Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Great overtaking moves still happen

One of the greatest Formula One overtaking moves of all time happened as recently as 2000, at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix, proving that it isn’t quite an art lost to Formula One. The race was a flat-out battle of wills between the two men fighting for that year’s World Championship: Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen. Schumacher’s Ferrari had led most of the race but in the late stages was rapidly being caught by Hakkinen’s McLaren.
Schumacher, with more rear wing, was slower up the long hill that follows on from Eau Rouge, perhaps Formula One’s greatest corner. This made him susceptible to attack under braking for the tight right hander, Les Combes, at the end of the uphill straight.
A few laps from the end, Hakkinen got a run on the Ferrari there and sliced his car to the inside. At around 200 mph Schumacher began to edge Hakkinen over towards the grass. The McLaren’s front wing actually touched the rear of the Ferrari as a horrified Hakkinen was forced to lift off. But now he was angry.
On the next lap, the two cars came to lap the BAR of Ricardo Zonta at the very same place as their earlier encounter. Schumacher opted to pass on the left, and in an instant, Hakkinen dived for the right. A startled Zonta thankfully remained on his line as Hakkinen squeezed past and then proceeded to outbrake Schumacher. It was a great gladiatorial victory for the Finn who afterwards was seen to be having a quiet but stern word with Schumacher.

Best place to overtake

Having said all that, some corners are conducive to overtaking:
  • A tightly connected left-right or right-left sequence – where the outside line for the first part of the turn forms the advantageous inside for the second part or vice-versa – allows cars to pass each other. The revised Nurburgring track in Germany includes some of these exciting corners.
  • A long straight followed by a slow hairpin – which increases the braking distance, also works and has been used well at the revised Hockenheim track, also in Germany, as well as at the Malaysian circuit of Sepang. The Senna Esses at Interlagos combines both these features and is a classic overtaking spot. Juan Pablo Montoya made himself a hero to millions at this spot in only his third Formula One race, rubbing tyres with Michael Schumacher to take the lead of the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix.
At such tracks race strategies can be more aggressive as light, two-stopping cars cannot be held up indefinitely by heavier one-stoppers. Formula One purists might try telling you that because overtaking is rare, it’s more special in Formula One than in other forms of the sport where passing and re-passing is frequent but relatively insignificant. Don’t worry if you feel indignant at this – it reflects well on you as a Formula One fan. You might reply along the lines of “That’s a dangerously complacent attitude, and Formula One really needs to address this part of its show if it’s to keep its fans entertained.” A lot of thought is being given to the overtaking issue by both the governing body and teams. Circuit design and lessening the cars’ downforce are the favoured areas of investigation. But Formula One tends to spend a lot of time arguing with itself before any changes are made. Don’t hold your breath.

Overtaking and Why It’s Rare

Once past the first corner of the race, overtaking in a Formula One car is an incredibly difficult art. Here’s why.
  • Passing on the straight: The power difference between even the fastest car and the slowest is rarely enough make overtaking simply a matter of blasting by on the straight. For that to work, the driver needs to complete the move before the next corner arrives, because unlike racing on an oval track, there is only one real “line” through a corner; anything else is much slower. Therefore the overtaking car would need to get completely in front of the car it’s passing rather than just nosing ahead, in order to then take up track position for the next turn. It’s rare for such a performance differential to exist between cars to make this possible.
  • Passing under braking: This is where the moves – such as they are – are usually made. But this is by no means easy. With over 2000kg of pressure pushing the cars into the road, they can decelerate with enormous force –up to 5g. Even the act of lifting your foot from the accelerator pedal creates around 1g of deceleration – around the same as a full emergency stop in your road car – and that’s before the brakes have been applied! Consequently the braking distances for corners are incredibly short. The shorter the braking distances, the less opportunity there is to pass under braking.
  • Slipstreaming: The driver of the car behind can benefit from the slipstream effect. This is where the car ahead punches a hole through the air, greatly reducing the air resistance for any car immediately behind it. This effect means that the following driver can use less throttle for the same speed and then simultaneously pull out and floor the throttle to gain a brief surge that might get him ahead. To be successful, the driver has to carry out this move just before the cars enter the braking zone – and on the inside line for the corner. Given that the defending driver is allowed one blocking move between corners, he should invariably have that situation covered, forcing his attacker to take the long way round – the outside.