By Adam Tate
Formula One’s bigger, wider cars of 2017 produced the most downforce the sport has ever seen. That, coupled with the wider, more durable Pirelli tires lead to a massive decrease in overtaking which plummeted 47% compared to 2016 according to Pirelli. The excessive turbulent air of the high downforce cars is well known and Ross Brawn is working on a solution with the 2021 regulations, but it along with the rather dull season finale in Abu Dhabi have lead to an increased focus on the circuits to see how they might be improved as well.
Brawn spoke quite candidly on the issue this week. “The aerodynamic program is now starting to pick up pace, and the work on circuit development is happening. We have already got engaged with some circuits about possible modifications to improve racing,” said Brawn.
Pirelli, F1’s sole tire supplier since 2011 has kept a record of all overtakes each season as an element to track their success and guide future decisions for tire compounds. It is worth noting that the Italian company has a very specific definition for what constitutes an overtake however, here it is word for word, “A pass that takes place during complete flying laps (not the opening lap) and is then maintained all the way to the lap’s finish line.” Therefore it does not include the position changes due to major mechanical problems, lapping and un-lapping that takes place during every race.
With that in mind Pirelli says there were a total of 435 overtakes in this season’s 20 Grands Prix for an average of 21.75 per race. That is way down from 2016’s number of 866 overtakes for 21 races that came to an average of 41.23 passes per race.
The race which saw the most passing was unsurprisingly the chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix which featured 42 overtakes. The hapless Russian Grand Prix with Sochi’s extra smooth asphalt saw only a single overtake after the opening lap.
Red Bull gets top honors for achieving the most overtakes in 2017 with a total of 65; 43 for Daniel Ricciardo and 22 for Max Verstappen. They also share the title of least passed team with Ferrari as they were only overtaken 11 times on track; eight on Ricciardo and only two on Verstappen. Lewis Hamilton was also passed just twice all season.
Disconcertingly, when looking at Pirelli’s data overtaking has been trending downward every year since they came into the sport, save for a small upturn in 2016. 2011 and 2012 averaged nearly 60 passes per race versus the meager 21 from this year. The battle at the front was nice for a change, but it could have been so much better.
It follows Lewis Hamilton’s on air comments after the season finale when he remarked that F1 shouldn’t race at Abu Dhabi because overtaking is so difficult there. He has since also claimed that F2 races should not be more exciting than F1 races. These are the kind of remarks a four time champion has the right to make and he should be commended for doing so as it helps force the sport to take a closer look at itself.
With this is Brawn’s project of looking into ways the various Formula One circuits can be modified to increase opportunities for closer racing and more passing is crucial for the health of the sport.
“We have started looking in our archives,” said Brawn. “Were there periods of racing where there was more overtaking? Are there tracks where there is more overtaking? So you can do a statistical analysis.”
“The thing you have to be careful of is that overtaking isn’t good racing. You have got to start to think about what is good racing and it is two cars fighting each other. It may mean the guy in front stays in front but you can have some great racing going on. It is a little bit more complex than the number of overtakes, counting the number of overtakes.”
Brawn also opened up on what the FIA is analyzing trackside in order to make improvements. “What we are seeing so far is the ability to take different lines through corners is quite important to help racing. So if you have got a hairpin and it is a narrow track, it is not that great. If you have a hairpin and it is a wide track, where there can be some different lines going into it, then you can get something happening. Austin, I think, would fall into the category of where there is a complex of corners.”
He is referring to Austin’s, Circuit of the Americas, which featured one of the season’s most exciting races due in part to such design characteristics. Hamilton praised to it to such a high degree that he called it his favorite track due to all the overtaking opportunities it presents the drivers.
Brawn continued his thought, “So, you take a line on one corner going in, and then you start to force the defending car to start taking different lines. And then eventually you come out in the right place. That is what we are looking at.”
Never before in the history of the sport has there been such a period of self analysis. Liberty is making some big waves and not everyone is happy, but if Ross Brawn can nail down a perfect set of aerodynamic regulations and the circuits can be sorted to produce better racing, Formula One will thrive in a way we haven’t seen in quite some time.
The future is looking brighter.