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The Overtaking Myth – Part 2

If you accept that there is about the same amount of overtaking in F1 as there has ever been, has this harmed the sport? Has it ensured that the fans drift away in their thousands? You know it hasn’t; F1 is more popular now than it has ever been, rivalling football as the most-watched sport in the world. From being a niche interest of dedicated petrol-heads, it has become a major player in the global viewer stakes.

Turkey

Schumacher closes in on Alonso, Turkey 2006

If F1 is so boring, why do people continue to watch it in such huge numbers? The answer has much to do with television, of course; make the sport available to anyone with a TV and the spectacle will do the rest. Our perception may be that there is no overtaking but the reality is that racing at the cutting edge is gripping, with or without overtaking. Only those who were never going to be captured by the sight and sound of F1′s glorious and bewinged speed machines and the tussle between supremely gifted drivers can resist a Grand Prix.

Some of the greatest races have happened precisely because there has been no overtaking. Think of the Spanish GP of 1981 and Gilles Villeneuve holding back a train of six cars that were all faster than his slowing Ferrari. All true F1 fans recognize the skill it took to keep those cars back for lap after lap and to win in the end. And then there was Monaco in 1992, when Senna held Mansell back after his late pit stop for tires. The race is memorable in that Senna succeeded and Mansell never managed the overtaking manouver that looked inevitable.

We need to admit that overtaking is not what makes F1 racing exciting. There are moments of great overtaking manouvers (F1 Fanatic has picked out his fifty favorites – but I thought he said there was no overtaking…) but the real drama is the battle between talented drivers in closely matched cars. One of the highlights of 2006 occurred in the Turkish GP, when Michael Schumacher closed in on Alonso and challenged him for the lead. We were all fascinated by the struggle between two such gifted combatants in the best cars of the year. And did it matter that there was no overtaking, that Alonso stayed in front to the flag? No, we knew we had witnessed the essence of F1 – real competition between the best with everything at stake.

I am not saying that F1 does not need overtaking; my point is that it already has plenty and tinkering with the rules in an attempt to artificially make overtaking easier is always counterproductive. The FIA has been trying to increase overtaking for twenty years now. The result? Nothing has changed – it is still just as difficult to pass in a GP as it ever was. Meanwhile the restrictions on the designers have increased to the point where there is no room for ground-breaking innovation – we deal in thousandths of a second when looking at lap times. And still they talk of even more restrictions “to make passing easier”. Will we ever learn?

I have not finished. In fact, this has been such an enjoyable rant for me that I shall continue tomorrow. Now that I have mentioned the FIA, let’s have a closer look at their tinkering in this matter of overtaking in my next post.

To be continued…

2 Responses to “The Overtaking Myth – Part 2”

  1. Great post. I think the very nature of F1′s strict rules is what ultimately makes overtaking so difficult. The cars have so much technology engineered into them now that it’s almost impossible to ‘step back’ and make the cars more ‘crude’, shall we say?

    It was the F1 cars of yesteryear (before the 1980′s) wherw there was still passing. Those were the days of bolting a Cosworth DFV (was that the model?) in the back of your car and you went racing!

    But once the 1980′s and ground effects came, it all really changed, didn’t it?

    Good or bad? Not sure…

  2. Thank you, Kenneth. The increasingly detailed rules of F1 have certainly made it more difficult to pass since the performance difference between cars is almost non-existent now. But I do get tired of the constant assertion that it’s “impossible” to pass these days. Out there on the track is the evidence that it still happens just as frequently as ever. Skilled drivers will pass somehow.

    Consider Monaco, where we are told every year, “Of course, grid position is important because no-one can pass on this track.” Yet there is probably more overtaking done at Monaco than anywhere else. I recall a Monaco GP, in 1981 I think, where Nelson Piquet was moving up the field in his Brabham BT49 and got stuck behind a car that was quicker than his for acceleration but slower in the corners. After a couple of laps trying unsuccessfully to get past, Nelson began to drop back – we all thought his tires must have gone off or something.

    He let the gap increase for about four laps then suddenly he was right behind the other car through the tunnel and slipped by it as they came to the chicane. It was a perfect example of the “lull” strategy – Nelson had lulled the other driver into thinking he was safe, then pounced at the most unlikely spot.

    Overtaking happens at Monaco, just as it happens at every other circuit on the calendar. All the restrictions imposed by the FIA have not made passing impossible and they have not increased it either. Great drivers will always find a way and we should be thinking about how to ease up on the rules, not using the overtaking myth to push more and more idiotic rule changes through.

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