Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Baku City Circuit, 2023

F1 drivers explain why DRS tweaks is just one reason passing is getting harder

2023 Miami Grand Prix

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When Formula 1 introduced its revolutionary technical regulations last year, transforming how its cars generate their critical aerodynamic downforce, it was supposed to herald in a new, exciting era of racing in the sport.

But after last weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix featured little passing – in both the much-heralded sprint race and the grand prix – the question of whether F1’s latest generation of cars are failing in their mission to improve racing has been a big topic of conversation in the Miami Grand Prix paddock.

While the early feedback from drivers in 2022 was that it was indeed easier for them to follow rivals than in the previous generation of cars, that has not continued in 2023. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc admitted “it’s a bit more difficult to follow in the low-speed corners” this season, “especially compared to the high speed.”

Leclerc’s Ferrari team mate, Carlos Sainz Jnr, agrees. Asked if he felt overtaking would be difficult around the Miami circuit this weekend, he offered a single word reply: “Yes.”

“I think as the races have come by with this generation of cars is getting quite bad to follow again,” Sainz explained. “So I don’t know how long it is going to last, this race-ability from these new generation of cars, because they are currently getting more and more tricky to follow.”

But what do the drivers think are the reasons why passing appears to be more difficult in season two of F1’s ground effect revolution, despite the field itself getting closer from the front to the rear?

Shorter DRS zones

Many in Formula 1 as well as the fans hoped the changes ushered in last year would make cars easier to follow and spell the beginning of the end for the controversial Drag Reduction System. The FIA has been trying to reduce the effectiveness of the overtaking aid this season by using data from last season and, in the case of Bahrain, Baku and Miami this weekend, shortening some DRS zones by moving the activation points further down straights.

Miami International Autodrome, 2023
DRS zones on Miami’s straights have been shortened
The general consensus among drivers appears to be that, while few are fans of the device, DRS remains critical to racing this season.

“Where we’re racing, I think we need the extra DRS zones, to be more following closely,” said Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu. “Because most of the races have been DRS trains so far – especially for us, trying to clamp back on the field is almost impossible – unless somebody makes a major mistake, which doesn’t really happen too often right now in Formula 1.”

Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll believes DRS is a “very track-dependent” matter. “We go to Baku and overtaking’s a lot easier than Monaco, for example,” he explained.

“I think just having DRS in the right places and having the right length of DRS for each track to give us an exciting race on Sunday, I think that’s something all want to see. We always want to see overtaking on Sunday.”

World champion Max Verstappen had no troubles using his Red Bull’s extremely effective DRS to sail by Leclerc in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. But the championship leader thinks the ability to overtake is inherently linked to overall speed.

“I would prefer, of course, that we could race without DRS – but that’s not possible,” he said.

“I think for us it’s a little bit different. If the car is faster – let’s say when you have to come through the field from the back – it doesn’t really matter how long the zone is, you will get the car ahead. But when the pace is within a tenth, two tenths – you could see that in Baku, I think – once you have a bit of a DRS train, there is no chance.”

Sainz recognises different teams will have different ideas of what makes the ‘ideal’ DRS zone length. But even he thinks shortening the zones is not the right approach for the FIA to be taking.

“I think it’s difficult to ask the drivers because we know that there are cars with more DRS power than others and if you go driver-by-driver, team-by-team, one team will tell you better [with] more DRS, worse [with] more DRS. We are all a bit biased. But if I would forget about which team I drive for, and I would just looking into the benefit of F1, just looking at how difficult it is starting to become follow, at least I wouldn’t shorten them, I would keep them as they were.”

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Raising the floor

After aerodynamic porpoising became a major talking point last year, the FIA responded by introducing new regulations for 2023 in an effort to limit the level of bouncing drivers experienced at high speeds. One of those measures was to raise the minimum height of car floors, which reduced the aerodynamic efficiency of the ground effect-producing underbodies in a small but significant way.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Car floor heights have been raised for 2023
Asked whether he felt the floor height change is contributing to drivers’ difficulties with following in 2023, Mercedes driver George Russell replied: “I think it is.”

“I don’t know exactly why that is,” he admitted. “I think obviously F1 created these regulations to help overtaking and following, and since they were introduced every single team has developed naturally away from their initial intentions, as you develop the car. So every car on the grid is very different compared to what they were intended to look like 18 months ago or two years ago now or whenever it was.

“I think the overtaking is slowly getting more difficult. But also because the slipstream isn’t as large as well with these new cars, it’s slowly going in the wrong direction for overtaking.”

Haas driver Kevin Magnussen agreed. “You can still follow easier than in ’21,” he claimed. “But it’s getting worse because the rule change they made for this year with the floor didn’t help.

“Then also just that’s kind of the natural thing with development going into the cars that tends to become less… you push everything aerodynamically and then it becomes a little more fragile with the airflow, and then it becomes more difficult to follow.”

