New rules means worse racing in 2017? Not necessarily

2017 F1 season

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The widespread expectation of Formula One’s new aerodynamic rules is that the cars are going to look better but the racing won’t be as much fun to watch.

Wider cars with wider, lower wings will restore F1 machines to their pre-1998 glory. But those wings are going to make races more processional.

This assumption is probably a fair one. But it overlooks some of the complexities of the regulations changes which are likely to have both positive and negative effects.

Understanding the 2017 rules changes

Formula One cars shrunk in 1998
The new rules for this season reverses two previous major rules changes which occurred within the last two decades.

The first was the ‘narrow track’ regulations of 1998, which cut car widths from 2,000mm to 1,800mm. The second was the 2009 changes prompted by the Overtaking Working Group which recommended reducing overall downforce and using a combination of lower, wider front wings and higher, narrower rear wing to encourage cars to run together more closely.

Can the changes observed in F1 in those two seasons tell us much about what to expect this year? In the case of 1998, not really. The cut in car widths in 1998 was a hasty response to the massive reduction in lap times the previous year. This had come about because of the arrival of Bridgestone as a rival tyre supplier to Goodyear, forcing a rapid development in tyre technology.

However today there is no tyre competition in F1 and therefore no incentive for Pirelli to spend vast sums of money in pursuit of the ultimate in race tyre performance. Futhermore, the narrowing of cars in 1998 was accompanied by a switch from slick to grooved tyres. This leaves us with little base for comparison between the two seasons.

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The 2009 example is slightly more useful. According to Clip The Apex’s overtaking statistics, the number of passes in dry races actually fell in the year after the OWG changes, albeit by a mere 1.3%. The oddly-proportioned wings introduced eight years ago did little to improve overtaking, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so pessimistic about what getting rid of them will do.

But there is another, less encouraging point to bear in mind. The 1998 changes were introduced to reduce cornering speeds and the 2009 changes were brought in to encourage overtaking. This year’s changes are intended to increase car performance (which is almost unprecedented in F1 history) with no regard for its effect on overtaking.

The classic downforce problem

Downforce is usually blamed for processional racing
The chief reason why overtaking is expected to be more difficult in 2017 is well understood. Cars will be able to have much larger aerodynamic surfaces this year. This will allow them to generate more downforce to increase cornering speeds.

However the performance of wings is highly sensitive to the air they are running in. One car following in the disturbed air of another through a corner will therefore not be able to follow it as closely, making it harder to overtake.

Greater downforce also means more drag and therefore lower top speeds. This plus improved braking performance – potentially rising to 6G of stopping power this year – will mean shorter braking zones. This also threatens to reduce drivers’ opportunities for overtaking.

Fewer corners

Eau Rouge: Easy flat in 2017?
This is robust reasoning but also somewhat oversimplified. As far as overtaking is concerned there are potential upsides to drivers having more downforce.

Drivers need flat-out sections of track to close on a rival before an overtaking move. With more downforce there are more sections like this.

Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps is a typical example. Mika Hakkinen’s dramatic overtaking move on Michael Schumacher in the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix came about because he was able to tackle Eau Rouge flat out and draw close enough to the Ferrari.

If higher downforce levels can help create more overtaking in this way depends to a large extent on circuit configuration. It’s hard to imagine Monaco suddenly becoming easier to overtake at.

On the limit

Drivers are training harder for 2017
An inevitable consequence of faster cornering speeds is greater strain on the drivers. The move away from ‘high-degradation’ tyres will also make life much more physically demanding.

We may, therefore, see fatigue playing a greater role in races this season. A tired driver under pressure from a rival is more likely to make a mistake, creating an overtaking opportunity.

The simple fact that drivers will have to push flat-out for longer in a race will add to this. It’s easier to avoid a mistake when lapping at 95% of your potential than when going flat-out.

The unpredictable role of tyres

F1 tyres are much wider this year
There are two aspects to the changes in tyres for 2017 which may influence the racing in a positive way. The high-degradation tyres used in recent seasons were more prone to losing performance when following another car closely.

Pirelli has been specifically charged with addressing this in 2017. However as they haven’t been able to accurately simulated the projected downforce gains it remains to be seen whether they will be successful.

Then there’s the physical size of the tyres. It’s always been the case that the four large lumps at each corner of an F1 car have been its least aerodynamically efficient components. The rules prevent designers from shrouding them for better performance.

Drivers therefore stand to gain more from the slipstream of another car in a straight line from the increased amount of air displaced by these huge tyres when driving flat-out. However this potentially beneficial effect is likely to be eclipsed by one of F1’s more controversial features.

