When Formula 1 introduced its revolutionary technical regulations last year, transforming how its cars generate their critical aerodynamic downforce, it was supposed to herald in a new, exciting era of racing in the sport.
But after last weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix featured little passing – in both the much-heralded sprint race and the grand prix – the question of whether F1’s latest generation of cars are failing in their mission to improve racing has been a big topic of conversation in the Miami Grand Prix paddock.
While the early feedback from drivers in 2022 was that it was indeed easier for them to follow rivals than in the previous generation of cars, that has not continued in 2023. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc admitted “it’s a bit more difficult to follow in the low-speed corners” this season, “especially compared to the high speed.”
Leclerc’s Ferrari team mate, Carlos Sainz Jnr, agrees. Asked if he felt overtaking would be difficult around the Miami circuit this weekend, he offered a single word reply: “Yes.”
“I think as the races have come by with this generation of cars is getting quite bad to follow again,” Sainz explained. “So I don’t know how long it is going to last, this race-ability from these new generation of cars, because they are currently getting more and more tricky to follow.”
But what do the drivers think are the reasons why passing appears to be more difficult in season two of F1’s ground effect revolution, despite the field itself getting closer from the front to the rear?
Shorter DRS zones
Many in Formula 1 as well as the fans hoped the changes ushered in last year would make cars easier to follow and spell the beginning of the end for the controversial Drag Reduction System. The FIA has been trying to reduce the effectiveness of the overtaking aid this season by using data from last season and, in the case of Bahrain, Baku and Miami this weekend, shortening some DRS zones by moving the activation points further down straights.
The general consensus among drivers appears to be that, while few are fans of the device, DRS remains critical to racing this season.
“Where we’re racing, I think we need the extra DRS zones, to be more following closely,” said Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu. “Because most of the races have been DRS trains so far – especially for us, trying to clamp back on the field is almost impossible – unless somebody makes a major mistake, which doesn’t really happen too often right now in Formula 1.”
Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll believes DRS is a “very track-dependent” matter. “We go to Baku and overtaking’s a lot easier than Monaco, for example,” he explained.
“I think just having DRS in the right places and having the right length of DRS for each track to give us an exciting race on Sunday, I think that’s something all want to see. We always want to see overtaking on Sunday.”
World champion Max Verstappen had no troubles using his Red Bull’s extremely effective DRS to sail by Leclerc in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. But the championship leader thinks the ability to overtake is inherently linked to overall speed.
“I would prefer, of course, that we could race without DRS – but that’s not possible,” he said.
“I think for us it’s a little bit different. If the car is faster – let’s say when you have to come through the field from the back – it doesn’t really matter how long the zone is, you will get the car ahead. But when the pace is within a tenth, two tenths – you could see that in Baku, I think – once you have a bit of a DRS train, there is no chance.”
Sainz recognises different teams will have different ideas of what makes the ‘ideal’ DRS zone length. But even he thinks shortening the zones is not the right approach for the FIA to be taking.
“I think it’s difficult to ask the drivers because we know that there are cars with more DRS power than others and if you go driver-by-driver, team-by-team, one team will tell you better [with] more DRS, worse [with] more DRS. We are all a bit biased. But if I would forget about which team I drive for, and I would just looking into the benefit of F1, just looking at how difficult it is starting to become follow, at least I wouldn’t shorten them, I would keep them as they were.”
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Raising the floor
After aerodynamic porpoising became a major talking point last year, the FIA responded by introducing new regulations for 2023 in an effort to limit the level of bouncing drivers experienced at high speeds. One of those measures was to raise the minimum height of car floors, which reduced the aerodynamic efficiency of the ground effect-producing underbodies in a small but significant way.
Asked whether he felt the floor height change is contributing to drivers’ difficulties with following in 2023, Mercedes driver George Russell replied: “I think it is.”
“I don’t know exactly why that is,” he admitted. “I think obviously F1 created these regulations to help overtaking and following, and since they were introduced every single team has developed naturally away from their initial intentions, as you develop the car. So every car on the grid is very different compared to what they were intended to look like 18 months ago or two years ago now or whenever it was.
