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The Rules of Overtaking

Posted by Carrot on May 7, 2010 | No Comments

Overtaking, every single time a survey of F1 fans is taken it features at the top of the list. In 2010 we actually have more overtaking, but who’d have believed it.

The statisticians will tell you that the Chinese Grand Prix had more overtaking than any other race in years. Sounds great until you realise that every time a car is lapped that counts as an overtake. Therefore the stats count a wheel to wheel battle between championship contenders the same as a blue flag pass by a leader on a new team that’s on the wrong tyres and is down by five seconds a lap even in the dry. We, the fans of the sport, are in fact the judges that will automatically listened to rather than the products of fashionable number crunching. Certainly after the dull procession of the Bahrain Grand Prix, it’s clear that we are not amused.

Watching the second practise session for Spain as I write this, guest commentator and former team principal Eddie Jordan places the blame for the lack of overtaking clearly with the teams and the nature of their aerodynamics departments. I disagree, while aero designers will always go looking, and find, a new way of adding downforce to the car using every possible surface that the air runs over while running, but that’s their job. You cannot ask world class engineers not to do their job. It’s the same as asking drivers to run off the pace to increase overtaking opportunities. The blame isn’t with team principals either. F1 is a multi billion dollar (or whatever currency you care to mention) business. Gone are the romantic days of sporting teams, these teams are businesses. Running them as businesses is the correct way to do it, means the principals and their management staff keep their jobs (frequent changes in the higher ups is extremely disruptive to the momentum of a team) and it makes the team competitive. Love him or hate him, Flavio Briatore ran the Renault team like a business and on a smaller budget he took on McLaren and Ferrari and won back to back championships in 2005 and 2006. The problem is not the teams. Teams exist to go fast and beat their competition comfortably. Trying to pretend otherwise is just faulty thinking.

The way we encourage overtaking is to reach a situation where the rules are such that even with the best sporting efforts of the teams overtaking is possible and common. This is the province of the technical and sporting regulations, the province of the FIA. The blame lies with them. Last year the conflict between Spanky Mosley and FOTA ended up with catty comments in the media resembling a professional wrestling match build up rather than a world class sport of professionals. This led to a continued situation of one-upmanship between the two parties and the idiotic introduction of this refuelling ban. The ban puts all teams on a single base level and this favours the big spending traditional front running teams. At the end of qualifying this year the fastest car over a single lap is at the front barring driver error and traffic. All of these cars are on the same amount of fuel (almost empty when putting in their fast time) then come race day they all put the same amount of fuel in (to last to the end of the race) and there’s no other change. If a car is faster than all the others on Saturday afternoon with the same amount of fuel there’s no reason to believe it’ll get slower come Sunday when it’ll still have the same amount of fuel as its competitors. The idea would have made great sense if there’d been a way for teams to alter their engines to increase fuel efficiency, meaning that they could carry less fuel than the pole sitter and chase him down on full race fuel, but engine development is frozen. You have engines designed to run very fast and last a few races that were designed years ago now being expected to be fuel efficient without any development. The whole fiasco was absurd and it’s left us with a grid where we’ve needed (and luckily got) changeable conditions in order to have any change in the order unlike in Bahrain where only the glass cannon nature of Vettel’s car caused him to lose places.

Last year, instead of trying to spite people he didn’t like in FOTA and push the interests of Cosworth (who got to build their engine to the current rules) Mosley should have stamped out the double diffuser, saving the inevitable conflict at the beginning of this season and the subsequent expensive changes that were required after certain teams were judged to have ‘pushed the envelope too far’. Then we’d have had that device (the cause of a lot of the turbulent air that means each car creates a second long buffer behind it) removed, the engineers might have come up with something new, but that’s their job, and the FIA could have spent the early part of the season deciding whether and how to limit or restrict the new device before the 2011 regulations needed finalising. Instead the regulations are playing catch up a year too late, forcing us to deal with another season where devices that prevent cars following and creating overtaking opportunities are allowed.

It remains to be seen if Todt’s administration will be different to Spanky’s and how. We can hope that Todt will be proactive in his governance of the sport and not petty and vindictive like his predecessor. The teams will not depart if the sport is governed in this way, provided there is transparency and fairness the decisions of the governing body will be accepted. The teams were fundamentally against banzai changes at the last minute that caused them to scrap work already done. The teams aren’t against rule changes for the benefit of the sport and spectators.

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