The DRS effect

When concerns were first raised that 2017’s faster cars might make for worse racing, the FIA’s answer was predictable and depressing: Make DRS more powerful.

Whether that is a fitting solution to the problems we expect to see this year is a matter of taste. However Liberty’s new motorsport chief Ross Brawn has indicated he is not satisfied with DRS and wants to better understand the causes of F1’s under-researched overtaking problem.

The big picture

New cars will thrill around narrow Monaco
Right now everyone is concentrating on the one likeliest outcome of the 2017 rules changes being that larger wings will mean less overtaking. But while this one outcome is realistic there are likely to be others, some of which could even be beneficial.

As has been the case so often in recent years how the tyres perform will crucial. Arguably, they will be at least as important as the wing changes, possibly even more so.

The quality of racing in 2017 will continue to be strongly influenced by how competitive the field is. If one team continues to have a massive advantage over the rest we can expect to see little close racing at the front. And with two fewer cars on the grid this year there is already less scope for overtaking than there was last season.

It’s also time we considered whether the obsession with overtaking can blind us to everything else which makes F1 great.

In terms of sheer spectacle the 2017 cars should be a sight to behold, brushing the walls in Monaco and tackling some of F1’s fastest corners without lifting. They could make last year’s machines seem tame by comparison.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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33 comments on “New rules means worse racing in 2017? Not necessarily”


    a very well structured artical, but its the last two poitns that weigh the most with me. afterall we wont be able to dertmin anything until after ‘lights out’ in Australia. untill then we can talk till the cows come home about all the possible defects of 2 of what may be deemed as the biggest and most drematic changes in F1 rules in the mordern era.
    first comment –

    And with two fewer cars on the grid this year there is already less scope for overtaking than there was last season.

    . i mean thats common sense but i for one hadent thought about this till i read it (which im not proud of as i loved manor).
    Second Comment – It’s also time we considered whether the obsession with overtaking can blind us to everything else which makes F1 great. – as i said. we can t predict what will happen untill we see it, we can only go on past races. I for one will NOW be sitting back and waiting for the whole thing to unfold and enjoying it as much as possible.

  2. Evil Homer (@)
    9th February 2017, 13:12

    Good article and read- The anticipation for this year with my F1 mates is probably the highest its ever been. I think we all have concerns that while these new cars will be awesome they may lack overtaking! Faster cars are needed in F1 (compared to the gap in GP2) but 4 seconds faster at Barcelona is hard to pick up on TV, but no overtaking isn’t.

    But I honestly think if the car is harder to drive, the less fit and less talented drivers will drop back and the better drivers prevail (but you could argue that the fitter & talented drivers are at the front anyway).

    Either way I cant wait for Melbourne, it cant arrive soon enough :)

    1. But I honestly think if the car is harder to drive, the less fit and less talented drivers will drop back and the better drivers prevail (but you could argue that the fitter & talented drivers are at the front anyway).

      This could be good. We may see some drivers surprise us this year. Some people we regard as less talented might shine, whereas others tipped to shine may actually fall away.

  3. One consideration I have had regarding F1 2017 is that DRS perhaps will become a positive. The problem most fans have with it is that it is an unfair gimmick and whilst I agree with that the initial theory of DRS was that it would allow cars to race side by side. Now there are many factors: length of straight, preceding corner speed, wind direction etc that alter the effectiveness of DRS but I feel that if it was more refined it could be a positive factor.
    If the DRS zones were halved in size and allowed one overtake every 3 or 4 laps rather than 10 per lap fans would see it differently. I can’t help but feel the introduction of DRS should have coincided with 2007 rules not the Pirelli era, where overtaking was already made too easy by ridiculous levels of degradation. The rules on compounds didn’t help either and I think that you were never likely to find a sweet spot throwing every idea together at once. I am positive about the rule change as I feel drivers should be on the physical limit every lap and the cars look much better to me. I had no issues with little overtaking before when the cars looked great and the worst period of F1 for me was the first half of 2015 where there seemed to be procession after procession with rules guaranteeing the status quo. I feel these rules are a step in the right direction and we should give Brawn time to mould the sport into his vision. I trust he won’t make any rash decisions and continuity is paramount going forward.

    1. Good point about the simultaneous introduction of DRS and the Pirelli tires. DRS is a useful tool in “static” races, but not so much in the high-degradation F1. Sadly, these kinds of mistakes are all too common in F1: if you’re experimenting, change one thing at a time. DRS would have been useful at least from the mid-00s and especially since the boring tire rules in 2007, and it may become more useful again this year with faster cars and less tire degradation. I hope DRS won’t be ditched anytime soon.

