Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren, Circuit de Catalunya, 2022

“It’s definitely easier” – drivers describe how new cars can run closer than ever

2022 F1 season

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When Formula 1’s managing director of motorsport, Ross Brawn, first revealed the early concepts for what would ultimately become the technical regulations revolution for the 2022 season, there was one core aim underpinning everything: improving the racing.

The debate over the ‘dirty air’ effect in Formula 1 has raged for as long as the vast majority of Formula 1’s 20 drivers have been alive. F1’s dependency on surface-generated downforce had the effect to drivers struggling to get close enough to rivals to attempt to pass has been subject of endless debate.

In Brawn – whose exploits as a technical director and then team owner had rewarded him with multiple world championships – Formula 1 had someone extensively qualified to not only recognise the root causes of the ‘dirty air’ affliction, but be able to conjure a viable solution to it.

“Once the cars get within a few car lengths of each other, they lose 50% of their downforce,” Brawn explained when the concepts for the then-2021 cars were made public for the first time in 2018. “That’s a substantial amount of performance lost. So we set about understanding why that was and how we can improve it.”

Now, years later, the ten teams, 20 race drivers, millions of eager fans across the globe and even Brawn himself have finally had their first glimpse of this new concept come to life, with three days of real world test data following last week’s ‘shakedown’ in Barcelona.

Lando Norris, George Russell, Circuit de Catalunya, 2022
Norris and Russell ran close together in testing
While the radically redesigned ground-effect cars have certainly proved pleasing when it comes to looks, the key question on everyone’s lips in the paddock – beyond ‘who’s looking the quickest’ – was can drivers finally run closer behind rivals without being heavily hampered by the invisible force of disturbed air?

“It seems like it’s a little bit easier to stay behind,” said world champion Max Verstappen after his first full day of running in Red Bull’s new RB18.

“At least, you don’t have this weird loss of downforce where sometimes you have a lot of understeer or massive oversteer. Of course, I don’t expect it to be fully gone and that you can follow on the rear diffuser, because of the speeds we’re still doing in an F1 car, but it all seems a bit more under control.”

Williams driver, Nicholas Latifi, was much more encouraged by the new rules package.

“I did actually have the opportunity to get behind a few cars,” he said. “And yeah, it’s definitely easier to follow. Without a doubt.”

Latifi’s optimism was echoed by new team mate Alex Albon. Asked if he had been surprised by anything out on track during his first official run as an F1 race driver since 2020, Albon replied: “how well we can follow”.

“That’s been pretty surprising,” Albon continued. “It’s a nice surprise, and it’s something which takes a bit of getting used to.”

Drivers are having to effectively relearn how to drive their cars while running close behind other cars, Albon explained, and try to forget the techniques they have forged over years of battling with dirty air.

“You gain almost a memory of what you can and can’t do when you’re a certain distance from a car, you learn how to back off, you learn the limits of following – and that’s kind of been recalibrated a little bit,” he said.

“I haven’t spent many laps behind other cars, but you can tell that it’s improved greatly. And that’s great for the sport.”

While most teams and drivers were focused mainly on learning about their dramatically different cars during their limited track time last week, George Russell and Lando Norris did find time to lap the track together and get a better feel for how the ground effect cars behave when tucked up behind another.

“I think me and George had a perfect demonstration of it,” explained Norris. “I didn’t want to let him past while he was on a quick lap, so screwed him over and held him up a bit.

“Definitely the ‘following in the corners’ part is an improvement. How much exactly? It’s hard to know, because you’re always on different fuel levels and tyres and stuff. Maybe when there’s two, three, four, five, six cars ahead, it can be quite different again.”

Guanyu Zhou, George Russell, Alexander Albon, Circuit de Catalunya, 2022
Could DRS become even more powerful this year?
While Russell believes that it is now easier for cars to follow with the new rules, he admits to being concerned over how the ground effect aero dependency appears to have lessened the effect of slipstreaming down long straights.

“I think the following has been improved, but the slipstream effect has been reduced quite substantially, I think,” said the new Mercedes driver. “So I don’t really know.

“You obviously need that delta on the straights to be able to overtake, as you can only really overtake at the end of a straight into the corner. I think we can follow closer but, from what we’ve seen, the slipstream effect is definitely less effective, so we’ll have to wait and see. I got right up behind Lando and I was a car length or two behind and I couldn’t catch him down the straight, so that was slightly concerning.”

Valtteri Bottas offered similar feedback to Russell, despite his limited laps at the wheel of the Alfa Romeo over the course of the three days. Bottas projects that if the trend continues, DRS may end up becoming a more powerful overtaking aid in 2022 that it was before.

“I did chat with some other drivers, they say they got close, they said they had less slipstream effect,” Bottas explained. “I think it’s an important point that the DRS effect is bigger this year because of the wider wing, so maybe that will compensate the small loss of the slipstream.”