“I think the overtaking is slowly getting more difficult. But also because the slipstream isn’t as large as well with these new cars, it’s slowly going in the wrong direction for overtaking.”
Haas driver Kevin Magnussen agreed. “You can still follow easier than in ’21,” he claimed. “But it’s getting worse because the rule change they made for this year with the floor didn’t help.
“Then also just that’s kind of the natural thing with development going into the cars that tends to become less… you push everything aerodynamically and then it becomes a little more fragile with the airflow, and then it becomes more difficult to follow.”
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Lack of degradation
As well as the aerodynamic downforce cars produce, mechanical grip is also critical to generating racing. F1’s mandatory use of two compounds in a race is intended to encourage racing by having cars racing with varying levels of grip at the same time on track, but as Esteban Ocon points out, there has been little in the way of pit strategy in the early races of the season to shake things up on track.
“We’ve done three races with no degradation, at the moment, which creates more difficulties to overtake,” he explained. “I think in Bahrain we’ve seen much more overtaking than the last three. There was no deg in Australia, no deg in Jeddah, No deg in Baku. Let’s see if there are some here with the new Tarmac. But I think as soon as there’s a bit more degradation, there’s more fights and more fun on track.”
Russell also feels that introducing more tyre wear into races would be a simple way of generating closer racing and more overtaking into this year’s championship.
“I think we all want the best races, the most exciting races, and there’s probably a few easier ways to achieve this in the short term,” he believes. “Like Esteban said about the tyre degradation, it’s been easy one-stops in the last couple of races. And when everybody’s pushing flat-out, there is less exciting races.”
But beyond simple tyre wear, Sainz points out that drivers still have to be very careful to avoid overheating their tyres when pushing to try and challenge a rival ahead.
“Surface overheating, especially,” he explained. “It’s the thing that as soon as you are behind a car and you lose a bit of traction, a little bit of braking grip, you start slipping the tyre and that extra slip means the next corner you have less grip, the next corner you have a bit less grip and you’re only able to follow for one or two laps and then you have to back off.”
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Heaviest ever cars
As well as promising to provide better racing for drivers by allowing them to follow closer, the new technical regulations for 2022 also promised the safest cars ever raced in Formula 1. As a result of strengthening monocoques even further, modern cars are now the heaviest they have ever been, with minimum weights sitting at just under 800 kilograms without fuel.
While this is still far lighter than a World Endurance Championship hypercar or a GT3 sports car, Verstappen believes that the heavy, stiff cars are taking away opportunities for drivers compared to the far lighter F1 cars of the last 20 years.
“The cars that are probably too heavy,” said Verstappen. “They’re too stiff, so you can’t really run a kerb to try and find a bit of a different line.
“Everyone is driving more or less the same line nowadays because of just how the cars work, how stiff the suspension is. And probably now people are finding more and more downforce in the cars, it probably becomes a bit harder to follow as well.”
In the future
The lack of racing is as much a concern to drivers as well as fans, with complaints about the current cars and the low level of overtaking beginning to surface more and more regularly. The drivers intend to raise the matter with F1 bosses, says Sainz.
“We haven’t been asked about it and it hasn’t come up in meetings or in one of these commissions I think that they do.
“We are trying to get the drivers more into those commissions and more involved because I think maybe F1 or the FIA are missing a bit of our feedback and maybe we are not doing a good enough job to be present there to give that feedback.
“In the end they want to know what’s happening, I think we are all starting to feel the same and we are starting to converge towards feeling the same thing which is normally creating a bit of a trend and a bit of an idea of what’s happening.”
As director of the drivers’ union – the Grand Prix Drivers Association – Russell says it’s now time for drivers to raise their voices to help the sport improve into the future.
“For sure we’re going to speak with the FIA and F1 about this because we want to be able to race, we want to be able to fight, as we all did in go-karts where there was no aerodynamics – that’s the ultimate dream,” Russell said.
“I think the sport took a really good turn for the better when these new cars were introduced, but we need to take it to the next step now.”