  4. Excellent article Keith, great overview of so many variables that makes it seem a tad foolish to make predictions, so best be patient and see how things evolve. In any case, I think optimism should accompany these changes – it feels like a return to a more “authentic” F1 (ie, the look of the cars, their speed and ultimate effect on driver performance) which will shape our perception of the racing.

  5. Really good read. Brilliantly written Keith. I get your argument about this obsession with overtaking. As someone that watches a lot of old F1 I think its always been hard to pass. What made Mika v Schumacher at Spa special is it doesn’t happen all the time. Same with Villenueve v Arnoux special. It shouldn’t be made easy like DRS. This is THE pinnacle of racing. It should be hard. Quality beats quantity. DRS gives lots of overtakes but how many are actually really good. I look forward to seeing what they look like. Hopefully they’ll more like race cars that enthralled me in 97

  6. Great to read an article that doesn’t just shoot down the new regs before we’ve even seen a car let alone them race in anger. I even got a cotd mention 2 or 3 weeks ago for expressing optimism about the new regs.

    I guess what has surprised me the most is the number of people that read wider wings and more downforce and stopped there and just assume more processions. Well there is in fact a number of changes going on at once so to me isolating only one aspect such as wings is folly. If it was all about wings and aero downforce we would have seen all along teams running their Monaco setups at Monza. But we don’t do we? They don’t always want or need to run maximum downforce available. With these new tires I predict they will have more opportunity to take some wing off for higher speeds knowing they have the mechanical grip to rely on in the corners. And different tracks will be treated differently as always. And…to me most importantly…I think if the racing is somehow still that problematic as so many predict, the cars can be tweeked. Nothing is written in stone. Didn’t we need change that badly that this new exciting chapter should be given a chance? A lousy formula of terrible tires and DRS just got 3 or 4 years of tenure. Can we at least give this new formula a few races, or must we slam it to the weeds before we’ve even seen a car?

    1. That comment was spot on Robbie and a +1 to this one as well.

    2. Well said mate. A lot of negativity creeping in the closer we get to testing. Personally, I’m really looking forward to seeing how these new machines perform together.

      As a Ricciardo fan, even IF the Mercs romp Q3 in Melbourne, I’ll not be too devastated.
      The new regulations have both pros & cons which might not have a clear influence until a little later on in the season.

      Remember, every track day is, in effect, a test day. So many things can change, even during the early stages of a season, that we really have no clue what to expect.

      I can pretty much guarantee, when those 5 red lights go out in Melbourne, all of you will forget about the negative & just focus on how these men & machines interact.

    3. @robbie, I think that the reason why quite a few have automatically assumed that more downforce will result in less passing is because it is an easy line to spit out. The rule changes next year are a complex interconnected set of changes, and it is a lot easier for a journalist to simply say “more downforce = less passing” rather than carefully considering what may actually happen, which is a mantra that is then repeated by the fans.

  7. A very comprehensive article. I still believe the new regs go in the wrong direction. However, as you have done with words, I will wait and see how the racing becomes(for the first 3 or 4 races) before making a real judgment. There are many other factors and unknown quantities that may prove nay-sayers like myself completely wrong. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt here.

  8. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    9th February 2017, 15:13

    The pros definitely outweigh the cons for me, I’m very excited for the new season. I think the new regs are going to give the best drivers a better platform to showcase their talents as well. Looking forward to some impossible moves from Max, Ricciardo round Monaco and just general genius from Lewis and Alonso. They are the 4 I expect to be most suited to the new cars. I think we may see the best of Hulk as well after a few years where I think he lacked motivation.

  9. i think the slipstream effect will be greater by a greater degree than many have foreseen (i’m sure i could have worded that better…still, it take longer to write a short letter than a long one…erm). i remember in 1998 when drivers were complaining that they couldn’t get into the tow as easily with the narrower cars. before then, a small straightline speed advantage was generally enough. hard to quantify, but it might have a big effect. even more reason to ditch DRS anyway.

    another thing occurred to me was that my perception of 2009 was that it had loads of overtaking (admittedly it had a few mixed up grids, like spa and brazil) and that 2008 had more than its fair share of processions. obviously this is entirely my subjective and unreliable memory, but perhaps the pure number of overtakes isn’t a great measure i.e. many of them could have been incidental, or missed by tv, or whatever.

    what makes things really exciting is when there are numerous teams in the mix for the win (e.g. 2009) but i guess we’ll have to wait and see what the new season brings form-wise.

