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The Overtaking Myth – Part 1

Ask any casual viewer of televised F1 races why they don’t become fanatics for the sport and you will most probably get the answer, “They’re too boring – there’s not enough overtaking.” In the FIA survey of fans’ opinions last year, the lack of overtaking was cited as one of the areas in which F1 could improve. Even the FIA itself is convinced that this is something they have to get right for the sake of the sport’s future. In an article entitled Overtaking: Too much or too little?, F1 looks at the problem and makes suggestions for its solution.


Montoya and Schumacher

It seems that just about everyone is convinced that more overtaking would be good for F1. Ever prepared to take a contrary view, I have my doubts, however. Rather than just accepting the myth of a lack of overtaking in F1, we need to take a step back and get some perspective on the matter. For a start, let us consider whether there has ever been a great deal of overtaking in the sport.

Believe it or not, overtaking has always been as rare (or common) as it is today. In almost all seasons in the past, there have been cars and drivers that would gravitate immediately to the front and stay there. This is inevitable in a sport where technical excellence is rewarded with better performance and the best drivers naturally want and get the best equipment. Look at the drivers Mercedes chose for its all-conquering cars of the fifties – Fangio, Moss and Kling, the best drivers of the era. Then in the sixties, Lotus becomes the car to have and guess who gets it – Jim Clark. The story is repeated through every decade: the best cars get the best drivers.

The net result is that overtaking happens rarely at the front. It is more common further down the field but less noticeable, since few fans care about anything but who is leading. Television directors are the same.

Lead changes are a different matter entirely; just as these days changes in position happen most frequently in the pit stops (and who can get excited by superior pit stop strategies?), historically they were brought about by mechanical failures. We hate to see a great driver lose the reward for his efforts through bad fortune but it is a fact of life in F1 and always will be.

The truth is that what causes boring races is technical superiority. In most seasons there will be one car that is quicker than the rest and whoever gets it is going to win unless something breaks or circumstances make a nonsense of his pit strategy. So McLaren build a car that dominates for a few years and put the two quickest drivers of the time into it – guess who wins all the races. The only interesting aspect of those years was wondering whether Senna and Prost would push each other off again.

Sometimes two contructors get it right in the same year; then we have a situation like the season just ended in which we actually have a struggle for the championship. Of course we prefer such times – we watch because we want to see competition, after all. But you cannot legislate for such situations – they happen when they happen, that’s all.

So my first point is this: overtaking in F1 is no more rare today than it has ever been. If it seems less common, it is because we are confusing lead changes with overtaking – and unreliability played a much greater part in races of the past than it does now. Take any year and tot up the genuine passing manouvers in the races; you will find that there is little variance between the years.

Having made that point, I find that this post is becoming a good deal longer than I had intended. There is much yet to be said but I shall leave that until tomorrow. Apart from anything else, this might ensure that you come back to see what other windmills I will assail in my madness…

To be continued…

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