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After a disappointing race in Miami with F1 continuing to grapple with how to improve overtaking, it is time to ask the question: has DRS run its course in F1?
DRS is one of the most divisive inventions in F1. Bought in to aid overtaking, it has generated debate since its introduction in 2011. The moveable rear wing allows drivers to close up and pass competitors on track. A car has to be within one second of the car ahead in a designated zone.
Activated on assigned straights, the FIA has shortened the zones, leading to several races with trains of cars unable to pass. As the sport heads to tracks with limited overtaking opportunities, F1 needs to ask itself if now time to ditch DRS.
Origin of DRS
DRS first came into the sport as a result of the 2010 season finale in Abu Dhabi. The first race at the Yas Marina Circuit exposed weaknesses in the track’s design, overtaking proving to be extraordinarily difficult.
The difficulty impacted the championship fight. Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari pitted in reaction to Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull but exited the pits behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov. The Ferrari pushed hard but was unable to pass for the rest of the race. This incensed both the Scuderia and Spaniard as their title ambitions evaporated.
The fallout from the race began as the chequered flag fell. Alonso pulled alongside Petrov on the cooldown lap, shaking his fist. A pointless exercise, as the Renault was never going to just wave the Ferrari past.
The issue was an age-old one in F1 history, dirty air. When a car follows in close proximity to another, it hits the aerodynamic wash of its rival. F1 cars are designed for air to be as streamlined as possible when passing a car, not to follow another. Discussions took place over the winter of 2010 to improve overtaking for the following season to counter this. The solution agreed was to insert a flap into the rear wing, activated by the driver. Upon opening, air rushes into the gap in the wing. This causes the car to punch a hole through the air to provide a slipstream effect.
DRS debuted at the season-opening 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix. As with most F1 regulations, trial and error marked DRS’s introduction in F1. Today, activation is only possible in assigned zones. Back in 2011, drivers could use DRS at will in qualifying. This led to scenes of the rear wing opening out of a corner every few seconds. Once stabilised in its current format, DRS has been a stalwart of all F1 cars since. The size of the gap when the wing has also increased substantially since 2011.
Engine power and parity were further arguments for DRS. Customer engines became normality in 2014 upon the introduction of the current hybrid turbo power units, and at one point, not all power was equal.
A customer engine for the first couple of years did not have a significant difference in power unless it was a McLaren Honda (sorry Honda, but those first engines of 2015 to 2017 were just dreadful). The issue lay in parity, or the amount of power available. The Mercedes power unit proved to be the class of the field in the first few years, benefitting the customer teams. The customer teams however did not have access to all the power modes available, that was reserved for the factory team. Renault had a similar setup.
Combine this with several cars under a second all with DRS open, we ended up with the “DRS train”, a gathering of cars all unable to pass each other. Unlike a real train, the destination could never be reached, leading to frustrated drivers not moving up the order during a race.
While cars are now all similar parity thanks to a ruling from the FIA in 2016, the DRS train has remained. The problem can be exacerbated at tracks like Montreal, where cars have two opportunities to achieve a DRS-related pass. The cars are stuck, and cannot progress. This happened again in Miami, with many cars simply unable to pass. This was also the case in Jeddah unless the car in question is a Red Bull.
Dirty air has only become more of a challenge. The ultra-fast 2017 to 2021 cars were even harder to follow closely than the smaller cars from 2010 to 2016. The ground effect cars from 2022 seem to allow for closer racing, but while the aid exists, so will the train. The argument of if ditching DRS will improve, but the case for keeping it is always the same, can cars pass each other without it?
Can cars pass without DRS?
The answer is of course a resounding yes. Some of the modern era’s most iconic overtakes have been achieved without DRS, negating the need for it.
One of the most memorable came in the same year as DRS’s introduction, 2011. Mark Webber powered down the hill at Spa Francorchamps heading to Eau Rouge at over 180mph, determined to pass Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. He dived down the outside of Alonso as both cars prepared to race up Radillon. The tyres of both cars were just inches apart, but Webber got through in an ambitious overtake.
At the 2014 rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton had to earn his way passed his teammate Nico Rosberg. It took three attempts, and learning how the German was placing his identical car into the first corner. It required precision, thinking and ingenuity. DRS has largely removed this from a driver’s thought process. All too often we see a car waiting to enter the activation zone rather than attempting a pass without the overtaking aid.
Which overtake at Eau Rouge (Spa) was better: #F1
Mark Webber vs Fernando Alonso (2011)
Kimi Raikkonen vs Michael Schumacher (2012)https://t.co/NiJ3CVIofl pic.twitter.com/6YwysUSeOg
— Motorsports in the 2000s (@CrystalRacing) August 11, 2018
Fast forward to 2021, and examples of non-DRS overtaking are rarer. The most notable both come from McLaren at the Italian Grand Prix. As reported by Motorsport Magazine Lando Norris passed Charles Leclerc into turn one, and then again after a Safety Car restart. While this generation of cars easily had the worst of the dirty air issues, passes were more than possible. F1 has simply become dependent on it. The argument for keeping it is always that the cars struggle to pass without DRS, and dirty air will ruin the show.
The classic eras of F1 are full of brilliant passes that did not require aids. Mika Hakkinen’s outstanding overtake on Michael Schumacher at the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix is now in F1 lore. The move took multiple laps to set up and is an example of two titans duelling in the best way possible with an ingenious outcome. It was one of the best days in F1 history, an example of drivers earning their money and reputation.
Fellow Flying Finn Kimi Räikkönen pulled off an audacious move on the final lap of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix to take the win. Chasing down Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault for multiple laps after his final pit stop, Räikkönen dived around the outside into turn 1. Covered in aerodynamic aids, these cars suffered badly from dirty air. Yet overtakes were still possible.
Then there is Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna racing inches from each other at Barcelona in 1992. Sparks flying, hard racing and total commitment. All while combatting dirty air.
Onboard with Mika Häkkinen as he pushes Michael Schumacher to the absolute limit around Spa. Going three-wide on the Kemmel straight like that was absolutely hair-raising 🤩 (2000)#F1 🎥 F1 pic.twitter.com/dGoukFH5IY
— The Purple Sector (@purpsectorf1) February 24, 2021
Give back F1 its DNA
Although the dirty air that caused F1 to introduce DRS very much still exists, it is important to state that it always has. F1 raced from the 1950s to the mid-2000s with no overtaking aids, and many of these eras are seen as iconic.
The early 2000s cars had ferocious power. Works of art, the engine soundtrack mimicked the Greek gods in a blind rage. Racing from this era is highly coveted and fondly remembered. Demonstration runs of these cars attract huge crowds, including in the F1 paddock, the 2020 run of the Renault R25 is one of the most high-profile. But even the most teary-eyed traditionalists must also admit overtaking during this era was notoriously difficult.
The thing is, that is what F1 should be about. Hard racing and pushing hard to overtake a competitor. Gone are the days of watching a rival chase down another car, and plan how to pass. Hard grafting and pushing fellow drivers to the limit was once a fabric of F1’s DNA, it is now sadly lacking. Returning this to the drivers will bring back one of the ingredients F1 has thrown away in pursuit of entertainment and more viewership. Reducing a DRS zone is now seen as a negative. In essence, the sport now depends on it. This is not and cannot be right.
The removal of DRS will not be a silver bullet to remove F1’s existential issue of how to improve overtaking. But the idea of opening the rear wing to pass another car has always been a gimmick. Can an F1 fan realistically look at a classic Ferrari, Williams or McLaren and say DRS would improve it? Didn’t think so either.
Feature Image Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Chris Graythen/Getty Images