Overtaking aids – who has it right, F1 or IndyCar? DRS versus P2P
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From On The Throttle Motor Racing Blog

DRS vs P2P – Who has it right?

Modern open wheel racing faces a fundamental problem. With cars becoming more and more aerodynamically efficient, and more sensitive to the air in which they run in, it is becoming harder and harder for cars to closely follow each other through corners. Cars being unable to follow each other closely induces drawn out racing where cars run around spaced apart, unable to make inroads into gap to the car in front of them.

In layman’s terms, the spoiled airflow from the car in front makes it impossible for the chasing car to perform to it’s optimum aerodynamically, so crucial in current racing, with horrid understeer often apparent on car’s in car camera’s as the front wing struggles to create enough downforce as it splits through a disturbed airflow. This has a negative effect on what the fans come to see – close quarters, wheel to wheel racing. The FIA have employed a Drag Reduction System as a way to combat this.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus Renault F1 Team and Romain Grosjean, Lotus Renault F1 Team
Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus Renault F1 Team and Romain Grosjean, Lotus Renault F1 Team

Photo by: xpb.cc

This problem is not unique to Formula 1 of course – America’s top open wheel series IndyCar also suffers. With IndyCar running turbo engines, something which F1 will do from 2014, rather than a drag reduction system, Randy Bernard’s series use a Push to Pass feature to give cars a BHP boost, easing overtaking. With F1 seemingly obsessed with abbreviating everything possible nowadays (“Qually”, “FP2″, “Q1″ some irritating examples), IndyCar appear to have got on board with this phenomenon also, it’s Push to Pass button being referred to as “P2P”.

Open Wheel Cars Struggle to Follow Each Other Under Current Regulations

So what has brought about the need for these gimmicks and toys which a modern day racing driver has at their disposal to aid passing? For me, they are very much a product of the environment open wheel racing currently finds itself in – the importance of aerodynamics nowadays leave us in an aerodynamic era in F1. Whilst the 1950′s gave us skinny tyre shod front engined cars racing on long public road circuits, the 60′s brought us rear engined compact cars and advent of wings, the 70′s saw the first incarnations of ground effects, the 80′s stunning turbo engines with mind boggling power and the 90′s super high tech gizmos, aerodynamics is now king. Whilst ten years in a long time in F1 and these characteristics may not necessarily define the decade in question, they no doubt stand out as memorable reminders of days gone by. Post 2000 we have seen the growing importance of aerodynamics, although these have been a factor in F1 for many years, they have never before been given such a precedence in the sport as now. Like it or not, we are in an aerodynamic age in F1.

Teams of engineers sitting on laptop’s looking at wind tunnel results and drag coefficients are unlikely to spur stories as romantic or stimulating as Derek Warwick’s tales of waste gate removed qualifying laps at Monza with a 1350bhp BMW M12/13 qualifying special sat behind him, or Stirling Moss defying the odds without a clutch to make his tortured Continental tyres last 195 miles to beat the Ferrari works team’s 3 new overbearing 2.4 146′s in his little 1.96 litre Cooper in Argentina in 1958, but in this day and age aerodynamics is king.

IndyCar, America’s top open wheel series.
IndyCar, America’s top open wheel series.

Photo by: Adriano Manocchia

Before DRS was introduced to F1, fans have sat through more than their fair share of processional races, a couple of Spanish and Hungarian Grand Prix’s in the early part of the 2000′s spring to mind, so the need to spice up the racing was warranted. The early years of the decade did produce some stunning action of course, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen going either side of a stunned Ricardo Zonta at Spa in 2000 and several of Juan Montoya’s antics during these years were certainly to get excited about.

These pockets of spectacular action were more an exception than a regular occurrence however, with most of the memorable moments featuring inclement weather, such as Brazil in 2003 and Malaysia 2001. This pattern was continued as the decade wore on, Button’s win in Hungary 2006 and Kubica and Massa’s battle at Fuji in 2007 both good examples. TV viewing figure patterns at this time peaked at the race start, where most of the action took place, before petering out as Sunday afternoon wore on.

To try and combat the lack of regular close quarters wheel to wheel action the sport was lacking, F1 announced a Drag Reduction System (DRS to fashionably abbreviate) to be introduced for 2011. This took the guise of an adjustable flap within the rear wing of the car, which could be opened and closed upon the drivers command, opening the flap on the straight giving an anticipated 10-12 km/h speed advantage.

Open DRS Wing

The flap can only be opened when the car is within 1 second of the one in front of it at the DRS detection point, which is marked out on track. Shortly after the detection point there is an activation point, where the driver can flick the switch and obtain the speed advantage on the car running ahead. The DRS activation points were placed at the beginning on long straights, enabling drivers to use the system for as long as possible, the idea being when the next corner came up, cars would be close together and able to pass. Drivers would not be able to use DRS during the opening two laps of the race.