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Lack of degradation

As well as the aerodynamic downforce cars produce, mechanical grip is also critical to generating racing. F1’s mandatory use of two compounds in a race is intended to encourage racing by having cars racing with varying levels of grip at the same time on track, but as Esteban Ocon points out, there has been little in the way of pit strategy in the early races of the season to shake things up on track.

Recent races have seen minimal tyre wear
“We’ve done three races with no degradation, at the moment, which creates more difficulties to overtake,” he explained. “I think in Bahrain we’ve seen much more overtaking than the last three. There was no deg in Australia, no deg in Jeddah, No deg in Baku. Let’s see if there are some here with the new Tarmac. But I think as soon as there’s a bit more degradation, there’s more fights and more fun on track.”

Russell also feels that introducing more tyre wear into races would be a simple way of generating closer racing and more overtaking into this year’s championship.

“I think we all want the best races, the most exciting races, and there’s probably a few easier ways to achieve this in the short term,” he believes. “Like Esteban said about the tyre degradation, it’s been easy one-stops in the last couple of races. And when everybody’s pushing flat-out, there is less exciting races.”

But beyond simple tyre wear, Sainz points out that drivers still have to be very careful to avoid overheating their tyres when pushing to try and challenge a rival ahead.

“Surface overheating, especially,” he explained. “It’s the thing that as soon as you are behind a car and you lose a bit of traction, a little bit of braking grip, you start slipping the tyre and that extra slip means the next corner you have less grip, the next corner you have a bit less grip and you’re only able to follow for one or two laps and then you have to back off.”

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Heaviest ever cars

As well as promising to provide better racing for drivers by allowing them to follow closer, the new technical regulations for 2022 also promised the safest cars ever raced in Formula 1. As a result of strengthening monocoques even further, modern cars are now the heaviest they have ever been, with minimum weights sitting at just under 800 kilograms without fuel.

While this is still far lighter than a World Endurance Championship hypercar or a GT3 sports car, Verstappen believes that the heavy, stiff cars are taking away opportunities for drivers compared to the far lighter F1 cars of the last 20 years.

“The cars that are probably too heavy,” said Verstappen. “They’re too stiff, so you can’t really run a kerb to try and find a bit of a different line.

“Everyone is driving more or less the same line nowadays because of just how the cars work, how stiff the suspension is. And probably now people are finding more and more downforce in the cars, it probably becomes a bit harder to follow as well.”

In the future

The lack of racing is as much a concern to drivers as well as fans, with complaints about the current cars and the low level of overtaking beginning to surface more and more regularly. The drivers intend to raise the matter with F1 bosses, says Sainz.

George Russell, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Russell says drivers will raise concerns with the FIA
“We haven’t been asked about it and it hasn’t come up in meetings or in one of these commissions I think that they do.

“We are trying to get the drivers more into those commissions and more involved because I think maybe F1 or the FIA are missing a bit of our feedback and maybe we are not doing a good enough job to be present there to give that feedback.

“In the end they want to know what’s happening, I think we are all starting to feel the same and we are starting to converge towards feeling the same thing which is normally creating a bit of a trend and a bit of an idea of what’s happening.”

As director of the drivers’ union – the Grand Prix Drivers Association – Russell says it’s now time for drivers to raise their voices to help the sport improve into the future.

“For sure we’re going to speak with the FIA and F1 about this because we want to be able to race, we want to be able to fight, as we all did in go-karts where there was no aerodynamics – that’s the ultimate dream,” Russell said.

“I think the sport took a really good turn for the better when these new cars were introduced, but we need to take it to the next step now.”

2023 Miami Grand Prix

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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...
RJ O'Connell
Motorsport has been a lifelong interest for RJ, both virtual and ‘in the carbon’, since childhood. RJ picked up motorsports writing as a hobby...

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13 comments on “F1 drivers explain why DRS tweaks is just one reason passing is getting harder”

  1. The races/parades are the same. Just a different team out front.
    They spent literally billions on the new car designs. Exactly what was accomplished?

  2. Good responses by all, but especially Sainz, which I find the best.
    All mentioned factors indeed have impacted to some extent, although car weight isn’t necessarily a true contributor, given close racing is largely about aero.
    I’m unsure how K-Mag would know for certainty about 2021, given he wasn’t racing in F1 that season, although he’s still right.
    More tyre degradation is something I think would be unideal because that would automatically make driving more unenjoyable with more management requirement, etc.
    Overall, a perfect solution is more or less impossible because whenever aero is involved, dirty air effect will always be inevitable to some extent.

  3. I’m always a bit sceptical when weight is brought up as a reason for racing/overtaking been harder because Indycar for example have always been around this weight and those cars have always been able to race pretty well.

    Additionally would reducing weight not also make braking more efficient which would in turn reduce braking zones which would also reduce opportunities for outbraking another driver.

    Maybe just accept that this is what F1 is. It’s never really been about constant action, close racing, lots of overtaking or competitive championship fights. Yes you see that stuff at times but F1 has never been a sport where you see it every race and every season & given it’s nature (Teams building there own cars & so on) I don’t think it’s something F1 will ever be.

