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F1’s overtaking fixation is missing the point

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We all love overtaking in F1, right? We all love the great moves – the ballsy wall-of-deaths, the daring dummies, the late lunges. And we don’t like to processions where one car is sat behind another and can’t overtake. So it made sense that the FIA should make overtaking easier. The problem is there are two separate issues there, and while one has been solved, another has been made comprehensively worse, to the detriment of the sport.

Today’s Indian Grand Prix summed up just about everything that’s wrong with DRS. The DRS zones were on the two main straights, the start/finish straight and the following back straight. This made slip-streaming relatively straight-forward, especially when the gearing was set up for top speed, as Ferrari did. The vast majority of the overtakes in the race were DRS-assisted.

People who see raw overtaking statistics as the answer to every entertainment-related question ever proposed wouldn’t be bothered by this but there are a couple of points that would be missed by that. There is little entertainment value in seeing one car drive past another with ease at the flick of a switch – sure, it could potentially make a race interesting by releasing a car to chase another, but I don’t know anyone who gets excited simply by a slip-stream move. Alongside this, with it being so easy to overtake, the cars soon sorted themselves in order of pace, leading to a largely processional race, in which the only intrigue was centred on how many places the Red Bulls could potentially lose with reliability problems and how Pastor Maldonado could take himself/someone else out of the race.

Overtaking is not the be-all and end-all. The context of and in the race is vital. The moves that are remembered aren’t remembered simply for being overtakes – they have important contexts in the battles for race or championship, and/or they are remembered for bravery. There’s nothing brave about a DRS overtake, and they often spoil the tension. Sometimes one car being stuck behind another can be fantastic to watch – the finishes at Imola in 2005 and 2006 are a great example of this.

The other problem with DRS is that it’s masking other serious issues with overtaking. Since its introduction, it seems people have forgotten how bad the cars are at following other cars through corners, though it was clearly evident today through the fast sweeps of the Buddh circuit. This is certainly a problem that isn’t getting any better. The availability of DRS as a shortcut to working an overtake has simply led to a concentration of all the moves on the DRS zones. To an extent it doesn’t matter if the races are good regardless, and some of the races have been very good this year. But it does mean that the so-called “art” of overtaking is being lost – instead of working an overtake through a sequence of corners or with an act of pure bravery, drivers are happy to sit back and wait for the DRS zone. The challenge is now staying within a second of the car in front once you reach that line – easy enough if you’ve got the faster car.

I don’t believe, like some, that F1 has become less pure solely because of the ability to push a button to go faster – it isn’t an inherently bad thing. But the way it has been set up, the knock-on effect it has had, and the environment within which it has been introduced has given F1 a blander, slightly less authentic feel. DRS, in the majority of cases, seems to have had a similar effect to the reintroduction of refuelling – it’s put the emphasis back on lap time, gaps and pace: the things that are intangible, that you wouldn’t know unless the graphs and commentators told you.

Vettel dominating F1 once again wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the racing was entertaining – though he dominated last year, reaction towards the 2011 season was broadly positive. But the reaction to the past few races has been largely negative.

But on a personal level, I’d go as far as to say F1 has rarely wowed me since DRS was introduced. There have been a few exciting races but the vast majority of races, even the decent ones, have felt slightly hollow. This year has been the first in a long time where I’ve willingly missed races. I’ve barely seen any of qualifying. I just cannot get myself excited for F1 any more. On the one hand, a lot of the time it’s not very entertaining – on the other, changes are being made for the purpose of making it more entertaining, which I don’t think is totally within the ethos of a motor racing championship. It’s all a bit Hollywood. Should the quality of a grand prix effectively be determined by how long the DRS zone is? Because that’s essentially what has happened on several occasions – both being too long and too short.

As with rallying, F1 has been diluted, reduced to a few basic component parts, and jazzed up to make it seem more fun. I guess this may be just getting old but I do feel there is a more fundamental issue here. It’s no longer a stretch to see the FIA and FOM taking the jazzing-up further – the sprinklers and shortcuts mooted in the past no longer seem ridiculous in the context of go-faster buttons. The more rules that are added, the more discourses develop, and F1 becomes irretrievably very different from what it was meant to be and became popular by being, something that was understood as recently as 10 years ago but has been lost in continual attempts to “improve the show” – that it’s supposed to be 24 fast cars racing each other to see which one completes the required distance first.

When the champion was Farina or when the champion was Schumacher, that basic principle remained the guiding factor – now the guiding factor is what F1 people think normal people enjoy. This does seem to be at odds with DRS, since that has been “popular”, but refuelling was initially popular too – the novelty soon wore off. The novelty will wear off with DRS too.

But then I think F1 may now be lost to the marketeers and the businessmen anyway. I’m aware I’m out of step with what many others think. I know nothing can bring the past back. But that doesn’t mean I have to go along with the smelly rotting carcass that’s left. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I don’t like what I’m seeing. But I may have to get used to that.

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Written by James Bennett

October 28, 2012 at 16:12

Posted in F1

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