Overtaking is the thing all Formula 1 fans turn up to see. It’s what gets us all on the edge of our seats, and yet, if Formula 1‘s sole aim over the last five or six years was to eradicate overtaking through regulatory changes and off-track strategy, I doubt if it could have done a better job.
Firstly, there’s the aero make-up of the current generation of 1.6l V6-hybrid cars. They are so heavily (and increasingly) reliant on aerodynamics that not only is their performance hugely compromised when not running in clear air (ie behind another car) but all these clever little devices that steer airflow in one direction or another leave a trail of dirty, spoiled air in their wake, making it nigh-on impossible for a car behind to follow closely.
Then there’s DRS. Designed as a band-aid (Elastoplast if you’re in the UK) to mask the above aero problem by allowing a car in the slipstream of another to open a flap on its rear wing, shedding drag and giving it a speed advantage of the car it’s trailing, giving the driver an overtaking opportunity he wouldn’t otherwise have had. Whilst undoubtedly a success in achieving what it set out to do, (hooray!), one indirect consequence is that very seldom do we see a driver chancing a move into one of the corners knowing that in half a lap DRS will hand him a gift wrapped, risk-free pass in a straight line (boo!).
A third factor is that the make-up of F1’s ten teams is such that – as a result of the deep pockets of the top teams and the less-deep pockets of the smaller teams – there are a number of very distinct classes in F1, and very rarely can a car in one class challenge another in a class above.
Ahead of regulatory changes on the horizon in 2022, Formula 1 seems keen to mask some of these fundamental issues in an attempt to stop the haemorrhaging of interest in F1’s snoozefest we’re currently seeing.
One idea that doesn’t seem to want to go away, despite much resistance is that of reverse grid races, where grids would be formed based on reverse championship order for a Saturday race to determine the starting order for the Grand Prix proper on Sunday.
The thinking behind this is that the quick guys would start at the back and would have no choice but to overtake a boatload of cars if they want to finish at or near the front. And if they don’t manage to make it through the field, then they’ll start Sunday’s race at a disadvantage, yielding more unpredictable races, a wider range of podium finishers and a great deal more on-track action.
One driver against the idea is Williams’ George Russell, despite being one of the likely beneficiaries of the measure should it already have been in place.
“I am against it to be honest because the fact is we are in the slowest car on the grid – we would just sort of get eaten alive” Russell told crash.net
“We would be defending like crazy to try hold off the faster cars that were behind us. But, as drivers, you would be made to look a little bit stupid because ultimately you are battling against guys who are in cars much quicker than yours”
“But for image, not just me and Nicholas, but the Haas guys and the Alfa guys, it is just impossible racing cars that are so much faster than yours.”
Personally, I hate gimmicks in Formula 1 and reverse grid races definitely fall into that category. While I’d love to see organic overtaking, manufactured, forced overtaking of the kind we get with DRS, doesn’t have the same appeal – and neither would it if a mega quick car was forced to start at the back, and forced to pick off much slower prey.
If (when I was a carefree younger man who went in for this sort of thing!) I’d met a nice girl in a bar and she’d been sufficiently impressed with my patter to agree to go on a date with me I’d feel pretty pleased with myself.
If I’d then found out that she’d been forced to go on said date by my sister, although I’m sure we’d still have a lovely evening, it would take quite a significant part of the shine off the whole affair.
A skilfully crafted, considered, brave, organic overtake involving two equally matched cars is like a that hard-earned date. Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes overtaking a Williams who’s 20kph slower because he’s been made to start at the back in a reverse grid race is like my sister getting involved. It’s just not the same.