McLaren Mercedes f-Duct
McLaren Mercedes f-Duct

Photo by: xpb.cc

The idea derived from the F Duct system McLaren cleverly introduced in 2010, whereby the driver covered up a small hole in the cockpit with his left leg, which channeled air through a duct in the cockpit toward the rear of the car. The change in this air pressure as it passed through the duct, coupled with small slots on the rear wing which it flowed over, enabled the wing to “stall”, reducing drag and giving the car a speed advantage, similar to when the DRS flap is opened on a current car.

As with most things in F1 other teams soon copied the McLaren system, Ferrari being one, although their system required the driver to cover the hole on the cockpit with their left hand, enabling Fernando Alonso to exit the fast final turn at Barcelona with only one hand gripping the wheel as the other activated the duct. This is something the FIA were not keen on for safety reasons, although Alonso did not see a problem, and so took it upon themselves to ban this type of system of 2011, but introduce DRS.

DRS was announced to a mixed reception, this writer for one is not a fan. It devalues overtakes made using it, simply flicking a switching and streaking up to the car in front and pulling out to pass it like using the fast lane on a motorway has no place in an arena where the finest race car drivers in the world play their trade. Passes like this can be made by drivers who do not posses the skill set to be in F1, therefore they should not be able to be made in F1. Merit wise, they equate to an Audi R18 at Le Mans indicating over and passing a Chevrolet Corvette C6.R on the Mulsanne straight for example.

We saw examples in 2011 where the DRS activation zone was placed too far before the corner it was intended to create passing opportunities at, Turkey springs to mind. Here we saw drivers making passes on the straight and having enough time to pull back in front the car he had just overtaken before the corner – passes were painfully easy to watch.

Lotus Renault F1 Team rear suspension and rear wing
Lotus Renault F1 Team rear suspension and rear wing

Photo by: xpb.cc

The other, and most important drawback in my eyes is that when the DRS system is activated, the car chasing is no longer the same spec as the one in front of it, surely cars being the same spec is a cornerstone of F1, which is after all a sport. One car being able to change it’s fundamental set up whilst another car in the same race cannot for me has no place in F1 – this is not true racing. Perhaps this is a romantic purists view, but I stand by it.

Cars Are Not The Same Spec When Using DRS – a Drawback

Mark Webber, the driver in F1 who is least scared to voice that rare thing in PR dominated sports these days, an opinion, had this to say about the introduction of DRS – “Overtaking moves should be about pressurizing, being skilful, and tactical. Yes we want to see more overtaking, of course we do, we know that, but we also need to keep the element of skill involved in overtaking and not just hitting buttons”. Sentiments very much echoed by this blog.

Whatever it’s merits, DRS was introduced in Melbourne in 2011. As with new rules which are introduced to any sport, there were a few problems to iron out at first. The aforementioned detection zone misplacement in Turkey, and safety concerns over the speed differential of cars when running in the rain with poor visibility, had to be addressed. The FIA have since taken steps to address these issues, with activation points being move closer to corners and DRS being banned when visibility is poor, relieving worries of a repeat of accidents suffered by Giancarlo Fisichella at Spa in 1998 or Didier Pironi at Hockenheim in 1982.

It is understandable that issues arise with new technology and rules, perhaps there is a argument that the new system could have been tried in GP2 or a lower series first to perfect it before it was used at the pinnacle of the sport.

Webber follow Alonso at Spa in 2011
Webber follow Alonso at Spa in 2011

Photo by: xpb.cc

At Spa in 2011 Webber was involved in an exchange with Fernando Alonso which perfectly demonstrated his point, and the negative points regarding DRS highlighted in this article. The Aussie made a stunning genuine pass on Alonso’s Ferrari at Eau Rouge of all places, squeezing down the inside of the Spaniard, using a helping of the kers at the flat out left kink which forms the first part of one of the finest corners in F1. The on board camera on the Red Bull showed just how brave the pass was, not a hint of lift as the two cars ran side by side so close together at close to 200mph (See on video provide below).

This fantastic action is what F1 should be about. Ok, we don’t expect such a breathtaking pass every Sunday, but jaw dropping moments like this are why people love F1. As the next lap came around, Alonso was under a second behind Webber, and moved out to pass the Red Bull on the long run down to Les Combes, DRS open – no contest. Webber was a sitting duck. Moments like highlighted DRS faults.

It is only fair to mention DRS plus points. No doubt viewing figures have increased since the system was introduced, as on track action has grown, even it some of it is plastic. With the global economy in the state it currently is, F1 needs all the sponsors it can get. With TV viewing figures increasing, this will surely encourage more sponsors to enter the sport, as they try to promote their product to the widest possible audience. No sport can afford to turn this down, even if the on track action is at times contrived. Does this indeed matter to the casual fan, who make up a portion of this audience bigger than the racing purist?

