Can F1 Cars Drift? Why Don’t They?

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F1 cars are some of the most highly tuned and precisely crafted vehicles ever built, designed to stick as closely to the racetrack as possible. Using aerodynamics, downforce, and wide tires designed for grip, you never usually see F1 cars drift – at least not on purpose.

F1 cars can drift, but they aren’t designed to. The loss of control at such speeds would make the oversteer almost impossible to handle, and drifting around a corner is slower and less efficient than turning as normal. Speed is everything in F1 and drifting slows the car down.

F1 cars are finely tuned machines whose sole purpose is to stay on the track at the fastest speeds possible in order to win the race. In the article below, we’ll discuss what drifting is, whether it’s legal in F1, and why Formula 1 drivers don’t do it.

Is Drifting Allowed In F1?

Drifting is allowed in F1. There are no rules to prohibit cars from drifting, but it’s unlikely an F1 owner would be keen on their $20 million cars taking a corner while out of control. Drifting is a maneuver designed to intentionally oversteer a car, so the rear tires lose their grip on the track.

This oversteer results in the back end of the car drifting sideways. In theory, this means that, when going into a corner, a driver can intentionally drift and then be able to take the corner while maintaining control of the oversteering car.

F1 doesn’t ban drifting because it doesn’t give drivers an advantage. The FIA does not feel a need to ban a maneuver they know both the drivers and their constructors actively avoid.

Many of the key features of an F1 car are designed specifically to keep the car as close to the ground as possible, with more downforce than the weight of the car itself. This downforce is coupled with tires that are synthetically designed and built to stick to the road. Formula 1 drivers like speed and control, something drifting simply doesn’t offer.

Can F1 Cars Drift At All?

An F1 driver can make their car drift, but they rarely wish to do so because of the loss of control. Plus, the setup of an F1 car is very much made to avoid drifting. Any vehicle can be made to drift, and an F1 car is no exception.

An F1 car can be made to drift on a corner if its rear tire slip angle is greater than the front tire slip angle: A burst of speed causes oversteer and the car drifts. Essentially, work the rear tires more than they are designed to be worked until the back end slides out.

Accidental drifting is often caused by driver error. Rarely will an F1 driver intentionally drift, especially since the car is actively designed to remove drifting from the equation. Drifting would cause them to lose time.

Thanks to air resistance pulling down the nose of the car and gravity pushing down on it from above, an F1 car is basically designed like an airplane, but in reverse. Air going over the top of an F1 car is at higher pressure than that going underneath it. This pressure difference is what generates an F1 car’s immense downforce.

So, by its very design, an F1 car is meant to stick to the road as much as possible. Drifting an F1 car, while possible, would require some of the traction in the tires to be lost – either through lack of downforce or by breaking the limit of grip the tire can offer. This goes against the car’s entire design philosophy.

Why Don’t F1 Drivers Drift?

F1 drivers don’t drift because it would slow them down. Drifting causes the car to lose speed and control, both of which are crucial factors to finishing highly in a race. Drifting would slow the car down and the driver could finish in a worse position.

There are several motorsports where drifting is part of the driving skillset. Cars with less grip or that run on surfaces with less traction than an F1 racetrack can and do use drifting as a legitimate maneuver. Rally driving is a perfect example of this. With off-road surfaces and much narrower tires, rally drivers use controlled drifting to manipulate the angles at which they take corners.

In F1, drifting intentionally would look like showboating. Both drivers and constructors know drifting is slower and more dangerous than standard cornering, and therefore a driver would be very wary of trying it during a live race for fear of spinning out or losing valuable seconds for what could only be called style points. It’s why NASCAR drivers don’t drift either.

Car Design

Thankfully for the drivers of F1 cars, the very design of the cars focuses on trying to create as much downwards force as possible. This keeps the car firmly planted on the track, allowing for close control at very high speeds.

When you turn a corner in a normal family vehicle, you assess the traffic around you, signal your intent to turn, and slow down in order to turn safely. In an F1 car, drivers corner at anywhere between 30 mph and 200 mph. At these speeds, the driver needs absolute control. Drifting around a corner at 200 mph, regardless of the severity of the angle, is a recipe for disaster.

Having such excellent grip and downforce working to the drivers’ benefit, they can decelerate into a corner, corner at high speed, and accelerate back up to maximum velocity within seconds. Drifting would slow the car down, create a higher-percentage chance of losing control, and quickly destroy the integrity of the tires.

Tire Wear

Tire management in F1 is almost as important to the drivers’ chances as the speed of their car. F1 tires are designed to work at higher temperatures, which increases grip and enables drivers to go a lot faster while still being in control.

The problem with drifting is that it causes extra heat and wear on the already overworked tires, which can cause blowouts, or mean the driver must pit to get them changed. And the more a driver must pit, the more they’re not racing, and they could lose any advantage they have.

Would Drifting Around Corners Make An F1 Car Faster?

Drifting around corners would not make an F1 car faster because it would drift at a slower speed than it already corners. This not only increases the risk of losing control or causing an incident, but the slower time would push the driver further back down the order.

Take the Monaco Grand Prix as an example. Monaco has 78 laps of some of the tightest and most treacherous corners of any F1 race, and the average speed of drivers around this track is substantially lower than at any other F1 race. With 20 corners, including the famous Fairmont Hairpin Corner, Monaco may look ripe for drifting.

This isn’t the case. With the quickest route between two points is a straight line, and F1 cars being designed to stick to the track, turning normally into each corner is quicker. If the tires are looked after properly, the driver can accelerate away from the corners quicker and with more grip than if they had drifted. More grip means faster acceleration and overall faster lap times.

Final Thoughts

Formula 1 cars can drift, but neither drivers nor their teams want them to. F1 cars are designed to stick to the ground through downforce, and drifting occurs when the car doesn’t stick like it should. Drifting around corners is slower than driving into them normally.