Unintended consequences in Formula One regulations

The big controversy in F1 this season is the Drag Reduction System, by which a driver who passes an activation line within one second of the car in front of his can gain a substantial amount of speed down the following straight, likely passing the fellow ahead.  So far we’ve seen this system in action in Melbourne, where it did little to encourage passing on the start/finish straight but set up a few passes in the following T3-4-5 complex, and in every race since.  Most recently, at Istanbul Park, it created quite a few uncontested passes (and a few spectacular moves and defences).  This is being done to increase the drama and improve the “show” of Grands Prix.

At three of the first four races, however, Sebastian Vettel won the race from pole.  Not a heck of a lot of drama there.  Even at the Chinese GP, where Lewis Hamilton overtook Vettel in the final stint to take the victory, there wasn’t any nail-biting going on: Hamilton was clearly faster on fresher tires, and Vettel could only choose between letting the faster McLaren past or risking a dangerous and ultimately futile defence (see also: Melbourne 2009).  The “drama”, such as it is, only seems to happen further back in the field.

I’m beginning to suspect that DRS is making the racing less competitive at the front.

Generally speaking, higher downforce is good for lap times in general.  Most modern circuits — Shanghai and Turkey being prime examples — are designed with this in mind, with long straights followed by slow corners intended to force setup compromises: you might have lower overall lap times with more downforce, but you’d be vulnerable on that long straight.  (Downforce creates drag and reduces top speed.)  DRS undermines the compromise, in that if someone’s following you closely, you’re fucked regardless: the guy following will have far more speed with DRS engaged than you will without.

The key is to get away from the guy behind you over the rest of the lap, so he’s not within the one-second DRS window when you get to the long straight.  This is something that the RB7’s especially good at, showing exceptionally high aero efficiency.  Putting your car on P1 also helps — easier to do with more downforce on the car — and Vettel’s won four out of four poles so far.

So here’s what’s usually happened this year: Vettel qualifies P1, starts well, and by the time DRS is enabled three laps into the race has a greater than one second lead over P2.  Whoever’s in P2 has a hard time catching Vettel: P2 can’t use DRS to catch up, and must defend against P3 (who has a strong chance of passing if he’s within a second of P2 and has DRS available).  Meanwhile, P3 must struggle like mad to keep up with P2, staying with a second through the DRS tripwire, and finally doing his best to pull out a plus-one second lead over the next lap lest he be vulnerable to the same thing.  Here, P2 and P3 are using up their tires, while Vettel in P1 is preserving them with a quick but undemanding race pace.  Gosh, guess who’s going to win?

What went differently at Shanghai, then?  First of all, Vettel didn’t get a good start — Button and Hamilton passed him into T1, and with everyone on decent tires it wasn’t possible for him to build a cushion before DRS enabled on lap 3.  He passed Button in the first round of pit stops and set off for what seemed like his usual cruise to victory, but a two-stop strategy — and Hamilton’s fresh set of soft tires, unused in qualifying — left him well off the pace at the end of the GP.  Compare that to Istanbul, where Vettel got a good start from pole, had a chance to build a lead, saved a set of options from qualifying, and carefully (ostentatiously so) covered the rest of the pack’s pit stops.

Next question: how’s this likely to play out at the Circuit de Catalunya?  Despite the fact that DRS is to be enabled for the entire length of the front straight, I don’t think it’ll change much.  Nanny-chicane at T14-15 notwithstanding, Catalunya is chock-full of high speed corners, which suits the RB7 perfectly.  Absent a messed-up start and with tire strategy under control, Vettel’s likely to walk away with the Spanish GP unless Webber can figure out how to keep up with him for the first three laps or one of the other teams brings one hell of an upgrade.

Finally: if  DRS makes the racing less competitive at the front, why were Melbourne, Sepang, and Shanghai such great races?  Part of it comes down to uncertainties about tire strategy (see also: Montreal 2010).  As the season continues and teams get more data on (and more comfortable with) the Pirellis, we’ll see fewer divergent tire strategies and fewer mismatches like Vettel-Hamilton at Shanghai.  Another possibility is that drivers leading a tight group of cars are more inclined to push their driving to the limit, take risks, and ultimately make mistakes (as Massa did at Istanbul), giving following drivers opportunities to pass elsewhere in the circuit.  A third comment is that, at least at Melbourne and Shanghai, the DRS activation zone didn’t give drivers the same overwhelming degree of advantage as it did at Istanbul — instead, drivers used DRS to pressure the car in front, provoke a mistake into the following corner, then retain speed and take advantage well down the track.  This might still happen at Catalunya, where T1-2-3 are awfully quick.