While that may prompt some worries from concerned fans hoping to see the back of the Drag Reduction System from Formula 1 for good, it’s also important to keep in mind how all this is based from impressions over three days at the Circuit de Catalunya – a track capable of producing close racing in many series, but less so when it comes to F1.

The second test at the Bahrain International Circuit, with its multiple long straights heading to slow corners, may offer much better insight into how slipstreaming and DRS may work in 2022. But it is only when all 20 drivers are racing in Bahrain on Sunday 20th March that we will get our first true indication of how successful these major technical regulations have been at giving fans more of the wheel-to-wheel racing they love to see.

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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15 comments on ““It’s definitely easier” – drivers describe how new cars can run closer than ever”

  1. I’m still baffled by Bottas’ slightly contradictory verdict on DRS’ effectiveness.
    These cars allegedly have less drag (originally claimed by Pierre Wache following RBR car launch), & as a fact, less drag means more ineffective DRS (this has already been evident in Monza &, to some extent, also Mexico).
    Yes, Bottas has referred to rear wing size, but still, drag level determines how effective DRS is.

    1. You can still have the rear wing creating more drag (and hence more effective DRS) while the rest of the car creates less drag overall.

  2. This all is pretty amazing.

    I can hardly wait… Can we also turn off DRS?

    1. Absolutely – it was my understanding they only added it in to the new designs as a fall back option if the new designs failed to create closer following in a meaningful way.

      Let’s at least see the first few races without it.

  3. Given that this seems to be the case, you would hope that they run at least the first few races without DRS so we can really see the difference.

    I though they’d only kept DRS as a “plan B” but it sounds like it’s going to be used just as much as previous seasons. Not happy about that.

  4. Will Wood, is there any particular reason why you chose to leave out the comments that Leclerc made about the new rule changes and the way that he thought it impacted trailing cars?

    1. @anon His verdict is the best one. Saying following is easier from 3 to 1-sec & 0.5 to just behind, but the same as recent past from 1 to 0.5.

      1. My guess is CL’s comments weren’t known to Will when he was putting this piece together. @jerejj has stated his main quote and I just think it might be early days for this detailed an analysis overall, but it is interesting to hear him word it that way. I just think it best to get the full details once drivers are in a more apples to apples scenario where we/they can be reassured they’re on similar programs of fuel and tire states and wing configurations etc such as might start to happen at next weeks test, but really will happen for sure during the first race weekend. Personally I find it strange that in his opinion the 1 to .5 range is the same as the recent past given the huge difference in the cars, and I just wonder if that is going to get dialled out as the real cars hit the track the closer we get to the season starting.

        I mean, at 1 to .5 behind even if somehow that is a distance where the wake is more of a problem, the cars themselves are less sensitive to said wake anyway, so I find it hard to imagine anything feels like previous years while trailing a car. And it sounds like they could easily drive themselves out of this range that CL is claiming is there, and certainly I can’t see it damaging front tires like previously. But anyway, here I sit in my armchair saying this lol.

        1. @robbie Indeed. Races, of course, will provide the true answer when in a racing situation both given drivers will be roughly on the same fuel load, pushing as much, etc. Tyre difference is still possible as are wing configurations, but the former two aspects will at least provide apples to apples comparison.

  5. Bring back Kimi
    1st March 2022, 8:24

    The driver concern seems to be about making an overtake in to a corner because of the lost slip stream. Would racing be more exciting if the battle happens through the corner and the overtake on the exit?

  6. I don’t understand why they didn’t take a little bit of time during the first few days to put sensors on the cars and purposely run tests with cars following one another so they could gather real data and sort out what they can before the start of the season. If DRS needs to be made more powerful, figure it out now and make the change, if DRS can be removed, again figure it out now and remove it.

    1. @velocityboy I hear you but I am going to suggest why they didn’t do that it is was just too early days with these cars for them to do anything but just start driving them and getting a feel for what they have done and what they need to do next. I think a few people have already hinted that the next test next week will be a bit more normal now that the teams have more of an idea about what they have on their hands as it relates to their modelling, so perhaps there will be more of a chance for them to do as you are suggesting. But as to specifically figuring out what they should do with DRS, I think they’re probably going to have to race in anger at at least a few different venues to start to get a feel for what they should do.

  7. There is too much incentive for the teams. As soon as they’re on top of their designs I’m confident we’ll gradually see it get worse.

    1. @baasbas Unless FIA makes sure such a thing won’t happen.

  8. I really hope that DRS is eliminated completely, even if there is only a moderate improvement in following and natural overtaking. It never was needed at places like Spa and Montreal where actual overtaking ability was basically negated and those races essentially ruined in my opinion since 2011.

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