    1. In 2008 and 2009 the field was incredibly close, so even a mixed up grid wouldn’t necessarily generate a lot of overtaking. I believe the Toyotas, for example, were on the front row in one race and on the back row in another, so the car performances were very much dependent on track characteristics. In 2009 the aerodynamic changes probably had a positive effect on overtaking and KERS may have helped too (although in some cases cars without KERS were stuck behind a much slower KERS-equipped car). The only reason why 2009 had fewer passes than 2008 I can come up with is that in 2009 the car weights were published, so the teams knew exactly when their rivals had to pit, so it was easier to pass via the pitstops. But of course the official overtaking numbers do not always correlate well with how people experience the races; there have been many good races with few overtakes and vice versa.
      Anyway, I think until last year the cars were quite good at following each other and the slipstream effect was still quite pronounced (based on the slipstream overtakes at the start) compared to the mid-00s. I fear this year the cars will be harder to follow again. In combination with less tire degradation this might significantly reduce the amount of overtaking, but this may not necessarily be a bad thing. The cars will be much faster, which is definitely a good thing.

  10. The thing that has bothered me for a while is F1’s obsession with reaching a bigger audience and changing things to suit what “the fans” want. I’ve watched F1 since childhood (’88 is the first season I remember) and I loved it for what it was. Formula one gained a huge audience before all the attempts to “grow their audience” came along just by being what it was. I don’t have a clear point tbh but I keep feeling that if they were to focus on changes made for racing or safety reasons rather than trying to make it more accessible, they’d probably attract more fans anyway!

    Also although unrelated to this article, I want to bring up sorting out the camera angles and shots just in case someone in the right place is reading. These sponsor favouring camera shots kill the speed and I still don’t catch the sponsor logos til the cars are stopped, so just fix it. Static camera shots ftw!

    1. +1 on the 2nd paragraph!

  11. The whole problem has been processions. Everybody loosing the front end when they get near someone. Unless the laws of physics have changed in the last couple years, they went the wrong direction. It’s just gonna be a faster procession now. And unless all the tracks got wider recently, there is going to be less room in turns. No guesswork there.. those are constants.

  12. Any car that produces a superior lap time because of clean air is going to be negatively effected by dirty air. The higher the reliance on clean air for grip the worse the effect. Getting rid of wings altogether would be fine by me.

  13. Eau Rouge at Spa-Francorchamps is a typical example. Mika Hakkinen’s dramatic overtaking move on Michael Schumacher in the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix came about because he was able to tackle Eau Rouge flat out and draw close enough to the Ferrari.

    The bigger thing that helped that overtake happen was that while Hakkinen took Eau Rouge flat Schumacher had a small lift. Back then Eau Rouge wasn’t an easy flat out corner, Especially in the race.

    If Eau Rouge was as easy flat as it would later become & as it almost certainly will be for everyone this year i’m not sure that overtake would have happened.

  14. The role of tyres and DRS are bound to determine this era as a different era altogether, I do agree that we can’t just determine that the racing will worsen, but I do feel that many are overlooking the facts for their memories of their generation of f1. F1 has progressively been chasing the late 80’s and early 90’s first with the turbos and now with the aero, we are going back to same problems, fuel saving, power disparity, big wings.
    I fear though the reason we got to this regulation the “pre-1998 glory” is a big fallacy, it’s just a generation thing.

  15. It is a great article thank Keith. Of course the new rules have advantages and disadvantages.
    Cars will be much faster in lap times (especially during qualifying) so better drivers have more advantages and there may be bigger differences among teammates (in % lap time). But how much will cars be faster during races? It depends on the new tyres and power units fuel consumptions and these 2 main components will decide how drivers could push on the limit.

  16. I’m really interested in what affect the tyres will have on pit stops. They’re larger, presumably heavier, and probably a bit harder to maneuver in tighter pit lanes. Will this create some more drama during stops?

  17. I honestly couldn’t care less if a race has 25 overtakes or 250. The end of this article hits the nail on the head, this obsession with overtaking has distracted the rule-makers from what makes F1 a spectacle. Yes there should be the aim to get the cars as close together as possible, but artificially unbalancing relative performance between attacking and defending cars has sucked all tension out of the sport.

  18. In 2009 the downforce generated was almost the same as 2008 thanks to the double diffuser (at least this is what Ross Brawn advises). So I don’t think overtaking statistics based on a reduction in downforce tell us a whole lot between those two years.

  19. This article reminds me of an Important observation. My brother and I noted several times last year that the Red Bull was superior in traffic, obviously this was a car designed to work in more than just clean air.
    That will make for better racing imo, I don’t the Merc will run away as badly as they did many times last year. I think the Red Bull will maintain that edge in racing conditions.