6 Responses to “Unintended consequences in Formula One regulations”

  1. 1 perlhaqr
    May 19, 2011 at 07:57

    I wonder if tweaking the rules might help.

    “Anyone can use DRS at any time, UNLESS they are making a pass, in which case they must wait for the current trigger points / 1 second window rule.”

    Seems like that would help keep the pack tight, at least.

    • May 19, 2011 at 12:07

      That seems like it’d allow the driver being passed to keep using DRS, while the driver making the pass (how do you tell when a pass starts?) finds his speed suddenly cut.

      I think unrestricted DRS, combined with the faster-wearing Pirellis, would make for some decent passing in and of itself. If everyone’s using DRS down the straights, corner approach speeds are higher and braking zones are a bit longer. That should give drivers a bit more opportunity to pass under braking, and generate a bit more tire wear — especially for drivers who aren’t as smooth on the brakes.

      Coming into the season, people were concerned that drivers would try to engage DRS through fast corners in qualifying and spin the car horrifically. It hasn’t happened yet. (I’m curious to see if anyone tries this through Eau Rouge or Blanchimont at Spa.) Right now, DRS cuts out when the driver touches the brakes. If it’s still a concern with unrestricted DRS, it would be easy to have it cut out when the car generates, say, more than 2G of acceleration in any direction instead.

      I think the new tires are the greatest boon to passing this year, and things would be even better if Pirelli could figure out a way to keep the degradation rate roughly the same as it stands but without throwing huge quantities of marbles.

      • 3 perlhaqr
        May 19, 2011 at 13:44

        Oh, damnit, I forgot the most important part of the new suggested rule.

        “Anyone except the lead car can use DRS at any time, UNLESS they are making a pass, in which case they must wait for the current trigger points / 1 second window rule.”

        If you’ve got two cars on a long straight both using DRS, I don’t think the trailing car is likely to be able to pass in that situation. But it will let them catch up to the lead car easier, at which point the trigger point / 1 second rule would come back into play.

        I dunno, might be a stupid idea, and might not have all the bugs worked out. Just the fact that I left the big chunk out of it demonstrates I still wasn’t quite awake yet when I thought of it and wrote it up. :)

        • May 19, 2011 at 14:29

          So in my example from the post, this would prohibit P1 from using DRS, but P2 and P3 could use DRS freely right up until the point where either (a) P3 gets within passing distance of P2 (at which point… neither P2 nor P3 can use DRS? outside the zone?) or (b) P2 gets within passing distance of P1?

          Put differently: You suggest using unrestricted DRS to reduce gaps in the field, and restricted DRS to encourage passing between cars in the same pack?

          I imagine that this would lead to a sort of domino effect, where the first trailing pack catches up to the lead pack, then the next trailing pack catches up to the (now-bigger) lead pack, and so on until either everyone’s racing together or pit strategy has muddied the waters. Seems to me that this would lead to the sort of “don’t be in the lead on the last lap” racing one sometimes gets in Indy Car oval races and NASCAR restrictor-plate events, but it’s hard to say for sure.

          If nothing else, I think we’ve demonstrated the difficulty in “fixing” F1 by dramatically adjusting the rules. :-)

          • 5 perlhaqr
            May 20, 2011 at 12:11

            I was thinking more that in the case of a.) P3 could use DRS up until they got with in passing range of P2, but not to actually pass P2 until they had deactivated the DRS system, and hit one of the trigger zones. P2 would still be able to use DRS to catch up to P1, but not to pass P1 until they had deactivated DRS, and hit one of the trigger points.

            And yeah, the goal of my little mental exercise was to encourage the pack to stay more bunched up. I can’t say what it would do to strategy and last lap issues, like you mention, though.

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