The FIA recently confirmed plans of it’s yearly tinkering with Formula One’s rules. Among other things, the 2011 season will see the return of the 107% rule to qualifying, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) and the banning of double diffusers
But what’s really got people talking, in the paddock and beyond, is the introduction of adjustable rear wings, which the FIA hopes will increase overtaking in the sport. Views on this have so far been largely negative but, before we make up our minds, let’s take a look at just what they are.
The new device will allow the drivers to adjust the rear wing and thereby reduce drag, much as the McLaren-pioneered F-Duct does. But, unlike the F-Duct (which is banned for 2011), this is purely to assist with overtaking, and will be a standardised system for all. And, to quote the FIA, “it will only be enabled if the driver is less than one second behind another car at any of the pre-determined positions around the track”, and will be switched off when the driver begins braking for the next corner.
So, this new piece of kit is basically an overtaking helper. Get close to the driver in front and you’ll be able to use it to drop the wing-angle, thus reducing drag and giving you a speed advantage of approximately 15kmh. The driver in front can’t use it until he’s been overtaken, so unless he decides to put you in the wall you’re probably going to get past.
A good idea? It will certainly increase overtaking. Picture the scene: Lewis Hamilton charges up to the tail of Fernando Alonso. Lewis has the quicker car, but Fernando is making his Ferrari very wide and, stuck in the dirty air, the McLaren can’t make a move. But, as Lewis inches the gap down to 1 second the adjustable rear wing is activated. He’s suddenly much quicker on the straight, and nails Fernando in to the hairpin. But, exiting the corner, Alonso is under 1 second behind Hamilton. His rear wing drops, he gets a speed boost, and the position is retaken in to the next corner. Repeat for 25 laps, whilst fans watch in rapt excitement and Bernie rubs his hands together thinking of increased TV viewing figures.
The idea of more overtaking is undoubtedly something almost all F1 fans are positive about- but is this the way to achieve it? There are concerns that it’s a gimmick, that it will make passing too easy in a formula that prides itself on having the most skilled drivers in the world, and level the playing field for racers who haven’t honed their attacking skills. In other words, it could eliminate the art of overtaking, making it as simple as engaging a device and breezing past your opponent.
And if that were the case think of all the great overtakes we’d have missed out on. One move immediately springs to mind for this writer: Mika Hakkinen’s brilliant pass on Michael Schumacher at the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix. As the two lapped the BAR of Ricardo Zonta Mika dived right whilst Michael went left, giving the McLaren the line in to Les Combes. The Finn used all his daring and cunning to make that move, and it’s rightly remembered of one of F1’s finest. With the adjustable rear wing Mika wouldn’t have needed Zonta, or any quick thinking- he’d just have powered past Michael a few laps earlier.
Some of the drivers have voiced negative opinions too. “Overtaking moves should be about pressurising, being skillful, and tactical,” said Red Bull’s Mark Webber. No word from teammate Sebastian Vettel- perhaps he’s not keen on bringing up the subject of overtaking after what happened in Turkey.
Renault star Robert Kubica though has joined Webber in voicing concerns: “if the wings move a lot we will see the cars overtake in a straight line and I don’t think there’s a lot of excitement in that,” said the Pole. Force India’s Adrian Sutil recognises that the new rules could spice up the on-track action, but isn’t to keen from a racer’s perspective: “It’s very good for the show, but it’s not so good from a driving point of view, because if you defend your position well it doesn’t really matter. If there’s a car behind you and he has the advantage of the slipstream anyway, and then he turns down the wing and he will gain another five or 10kmh”.
Webber’s worries were made terrifyingly real by his massive accident in last Sunday’s European Grand Prix. One of the primary reasons for the crash was the he was approaching the corner at a far greater speed than the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen, and when the Finn braked slightly earlier his car became a launch ramp for Webber’s Red Bull. The combination of adjustable rear wings and KERS would make this sort of differential in corner approach speed common. If the driver in front did move to defend his line the chances of an accident similar to this- one the likes of which we’ve seen little of in F1 lately- would be far greater. Webber was incredibly lucky to walk away from that shunt unhurt. The more it happens the more likely it is that someone will, eventually, not be so lucky.
It’s also been suggested that it’ll prevent defensive driving, a skill in itself. No matter how honed your ability to defend you position is you’re still going to get blown away when the car following you is 15kmh quicker on a straight. Tracks like Monza, Silverstone and Shanghai to name but three, all of which have very long straights, would see plenty of overtaking, with the driver trying to make the pass likely to breeze by on the straight. What about Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell’s battle to the flag at Monaco in 1991? If Nige was able to pick up the extra speed this device will bring he’d probably have cruised past Senna in to the Nouvelle Chicane. We’d have lost what was a stunning battle to the flag.
There’s also a nagging feeling that this is a move towards more standardised cars, something F1 fans are largely against. The F-Duct has been a great addition to F1 2010. It was fantastic to see one team pioneer a new aero device, and then watch the competition work furiously to produce their own versions, with each hitting upon a different way of getting the system on to their cars. A standard FIA system removes the element of technical intrigue and development so many of us love to see in F1.
Undoubtedly then there are some pretty negative aspects to this idea. But there’s also no doubt that it would increase overtaking in Formula One, something fans are always crying out for more of. It’s also a step towards ‘green’ racing- no turbo boosts here, just good, old fashioned aero trickery. So is this the way forward? Make your opinion heard- cast your vote in the poll below and let us know just what you think in the comments section.