Although the Melbourne weekend was largely positive for Formula 1, it revealed one serious threat that hangs over the series this year, which is the problem with overtaking. Melbourne is not a typical race track and we need to see the cars on circuits like Shanghai and Bahrain, but already some things are painfully clear.
There were just 5 overtakes in the whole race, compared with 37 last year and while the new aerodynamics have a large part to play in this, there isn’t much that can be done to improve the difficulty of following another car now the season has begun.
However there are strong calls behind the scenes in F1 for Pirelli to review its selection of tyres to bring the softer compounds and increase the variables in the racing.
For Spain, for example, it has nominated Soft, Medium and Hard. No team will use the hard and so the race will be processional with largely similar strategies. If it was the softer compounds, there could be more variability. Valtteri Bottas did a stint of over 20 laps in testing in Barcelona on Ultra Soft tyres, which is an ideal opening stint length for a race, so they can’t be that ‘ultra’ soft after all!
All the signs are that in listening to the F1 drivers, who wanted tyres they could ‘push’ on, the sport has suffered; it has had a detrimental effect on the overtaking as the cars are all doing basically the same thing, rather than mixing it up and having big performance differences at various stages of the race.
So the drivers are happy, they are having fun. But the racing has suffered and actually the drivers from 6th place downwards have all suffered because they have no chance of getting a big result now. The low degradation tyres are another thing that keeps the top teams ahead.
Because the Pirelli tyres barely degrade over a long stint and the compounds are closer together there is no differential in pace. We saw degradation of half a second over a long stint on some compounds where last year the same run and compound would have seen the performance drop by five seconds a lap. Those offsets are where overtaking happens, when cars are jumbled up on different strategies.
At the same time the changeover in regulations from 2016 to 2017 has seen the wealthy top three teams open a huge performance gap to the rest, thanks to much greater levels of downforce.
The finishing gap on Sunday between the fifth placed Red Bull of Max Verstappen and sixth place Felipe Massa in the Williams was 55 seconds, which is basically 1 second per lap.
The Haas car qualified in 6th place at Melbourne and was 2.6% off the Mercedes in performance terms. In 2016 a 2.6% delta would put you 14th on the grid. So you can see that the field has opened up, which is bad for the racing, it’s more like it was in the 1990s. What kills F1 is the separation of the field and it’s this area that should be Ross Brawn’s number one priority to fix with the FIA in the long term plan for the next set of regulation changes.
It means that the leading cars have a pit stop in hand over the rest by around Lap 12 so there is nothing the midfield cars can do to get involved in the action, no scope for a Sergio Perez, for example, to get a podium by clever strategy or taking a chance on a Safety Car.
F1 is now an A race and a B race. This will carry on through the year.
More worryingly, the sport is dependent on the Ferraris and Mercedes staying on the same pace through the development race this season – and hopefully Red Bull joining in once they stabilise a couple of problems on aerodynamics and engine, which they will do by Russia or Spain at the latest.
The 2017 season is set to be the biggest development arms race the sport has seen, due to wide open scope on the aerodynamics and a token free system on engines. And if one of the top teams gets a step over the rest, for example if the stage two Mercedes engine from Spain onwards gives them a half a second of performance margin over Ferrari, then the viewers will soon switch off.
Brawn and the FIA will have to step in if that happens and effect a short term solution to the problem for the good of the sport.
So what is the problem with the overtaking?
There was concern at the end of last season about the new regulations and the idea that the turbulent air from these higher downforce cars would make it hard for a car to follow another and pass. At the same time the extra downforce means braking distances are shorter. The idea with these rules was to make the cars much faster over a lap as the drivers complained that they were not a challenge to drive and 17 year old Max Verstappen was able to compete straight away, which older drivers found depressing.
The other idea was to give the drivers tyres on which they could push hard throughout, as in the Bridgestone and Michelin days. But the overtaking then, such as it was, came from the refuelling levels and also the offset in performance between two tyre companies.
With robust tyres that have low degradation and low wear the cars basically will qualify and race in car pace order.
Was this Melbourne specific or will we also see it in China?
Melbourne is a particularly difficult track for overtaking, as there are no long straights, braking distances are shorter this year and the track is lined with walls.
Fernando Alonso had a top speed of just 290km/h in the horsepower-challenged McLaren Honda and managed to keep Esteban Ocon behind him for most of the race, despite the Force India having top speed of 317km/h. That will not happen in Shanghai.
The Chinese track is better, thanks to the 1.170km main straight and the Drag Reduction System on the rear wing, which sheds drag when a car is within a second of the car in front. This year, with cars that have more downforce and therefore more drag, the DRS will be more powerful in China. We expect to see a speed boost of over 20km/h and cars will pass on the straights. There were 28 overtakes last year of which 16 were on the DRS straight. We’d expect to see that and more this year.
Following last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, several Formula 1 drivers offered their thoughts on the lack of overtaking moves witnessed in the Melbourne race.
Perez expressed his belief that a driver now needs to be two seconds quicker than the car in front to pull off a move. Hulkenberg described overtaking in 2017 as “almost impossible”.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas highlighted the problem with the turbulent air as a particular concern for the chance of a pass.
He said: “Even in the years before it’s been difficult to follow once you get within one and a half, or one second, just because of the turbulent air which messes up the aerodynamics of the car and that way we don’t have that much grip.
“Now, as more of the grip from the car is relying on the aero, it’s a bigger effect. And the cars are wider so I think there’s more turbulent air so now it’s more like two seconds or even two and a half because you actually feel quite a big effect from the car in front and that way in the corners it’s more difficult to follow.”
Hamilton, who had expressed his concerns about overtaking before the start of season, outlined his belief that strategy battles and pitstops would produce the main passes in 2017.
He said: “It’s always generally been tough to follow. I hope that doesn’t mean for the rest of the year that it’s more of a train.
“I don’t know if it was exciting for you guys to watch, but for me personally I want to be closer up with the cars and doing more close wheel-to-wheel battling. It’s really through strategy and pitstops that we are racing right now.”
But Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who finished fourth at Albert Park last weekend, urged caution on the overtaking issue.
He said: “It’s only one race and this circuit is far from let’s say a normal circuit. Some circuits will be more easy, some more harder in a year. We have to see how it goes in the next races.”
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