Across the pond IndyCar is using a Push to Pass button to promote overtaking at its road and street course events. IndyCar is in a much less stable state than F1 at the moment, with confusion over the date of the introduction of proposed aero-kits, the debacle which has been Lotus entry as an engine supplier this year, and this years scheduled Chinese race recently being shelved. Despite these problems, IndyCar is still pushing ahead with rule changes designed to promote overtaking and close racing, something with the new for 2012 DW12 Dallara chassis has provided anyway – there have been some excellent races in IndyCar this year, the requirement for a push to pass feature is open to question in this writers eyes.

Push to Pass gives drivers a turbocharger boost and extra 200 rpm, activated by a button on the steering wheel. The feature returned to IndyCar for the Toronto race in July, having been originally introduced at the start of 2009. Since Toronto, the system has been tweaked again, in time for the August Mid-Ohio race – more on that later.

Push to Pass Returned to IndyCar at Toronto in 2012

When Push to Pass was re-introduced in Toronto, it received an underwhelming response. Helio Castroneves, who has seen it all in last 15 years or so in Champ Car, IRL and now a re-unified IndyCar, right back to the spectacular, horsepower laden CART cars of the late nineties, remarked “We can see the revs increasing on the computer, but you don’t feel it in the car”. Drivers are given 100 seconds of Push-To-Pass boost, introducing a tactical and skilful element to the equation, something which DRS lacks.

KV Racing Technology steering wheel up close, notice the green push to pass button on the bottom left
KV Racing Technology steering wheel up close, notice the green push to pass button on the bottom left

Photo by: Andy Sallee

Castroneves floated the idea of a delay between the button being pressed and the extra rpm and boost kicking in at Toronto, “Maybe we can do something like a delay, so if one guy presses the button, the guy in front or behind him cannot react right away, then you can make a proper overtake. If I push my button, and the guy I’m chasing then pushes his button, you get nothing out of it. The bottom line is yes, this is for us as drivers, but it’s also for the fans. If we can use the button to cancel each other out, maybe we should think about not letting that happen so easy.”

Someone at IndyCar must have been listening to Helio, as when the series rocked up in Mid-Ohio the Push to Pass rules had been tweaked, with a five second delay introduced between the button being pressed and the boost activated. Trevor Knowles, IndyCar’s director of engine development, describes the change, “After that five seconds, when the driver gets to full throttle or already is at full throttle, the overtake will come on. That’s to stop from using it as a push to defend. You can push the button before you get to the braking zone and when you get on the throttle it will be on overtake”

The delay in response is aimed at making the Push to Pass a tool to be deployed to attack with rather than defend, although the driver in front can always second guess when the driver behind is going to use it. At the Edmonton race, pre-delay, we saw Takuma Sato, never afraid to attempt a pass, have no option but to follow Helio Castroneves home as the Brazilian had more seconds on the push to pass left, he just had to cover the Japanese, matching his push to pass attempts. This is not what IndyCar had in mind one thinks, although the tactical intrigue did add to the race. Sato had used up a lot of P2P early in the race, making some trademark bold overtaking moves on his way up to 2nd behind Castroneves, in an entertaining race.

Briscoe follows Castroneves at Edmonton
Briscoe follows Castroneves at Edmonton

Photo by: Covy Moore

Briscoe Follows Castroneves at Edmonton. The Brazilian Has More P2P Seconds Left.

Viewed in direct comparison with DRS, I would say Push to Pass holds more racing merit. Both cars are able to use it at once, assuming one has not used up it’s 100 seconds of boost already. If they have, a pass become easy and the cars are strictly not the same spec, but as a racing fan it’s easier to accept it in this instances, because of the 100 seconds rule, which adds tactical intrigue, something which is more prevalent in American racing anyway, with it’s full course cautions and fuel mixture settings.

Even with the delay on the Push to Pass button, it can be used to defend, something DRS can not. The rules around Push to Pass are likely to change over the rest of 2012, more boost perhaps or more revs, which may well improve “the show” further.

The fact both series have employed methods designed to ease drivers when it comes to overtaking, perhaps proves finally that nowadays, under the current rule set at least, the car is more important than the driver. If a driver requires a push to pass or drag reduction gimmick in order to be able to pass other cars, have we crossed over into an era when car performance outranks driver skill? If we stick with these ideas, will driver skill diminish in the long term even?

The fundamental problem with open wheel cars is they are unable to run in turbulent air. Introducing DRS or a push to pass option does not solve this problem, it is merely a fix for it. If the FIA or IndyCar did something about car aerodynamics, creating a rule set where cars are not so sensitive to airflow, we would not need these gimmicks which devalue passes, plasticize the racing and diminish overtaking merits.

Follow Lee Towers on Twitter @on_the_throttle

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