaking the previous record of 75 - which occurred during the wet/dry 2007 European Grand Prix. Pirelli reckon however that four stops in a race is too many, and would prefer most of the field to go for three and may tweak their product accordingly. It should be remembered that Turn 8 at Istanbul Park is particularly taxing on tyres, and always has been, so the three stops per driver per race looks to be what we should expect even as things stand.

And, almost unnoticed, KERS is back, after its cameo appearance in 2009. Unlike DRS, everyone has the same advantage, so its impact on the racing itself hasn’t been as great (though the odd passing move has been associated with clever use of KERS, such as Lewis passing Jenson in China). But that’s not really the point of the system, which is more F1 showing its green technology credentials as well as displaying relevance to the car industry, both of which are important in my view. Indeed, I’d like to see the rules on KERS liberalised, rather than have the modest, restricted power KERS outputs we have right now (that awaits in 2013 to some extent). But who’d have thought Red Bull would have been among the KERS refuseniks (though inadvertently) for the first three races? It didn’t seem to impede them much, though even the sceptical Adrian Newey accepts there’s an overall advantage from using the system, and in Turkey it worked for both cars for the first time.

So to the actual who’s hot and who’s not – you know, the sport.

Such as been the intensity of the on-track action up and down the field, few have minded much that first place has belonged to Sebastian Vettel this year for the most part. He’s claimed 93 points out of a possible 100 (after three wins and one second from four rounds), and leads the table by 34 points. More to the point, he’s been dominating from the front: he’s claimed all four pole positions this year and has led 184 of the 228 laps (Rosberg and Button are next up having each led for a mere 14 tours).

Sebastian Vettel has dominated 2011 so far
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Despite all of the changes, Vettel has started off this year the same way he ended last year: imperiously. If anything, he’s upped his game yet further and the assurance from being world champion has clearly had a positive impact on him, both on and off the track. There’s always been some doubt about Seb’s judgement when running in the pack, but there’s nothing outward so far to suggest that this will be a problem when it comes. Even with fifteen (at least) races to go, it’s looking like his title to lose.

Not even the similarly equipped Mark Webber can get near him, despite putting in possibly the drive of the year so far in China. Seemingly Webber’s more aggressive turn-in style than Vettel's is more to the detriment of the tyres, but even with that it appears that Vettel’s found a new level this year that Webber just can’t quite match. Webber did show in Turkey that he’s capable of providing solid back up to his team mate, so that may be enough to keep him at the team for 2012.

Behind them, McLaren turned around their woeful testing form at an astonishing clip, in time for the opening round at Melbourne. They’ve clearly established themselves as best of the rest, and have even grabbed a win, for Lewis in China. Ferrari however went the other way at the same time. Their testing form, which caused some to put them even ahead of the Red Bulls, evaporated on the track at Melbourne, with a final technical upgrade not working, revealing a wind tunnel correlation problem. They do appear to be now getting to the bottom of it, and Alonso’s run clinging to the Red Bulls’ coat tails in Turkey was stellar and showed that the Scuderia may yet give the Bulls something to think about, in the races at least (indeed, Ferrari have been much stronger in the races than in qualifying all season). They also have an upgrade due in Barcelona, the next round. In the case of both teams, there’s work to be done to get on terms with Red Bull and Vettel consistently. Mercedes have also shown in the last two races that they’re capable of being fully paid-up members of the big four, though have been impeded by niggly problems (fuel, or lack of it, in China, tyre performance in Turkey). Of the rest, only Renault look capable of podium runs, and indeed have claimed two already.

If any of them can get close to Seb’s Red Bull it will add yet further to a classic season of F1 racing.


  1. Sorry Graham, While you have an interesting take on the DRS and KERS and make a valid point in respect of the amount of overtaking seen this year I cannot agree that these systems are in the best interests of the sport.

    I remain on the fence in respect of the tyre degradation issue but certainly feel that this is the single biggest change which has provided for on-track, racing, overtaking.

  2. Thanks very much for your comments BazL. It's an interesting point that much of the overtaking this year could be attributed to the tyres rather than the DRS (or KERS). Fernando Alonso's certainly said that he thinks this is the case, and I'm sure others have as well.

    It would be very interesting to see the amount of overtaking there would be without DRS but still with the tyre degradation. I'd guess there wouldn't be quite as much as in the first four races, but a lot more than in previous years. You suspect that the FIA have been a bit surprised by the amount of overtaking created by the new rules this year.