OWG 'under-estimated' downforce gains

Some of the leading technical lights in Formula One have admitted that they under-estimated the amount of downforce that would be clawed back by the teams following the redrafting of the rules for 2009, with the subsequent adverse effect on overtaking.

Jenson Button (GBR) Brawn BGP001, Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull RB5, Turkish F1, Istanbul Park, 5t
Jenson Button (GBR) Brawn BGP001, Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull RB5,…
© Peter Fox

Some of the leading technical lights in Formula One have admitted that they under-estimated the amount of downforce that would be clawed back by the teams following the redrafting of the rules for 2009, with the subsequent adverse effect on overtaking.

Part of the remit behind the drastic overhaul in the regulations, which led to the radical new look for this year's F1 cars, was to improve the spectacle of racing in the top flight, but the four technical directors present in Friday's press conference at the Nurburgring admitted that the show had not been spiced up as much as they had hoped thanks, in the main, to the efforts of their design teams.

"I think we set a very low target for the downforce, knowing that, once the teams got working on it 24/7, they would rapidly bring that downforce up," Renault's Pat Symonds, a key member of F1's Overtaking Working Group, revealed, "But I have to say it went up a little bit further than I expected it to, which is not conducive to overtaking amongst other things.

"I was having a look at this very subject after Silverstone and I think that, as I put things together, I could see that, give or take a little bit, we had achieved a fair bit of what we set out to do. I think that there is no doubt that the cars can follow a little bit closer and, statistically, if you analyse the races that are worth analysing this year, there has been a little bit more overtaking. I just think we probably didn't go as far as we wished or wanted to. We were setting out to try and halve the time difference needed to produce a successful overtake and maybe we haven't quite got that far."

"We always need the level of downforce," McLaren's Paddy Lowe agreed, "It was important as, obviously, that affects the weight more significantly than anything else. The fact that the downforce that has been achieved by the cars this year is significantly higher than anticipated means inevitably that some of the work we did has been eroded in effect.

"But I think the other factor that is worth bearing in mind, which is quite fundamental, is that, as F1 has become, I would say, more thoroughly professional from end to end - and better resourced from end to end - the performances have closed up so, in actual fact, the spread of lap time performance from end to end of the grid is about half what it was five years ago. Now, if all the cars are that much closer, it just means they will always find it more difficult to overtake, so it is quite a difficult problem to crack."

Asked why the OWG hadn't mandated a design that mimicked the sort of car that provided greater overtaking in the 1970s and '80s, the panel was quick to point out that the motorsport world had changed since then, Red Bull's Adrian Newey adding that there were elements beyond the design of the cars that needed to be addressed.

"I think it's a slipstreaming argument," Newey responded initially, "From Monza in 1970 or whatever, it was a very different technology at the time. Cars, at that time, almost all of them, were powered by a single engine, a DFV, giving out exactly the same horsepower. The circuits have changed [too] - we don't have a Monza-type circuit, we don't have a slipstreaming circuit as that used to be, and that only happened at that particular circuit, if my history of motorsport is correct.

"I think that, yes, if we raced at ovals, then perhaps that would be a way of going about things. Indeed, you've almost had the opposite problem. I think at some of the IRL-type races, everybody is changing places all the time and I'm certainly of the opinion that, if overtaking is too easy, then it's actually quite dull because it just becomes commonplace. I personally don't find NASCAR races very interesting because the whole art seems to be [about being] in about fourth place with three laps to go. So it's personal opinion, but I certainly don't consider that's modern F1 and I think it would be a very artificial set of rules that came up with that.

"I think, fundamentally, the circuits are probably the biggest influence. Everybody seems to conveniently forget about that as it is deemed to be easier to change the cars than change the circuits.

"That's the first point. I think the second point is that people have this rose-tinted idea that overtaking used to be fantastic and now it isn't. I think that is selective memory myself. You still occasionally get some great overtaking manoeuvres, just as we always used to. I don't see the need to make it a lot easier to overtake really. If overtaking becomes too easy, the car that is quicker behind simply goes past and disappears again and you don't even get the excitement of two cars battling each other for quite a number of laps. Personally, I don't think it is as much of a problem as people are making out."

Among the criticisms levelled at the lack of overtaking is that it provoked the teams and drivers into placing too much importance on refuelling strategy, leaving their passing to be done in pit-lane. That, however, looks likely to be undone in 2010, with refuelling on the list of targets for the next round of rule changes.

"I think that strategy has been very exciting," Symonds insisted, "I've certainly enjoyed working in that area, but I think it's had its day. As we've developed our techniques, as always, they've become quite similar, so I think that the excitement of strategy has gone. I think it's a difficult thing to get across to the casual public who are very important to us, rather than the true enthusiasts.

"Talking about overtaking, there's a little bit too much reliance now on strategy to be used for overtaking. I think this was one of things that I saw at Silverstone, where people had similar performance, but were thinking 'oh well, I am a couple of laps longer than this guy, so I've just got to push for two laps and I'll get in front of him at the pit-stops'. But, without refuelling, maybe we'll see a bit more racing.

"I think we've got to keep an open mind. Let's try it for a few years. The important thing is to put on a good show. The savings are considerable. Our figures show even more than Adrian's [Newey predicted cutting out costs of EUR400,000 per team] and you've got to bear in mind that that refuelling equipment is getting quite old now. It's going to need replacing soon and it's very expensive to replace, so I'm very happy to give it a try and, like with most things, I want to be open-minded about it."

Only Newey appeared to question the move, suggesting that removing the refuelling element could actually harm 'the show'.

"If the show was reduced as a result, then it would be a figure which would be the wrong way of saving money," the Red Bull man insisted, "I must admit that, whether it will work or not, I think we will have to see. The very obvious difference is that, at the moment, because tyre degradation very roughly balances weight reduction as the fuel is burnt, then the difference in lap time before and after a stop is usually in favour of being quicker before the stop as the weight effect is more a force than tyre degradation.

"That can vary on some circuits where it's not the case, but it's generally the case, whereas clearly now there will be a position where the car will always be quicker after the stop because they've fitted new tyres for the same fuel weight and that will change strategy. Whether that will provide a better or worse show is a little bit difficult to answer at the moment....."

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