The 2009 Rules: A Blessing or a KERS?
I have heard it said that it is the very fact that the cars are so closely matched in performance that militates against passing at the moment. In the second part of qualifying, where the cars are all on the same fuel load, just 0.9s separated fastest man Sebastian Vettel from 15th placed Nelson Piquet, so there is no doubt that little separates the fast guys from the tail-enders right now, at least over a single lap. I'm not convinced, though, that this lies at the root of the overtaking problem. After all, there was a reasonable amount of passing in the supporting GP2 races. While the gaps in GP2 are larger, I suspect this has much to do with the greater variation in driver ability than anything else. After all, unlike in F1, the cars are all built to exactly the same specification, and while some teams may be better able to set up their cars than others, that surely can't count for as much as having a fundamentally different chassis in the first place.
The reason overtaking has become so difficult in F1 over the last few years has, to my mind, less to do with how closely matched the cars are, as the fact that the current design of F1 cars massively militates against overtaking. The cars are on a knife-edge aerodynamically, immensely sensitive to 'dirty air' coming off the back of a car in front so that following the car in front closely through corners is all but impossible. Braking distances are so short that a pass under braking requires a courage bordering on foolhardiness and in any case, the fuel/tyre stop pattern of the modern Grand Prix is such that a driver is usually better advised to wait until the pit stops to pass the guy in front.
It's a problem which the FIA are finally coming round to recognising, and attempting to address with what is being talked about as the most major shake-up of the F1 rulebook in over 20 years. Years ago, FIA Head Max Mosley might have talked of the need to see F1 as a "game of high speed chess" but at last, perhaps, wiser counsel is beginning to prevail. The question is, have they got it right?
The biggest, and perhaps the most talked about change is the introduction of Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) which use energy generated under braking, which would otherwise be wasted, to be used to provide additional power for the car. The rules for KERS are remarkably complicated. The KERS units will be limited by the rules to 60Kw and storage capacity for the device is limited to 400Kj. This means that a driver will be able to call upon an additional 80BHP for about 6 seconds a lap. It could help to promote overtaking, as it can be seen as a kind of "push to pass" button as used in A1GP and in Champ Car last year. The trouble is, that as it can only be used for 6s or so a lap, it is likely that every driver will simply hit the button on the longest straight, where the additional power will give the greatest advantage. Push to pass is, itself, no panacea for the problem of overtaking, but one can't help feel that this is probably not the solution. I have to confess I'm disappointed too that the rules are placing artificial limits on how efficient the device is allowed to be - no matter how much energy the teams may be able to get the devices to reclaim from braking each lap, they will not be allowed to claw back more than 400Kj. How this is supposed to meet the other objective of KERS - spurring improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency - I fail to see.
Much less talked about, but arguably of more significance, moveable aerodynamic devices are being allowed back into the sport (like KERS, it's not in itself a new technology. Mclaren had a KERS system back in 1999 before it was banned and adjustable wings go back to the 1960s). It will be possible for drivers to adjust their front wing angle by up to 6 degrees, a maximum of twice a lap. The idea is apparently to improve overtaking opportunities by enabling drivers to dial in more downforce at the front when in the slipstream, enabling a driver to have more confidence in the car under braking. I can't help thinking that the change might have wider application that that. It would be possible to change the oversteer/understeer characteristics for specific parts of the circuit - perhaps running more front wing angle through the twisty bits at the end of circuits like Hockenheim and Silverstone. It will certainly add an intriguing new variable to car set up. Whether it will help overtaking is another matter...
Perhaps the biggest changes, but also the most difficult to analyse as a layman, are the changes to the aerodynamics rules. Many a race fan has complained about the profusion of aerodynamic extrusions - 'chimneys', 'horns' and 'barge boards' on the grounds that they're aesthetically unappealing. Maybe I simply have a very unusual sense of what is beautiful, but I always rather appreciated them myself. To my mind the designs made the cars look like immensely intricate paeans to the laws of physics - shaped exactly as they were because that was what the wind tunnel insisted upon - no matter how counter-intuitive it looked. It is undeniable, though, that the profusion of 'upper body' aerodynamic pieces has made the cars still more sensitive to running in turbulent air, and I'm perfectly happy to see them go if it is going to mean better racing.
The decision to allow lower ground clearance on front wings, on the other hand, is a positive development both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of improving overtaking. The 50mm ground clearance of the front wings on current F1 cars just looks wrong, and on top of that, drivers report that the change made cars notably more sensitive to running turbulent air (though this is in part because teams tried to claw back the lost downforce by developing ever more complicated upper body aerodynamics - see above...) Presumably, the idea is that by banning said upper-body aero pieces, the lower front wings can be lowered without cornering speeds getting out of control.
At the same time, the rear wings are getting taller and narrower. I rather like the look myself, although Autosport's resident F1 design expert questions whether the effect might be to make the cars less aerodynamically stable and more sensitive to turbulent air (and consequently less able to run closely to the car in front) than they are at present. My degree not being in aeronautics or physics (I was a software man) I don't have the faintest clue whether this is the case or not. I hope the FIA have done their sums right, but it wouldn't be the first time that they hadn't.
What seems like a backward step even to an ignoramus like myself is the decision to reduce the maximum size of the rear diffuser on the 2009 F1 cars. Downforce generated by underbody diffusers is much less affected by turbulent air, and cars which rely to a greater extent on downforce generated by the underside of the car (such as the first generation GP2 car and the Panoz Champ Car raced last year) tend to be consequently much more able to run closely together. I only hope that the change is not sufficient to undo all the good work brought about by other changes to the rules.
Slick tyres will ensure the cars look more like proper single seaters than they do with the silly grooved tyres but whether it will make much difference to the racing is another matter. Drivers such as Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve always insisted, at the time that slicks were kicked out of F1, that the change resulted in the cars having much less 'feel' than they did previously, so I suppose it is possible that their reintroduction will enable drivers to push that little bit closer to the absolute limit without going over it, but that said, guys like Alonso, Kubica or Hamilton don't look to me like they are struggling with the tyres they have at present...
Will it all work? I'm in no better position than anyone else to say, really. I certainly hope it does, because, though F1 was never about constant wheel-to-wheel action in the way that some rose-tinted misty-eyed old guys insist it once was, it was rarely as processional as last weekend's European Grand Prix. And if none of the above works? Guys like Flavio Briatore might agitate for reverse grids or weight penalties or some other such nonsense that benights touring car racing these days.
Me, I've no time for any of that. There should be no penalties for success at the top level of international motorsport, any more than Usain Bolt should have to start a couple of metres back from his rivals at the next Olympics. I do recall, though, a rule change a few years back that led to overtaking at Monaco, only to be carelessly cast aside for reasons unclear. Restricting drivers to one set of tyres per race led to some of the most intensely fought individual races in years. Now there's a control tyre, there seems even less reason not to bring it back. Failing that, how about water sprinklers by the side of the track?