    Driver fitness must be tested as well since the g load is going up, I can’t imagine the guys not getting wiped out, pulling another g or more in corners and braking is no small manner of increase and it’s bound to show up the human factor more than last year.

    Then there is the wildcard factor;
    Does McLaren really have something trick under its sleeve.
    Can Ferrari move up or will they move down (their attempt to ban the suspension tricks other have mastered appears to be an epic fail.
    Can Williams bounce back?
    Even more curious I am to see Haas, they started very early on the 17 car. Can they take it up a couple of notches?
    Force India always punch above so they will surely continue that but I honestly don’t expect them to move up….its all going to be about development of everything race I race.
    Renault were always one of my favorite teams, they will have a better car for sure.
    I think Sauber is toast using last years powerplant. They will have well moved on by now. No tokens equals more better faster.

    Ferrari need Alfa to join the party as a junior team, they need shared development. Merc gets TONS of data and obviously have the most powerful and efficient power unit.

    I think Red Bull ar bringing the party this year and it’s going to be epic at the front, I just don’t know who will really be there around third to nip at the heals of he best, beyond excited to find out. We won’t really know until 4-5 races in probably, but the the b,c,d spec cars will be coming fast and furious. Gotta love it when their hands aren’t tied so bad..

  20. Thing is, overtaking (at least for me) isn’t the be all and end all of Formula One.

    Faster, better looking cars being driven closer to the limit will provide entertainment enough to make up for any reduction in overtaking.

  21. SO good to read some POSITIVE comments at last in addition to my own under an article about the 2017 regs.
    I have to say i am almost shocked by all the negative comments on all the main motorsport sites
    from what i Call IGNORANT fans and even some journalists who dont know what F1 is supposed to be.
    The ugly narrow “hybrid formula 1 car” will be gone and we will hopefully have cars that look like proper f1 cars back.
    (“proper F1” i have written those words on these sites so many times)
    comments like “take of all/most of the downforce” or “smaller Wheels”, “speed does not matter” because “we cant see the differance in speed” etc makes me think those People can go and watch f3 or something similar.
    and leave us to be facinated and excited by PINNACLE of motorsport, that demands top physique and big balls in addidtion to drivingskills. Because YES i can see the differance in speed, and seeing the driver exhausted at the end of the race is part of the FACINATION With F1. Never mind all this good racing or not talk F1 is back up to speed hopefully
    and by the way we had all this procession and superior teams/ cars back in the day as well when F1 was really popular.
    I am so incredably looking forward to seeing a beautiful monster of a F1 car again. cant wait.

    1. Ah yes, all of us IGNORANT fans, WCDs, designers, team managers, journalists, thank goodness we have vibjorn (get an account) to enlighten us of the reality of F1 2017, he knows the future.

  22. Hmm.. well, worse racing or not, we’ll see, all I know is that for the first time in years I’m counting the days down till we see a new car… you could say genuinely EXCITED, these cars could be real beauts.

  23. Thanks, fantastic comment piece yet again @keithcollantine – but one question remains…
    What about the impact of the supposed increase in ground-effect? It is, I believe, intended that a greater proportion of downforce being generated by the floors will mitigate against turbulent air flowing above the wings. What’s your view on that detail?

    PS: I still maintain that DRS could fix the processional ‘wall’ between following cars by freeing it’s use up to all times except once a car has got within say 0.7-0.5s.

  24. I was against the new regulations as soon as they were announced. Its been interesting to see how sentiment has become more negative as the season approaches. When the changes were announced, people seemed to be viewing the changes through a set of 80s-tinted glasses – “yay wide tyres!!!!”.

    The one point I want to raise is the angle that the cars will be “physically harder to drive so there will be more mistakes from tiredness”. I don’t expect that to happen at all. F1 drivers are amazing athletes. And, compared to “the 80s”, cars have power steering, automated transmissions, and greater driver comfort.

    We’ve got a season of new lap records ahead of us but I will be astonished if there is any improvement in the “racing”. Only question in my mind if how quickly Liberty act to roll back the changes.

  25. Maybe 15 years ago Lauda proposed a Formula that till this day I think has a point:

    – Make the rear tires 3 times wider than the front
    – Make the rear wing has big as a camping table

    The result are cars with mega acceleration and high downforce but only when driven pervectly. A tiny mistake though the exit of a corner results in a huge difference at the end of the following straight. And in Lauda’s opinion no human could drive these cars error free.

    I think this aspect sadly gets overlooked all the time. A lot of overtakes begin with the front car making a mistake (before DRS it was actually the majority). So one of the first questions should always be, how difficult are the new cars to drive…

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