Insider’s guide: Rules of overtaking

Do you know what rights drivers have in combat, how DRS works and who F1’s best overtakers are? Find out this and more here…

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Making a pass to gain position is F1’s equivalent of scoring a goal in football, and just like hitting the back of the net, making a move stick requires a set of techniques honed over years of practice on the way up the feeder ladder.

While modern cars have not made passing easy, the talent at the top still has what it takes to conjure up some magic. But how does it all happen?

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What is a racing line? 

This is the fastest route around a corner and typically involves taking a wide approach then cutting in to the apex – the mid-point of the corner – then drifting out wide again as the power goes back on.

This line is often visible on the track, because every time a car corners it leaves small amounts of rubber from its tyres on the surface. This builds up over time, giving the racing line more grip and making it even more advantageous to follow.

In the wet, it becomes even more obvious as the tyre grooves rapidly remove the water from the tack surface and throw it out to the side. In fact on a drying track drivers on old wets sometimes move off line to the wet patches for cooling.

What are marbles?

When a car corners, as well as leaving rubber on the racing line it also spits out little chunks of rubber, some the size of a pea, called marbles. They are sheared off the tyre and end up on the outside of corners, making off-line more slippery.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Why is slipstreaming good but following in dirty air bad?

The complex aerodynamics in F1 are designed to create high levels of downforce. They work best in clean airflow, giving extra aerodynamic grip to push the tyres down onto the track and help cars corner faster.

As the air flows over the surfaces, it gets churned up and creates a swirling mess of turbulent air at the back of the car. This ‘dirty air’ is known as the wake and it effectively creates a pressure ‘hole’ behind the rear wing.

This creates pace destroying drag, slowing the car down – but on a straight it has the opposite effect on any car that is following and if a driver behind can get close enough, they will get a boost and be sucked forwards.

This slipstreaming effect is massive – and if the straight is long enough to get that ‘tow’ working, it’s one of the easiest ways to overtake. In fact, at Monza, teams use their two cars together to gain this affect and improve their lap times.

That’s all good in a straight line, where downforce is not required and extra acceleration is very welcome. Through the corners, though, it’s a different matter because there, following in the wake of another car is no good at all.

The ‘dirty’ air badly affects the airflow over the front wing, end plates and front of the car, and that affects the entire flow over the rest of the car. That drastically reduces downforce and changes the aerodynamic balance.

As the two cars go through the corners, the one behind has less downforce and less grip, so the one in front can pull out a gap through the twisty sections. And that makes it way harder to find a way to overtake.

The most recent crop of F1 cars created a lot of turbulent air, despite regulation changes aimed at reducing it. The 2022 regulations are designed specifically to reduce this – so that should make overtaking a bit easier again…all being well.

Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Photo by: Alfa Romeo

How does a driver plan an overtaking move?

To make a pass on track, drivers either need a big car advantage or they need to think smart. Most overtakes are set up many corners in advance and many are thought about several laps before they are made.

When following another car, drivers can easily see their rivals’ weaknesses and plot ways to pounce on them. Spotting where a car loses traction, brakes earlier or locks a wheel are all cues for possible places to overtake.

Likewise, spotting how a driver is adapting to deteriorating conditions lap after lap – such as tyre degradation, engine management or coping with damage – will show when a possible opportunity is worth attempting.

How does a driver make a move and make it stick?

As a driver heads into a corner, to follow the racing line at the highest speed possible they need to hit the brakes at a specific point and knock off enough speed before the turn-in point.

If a driver brakes too late, they will have too much forward momentum to be able to turn the car. If they take no action, they will slide wide, or if they brake hard they will lock their wheels and the same will happen.

Drivers will have to brake earlier as the condition of their tyres and brakes gets worse. Those with fresher tyres and cooler brakes can brake later – and that’s where an overtaking opportunity can come.

Braking points put the precision of F1 driving into perspective. At 200mph, braking just a tenth of a second later will cause the car to overshoot the braking point by two car lengths. A tenth earlier, and it will slow down far too soon.

To overtake through a corner, a driver has to move off the racing line at the entry point – but if they get it right, they can prevent the driver in front from being able to follow the racing line through the corner and take the optimum exit.