    The longer time fans know this of course, We have seen the cycle of good/bad races & seasons and periods of a team having an advantage over the rest. It’s perhaps the newer fans who have been sold a version/vision of F1 that was simply never correct to begin with who are going to have the most problems with the way things are.

    Was always the biggest problem with the DTS almost constant drama & excitement vision that Liberty tried to sell to those who didn’t have any knowledge of what F1 is. Trying to sell people something on a false premise is never something that works long term because sooner rather than later people see though the falsehoods & if the truth isn’t something they like they will bounce & nothing will stop that happening.

  4. Nobody seems to have grasped the solution. I thnk I have.

    In the decade leading up to 2021, the cars developed very clever ways of inducing aerodynamic vortices (like micro horizontal tornadoes) along the sides of the floors that act as an invisible barrier preventing air from rushing through the gap into the low pressure area generated under the floor. In particular, Red Bull were very adept at creating this barrier, enabling them to run at very high rakes (to make the whole car into a diffuser), which maximised the size of that gap, and thereby the risk that the air would rush in. This talent has served them extremely well this year with the increased gap size, whilst Mercedes, who traditionally ran very little rake, have rather struggled.

    The move around 2017 to move the wheels away from the car centreline was a good step that sadly was completely negated by a corresponding increase in the allowed floor width, nullifying the benefit of moving the wheels’ turbulence away from the car body. This change was accompanied by increasing car lengths. The resulting very large floor area and so potential downforce also increased the importance of the sealing of that floor.
    That 2017 change made overtaking more difficult. It seems clear that the very intricate generation of floor sealing vortices is very sensitive to the turbulence from cars ahead.

    The 2022 rules minimised the floor edge gap, such that even if the sealing vortices were disrupted, there is significantly less room for air to rush in under the floor. And now with that gap widened, the space for that to happen has increased, and the problems have returned.

    Maybe the 2022 rules could be returned to, and the porpoising solved by the teams. I’m unsure whether that would be a good move.

    But I know one way that can solve the problem of the seal being disrupted. SKIRTS! An *actual* physical barrier that follows the road would *always* provide a good seal irrespective of turbulence. They could be in the form of flexible brushes or long sprung barriers. The circuits are infinitely smoother than 45 years ago, and it would be dead easy to engineer them to be strong enough, so the old problem of them falling off would be solved.

    Whilst we’re at it, I’d like to see all cars’ floors fitted with an identical small fan element to provide some downforce which (a) would not be affected by turbulence and (b) acts at all speed ranges, which would help negate how unweildy these heavy cars are at low speeds. Seeing the McMurthy shoot off the line at Goodwood really made me see what downforce at 0mph can do. I always wonder whether the complaints about fan cars throwing stones at cars behind (unlike *all* cars’ open rear tyres…) were just unfounded safety arguments trying to get the Brabham fan car banned. Anyway, circuits can be cleaned. Maybe someone should help McMurphy organise a one-make series to trial the idea?

    Other ideas I have are legalising flick ups in front of the rear tyres (as seen in Indycar), and adding strong aero pods behind the rear tyres, which would combine to minimise turbulence generation. The rear pod add the bonus of limiting the very big risk of following cars being launching into the air if they run into the back of a car (as the pod will be stationary, and not a grippy rubber surface travelling upwards at 200mph). In Formula E they kept falling off, so instead of strengthening them, they got rid of them, and overtaking got markedly more difficult. I wasn’t watching Indycars when they had rear pods – can anyone here chime in on whether it got more difficult when they banned them?

    So to summarise, we need skirts, rear tyre flick up and pods, and if we’re feeling very adventurous, fans.
    (And for goodness sake, get rid of Pirelli cheese tyres, ideally for Michelin or Bridgestone.)

    1. Great ideas, Alesici. Of course, since these ideas make so much sense – F1 will look to find ways to spend billions more on more nonsensical solutions that won’t help. ;-)

      1. @jimmy-cynic and Alesici

        There are a couple of (I think) very old articles that may be interesting, or not. The principles I mean, the cars look preposterous now of course and pretty long .

        1. The other one link didn’t work

  5. Maybe instead of DRS, F1 could come up with some way that gives the following car an option of higher downforce.

    1. They had adjustable front wings in the past which were supposed to do that. It didn’t work.

  6. Rather than having a generic overtaking aid that gets cancelled out in a train why don’t they have a system like indycar’s push to pass? Then it becomes a tactical option for drivers to use.

    1. Yes, absolutely. I forgot to mention push to pass. It’s more than just the cancelling out problem of the DRS train. The power ‘gain’ from DRS is proportional to the cube of the speed, which is a big reason why it’s always been extremely difficult to judge the right length of the DRS zone, and why they ought to at least consider tweaking that length according to the race’s wind conditions.

      In contrast, the power gain from push to pass is basically insensitive to speed, so doesn’t suffer DRS’s exponential sensitivity. This also increases the system’s versatility for usage on almost any part of the circuit, adding a short term tactical intrigue to its interesting race-long strategic aspect.

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