The success of the move depends on what comes next.

If it’s a straight, as long as the exit speed is good it’s job done. If the next corner is in the same direction, the overtaker has the advantage but the defender could carry momentum and hold on around the outside. If the next corner is in the opposite direction and the defender has enough momentum, it’s their advantage.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, crash out

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, crash out

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

What’s fair and what’s not?

Overtaking moves are governed by the ‘right to space’ and the guidelines are explained clearly in the sporting regulations. The problem is, it’s often not a clear-cut decision and it’s always up for debate.

The ‘right to space’ was thrown under the microscope in the latter part of 2021, when Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton both had some thrilling wheel-to-wheel battles that took one or both of them off the track.

In high-speed straight-line battles, drivers must ‘give respect’ to each other’s space – but exactly what that means and whether a driver is deemed to have overstepped the mark is a decision for the stewards.

This rule has been pushed to its limits many times – most memorably in Spain 1991, when Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell nudged closer and closer as their bouncing cars showered sparks along the straight, and in Hungary 2010, when Michael Schumacher nearly squeezed Rubens Barrichello into a concrete wall.

Drivers often make a lunge heading into a braking zone, but changing direction under these conditions is a no-no and anything too aggressive is almost certain to be put under investigation by the stewards.

To make an overtake stick on the inside of a corner, a driver only needs to have their front wheel in front of the defending car’s rear wheel for it to be judged a fair move. On the outside, the cars must be side by side.

Drivers can defend their position, but they can only move once. Any more, and that’s weaving. And that’s illegal. The grey area comes when a driver moves then moves again to prepare for the corner ahead. That is allowed, but only if they give the other driver enough space.

Red Bull Racing RB16B DRS gap checking

Red Bull Racing RB16B DRS gap checking

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

What is DRS and how does it help overtaking?

DRS – which stands for drag reduction system – is a device on the car that allows the driver to change the angle of the rear wing at certain points of a lap, reducing drag and effectively giving them a speed boost to catch the car in front.

It works by pivoting the top wing section of the rear wing assembly around fixed points at the rear, lifting the front of the section up and creating a wide open ‘slot gap’ that the air can flow through without obstruction.

The driver must activate it manually and it automatically returns to the standard position as soon as the brakes are applied. For safety, it’s disabled until two laps after the start, during any safety car periods or when visibility is bad.

Introduced in 2011, it was designed to overcome the lack of overtaking caused by ‘dirty air’ and it can only be used in certain parts of the track – typically on the longest straights – and only if a driver is within one second of the car in front.

It did its job well, immediately leading to record levels of overtaking and the most overtakes in history in the fourth race of the season. Now, a huge proportion of overtakes happen at the end of a DRS zone.

When are you not allowed to overtake?

Overtaking is forbidden on the formation lap – obviously, because the race has not started yet! There are exceptions, though. If a car gets away slowly, drivers can pass it but that car can also pass back to recover their position.

There’s also no overtaking during a safety car period, unless teams are told all lapped cars can overtake, in which case they can recover their lost lap and then go at ‘appropriate speed’ to take up position at the back before the restart.

What are F1’s overtaking records?

The most overtakes in a dry race was 161, during the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix, when several top drivers stared towards the back. The most passes for the lead was at Monza in 1965, where slipstreaming effects led to 41 lead changes.

Jackie Stewart, BRM P261, 1st position, leads Graham Hill, BRM P261

Jackie Stewart, BRM P261, 1st position, leads Graham Hill, BRM P261

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Five races have had no overtakes at all – all of them this century. They were in Monaco in 03 and 21 (although there is debate whether there was one overtake), the US in 05 (although only six cars started), Europe 09 and Belgium 21 (although that race was only one lap behind the safety car).

Read Also:

Who was F1’s best ever overtaker?

Now that’s a tough one and very much down to perspective – but it also depends on the era, because some periods have had regulations that encouraged overtaking more than others.

Nigel Mansell is credited with some of the all-time great moves. He swept around Gerhard Berger on the banked Peraltada – one of F1’s most fearsome corners – in 1991; he blasted past Williams team-mate Nelson Piquet at Silverstone in 1987; and he used pure racer instinct to pass Ayrton Senna in Hungary in 1989.

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