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What Is DRS In F1? How Does The Drag Reduction System Work?

If you have ever watched an F1 race, you will have heard the term DRS plenty of times. If you are not familiar with F1 and the technical side of things, it can be very confusing. DRS has been integral to the sport since its introduction in 2011, but many don’t know what DRS means or how it works.

DRS in F1 stands for Drag Reduction System (introduced in 2011), and it is an adjustable part of the rear wing, used by drivers looking to overtake those in front of them. DRS can only be used when certain conditions are met, such as when a driver is within 1 second of another car.

These conditions vary depending on the stage of the race, and how big the gap is between the two drivers. Below, we will go over the mechanisms involved and these various conditions, to give you an understanding of why DRS is so important in Formula 1.

How Does DRS Work In F1?

F1’s DRS works through an actuator that opens a gap in between two parts of the rear wing on the car. The driver activates it using a button or paddle on their steering wheel, and when they do this, an electrical signal is sent to the actuator to lift the upper flap of the wing.

The Role Of The Rear Wing

F1 cars have several components, and one of these is the rear wing. This consists of a fixed component and an adjustable component. F1 cars are designed to have a lot of downforce in order to provide them with as much grip as possible, as this allows them to take corners at very high speeds. However, this means the cars suffer in the aerodynamics department through drag, and so balancing each is key.

The rear wing utilizes a pressure difference between the top of the wing and the underside of it to generate downforce, helping to ‘push’ the car into the track. However, this means the car loses some of its speed as the air hits the wing. In corners, speed is gained through grip, but on straights you want the car to have as little drag as possible. The bigger the wings, the more drag you have.

Straights vs Corners

On the straights, downforce is less essential, and the low pressure area generated behind the rear wing creates drag, which is a force that tries to ‘pull’ the car backwards. This is obviously undesirable, as this limits how fast the car can go.

Drag is proportional to the square of the car’s speed (when it’s going fast enough), meaning that as you double the speed, you quadruple the drag forces!

So, in order to go faster around a lap, cars must reduce the amount of drag on the straights without sacrificing too much downforce in the corners. Enter DRS, or the drag reduction system, which is a variable component of the rear wing.

When the variable component is closed, the wing looks normal and provides the usual amount of downforce. However, when the driver hits the DRS button (more on that in a minute), the top part of the wing opens up, which creates a gap through which the air can flow, therefore reducing drag. This means the car can go faster – up to around 7 mph (12 kph) faster on the straights. This gives them an edge when overtaking.

How Does DRS Open?

When the driver presses the DRS button, a signal is sent to something called a Moog valve, which sits in the transmission area of the car. This valve is used to send hydraulic pressure through the pylon(s) attached to the rear wing (see the two struts below the ‘B’ in the image below). Some cars use two pylons, while others use one.

The DRS actuator is missing on this Red Bull show car’s rear wing, but you can still see the two separate elements where the wing would open when DRS is activated.

When the pressure reaches the ‘DRS Pod’ (see the images below for a few examples of these), it pulls on the actuator, which in turn moves a piston inside the pod, pulling on a linkage that’s connected to the upper flap of the rear wing. This lifts the upper flap, creating a gap in between it and the lower (stationary) flap. This gap can be a maximum of 85 mm with DRS open.

Note: There are other ways of packaging the actuator system, with Haas being one team that previously used a rod in one of the struts that moved up and down to activate DRS. In this case, the actuation was performed down near the gearbox, rather than using hydraulic pressure sent up to the DRS pod.
Red Bull, McLaren, Haas and Mercedes F1 cars with circles drawn around the DRS pods on the rear wings
Four examples of different DRS pods on F1 cars. Image credit: motorsports Photographer/Shutterstock.com (top two images) | AlessioDeMarco/Shutterstock.com (bottom two images

Note that the Haas car is the only car of the four featured above to use two ‘swan neck’ pylons to attach the rear wing. Even though the Red Bull show car also used two, the car that actually hit the track in 2022 only used one. This comes down to the design of the cars, with several teams opting to use two pylons in 2022.

The system works in reverse when the driver presses the brake pedal or releases the throttle in preparation for the corner, with hydraulic pressure released causing the piston to retract the linkage connected to the top flap of the wing. This slams the top flap shut and allows the rear wing to start generating more downforce to help the driver make the corner.

Who Controls DRS In F1?

The driver controls DRS in F1, it is not automatic. They have a button on their steering wheel that activates the system, opening the flap in the rear wing to reduce drag and increase top speed. They can only activate DRS if they are within 1 second of the car in front at the DRS detection zone.

The driver must press a button or paddle on their steering wheel to activate it, but the DRS flap on the rear wing will shut automatically as soon as the driver lifts their foot off the throttle or applies the brake, or if they pass the end of the DRS zone, whichever comes first.

The Rules Of F1 DRS

The main rule of DRS is that it can only be used when a trailing driver is within 1 second of the car in front, and the race director deems the conditions safe enough to allow for DRS to be used (it has to be dry and 2 laps after any stoppages). DRS can only be used within dedicated zones on the track.

Although the mechanisms used in DRS can seem complex, the main takeaway is that it allows the drivers to gain up to around 7 mph (12 kph) of speed over the course of the straights on the track when trying to overtake (the exact speed gains vary by track and straight length). But they can’t simply keep the button pressed as and when they like throughout the race, as there are certain conditions that need to be met before they can use it.

The key rules of DRS in F1 are:

  • You need to be within 1 second of the car in front to use it (unless it’s during qualifying/free practice)
  • DRS cannot be used within 2 laps of a race start, restart, or safety car period
  • The race director must deem the conditions safe for DRS (i.e. usually not on a wet track)
  • You can only use DRS within specified zones
  • There is no limit to the number of times a driver can use DRS during a race

Within 1 Second

The first and perhaps most important rule regarding DRS concerns the gap between you and the car in front that you are trying to overtake (even if it’s a backmarker). The gap between you and the driver in front must be within one second for you to be able to use DRS.

This means you need to be quite close to be able to use it, and even then, there are only certain areas of the track that you can use it (see the next section about DRS zones).

The leading car can also use their DRS as a defense mechanism if they are within one second of a car in front of them. We saw a good example of this in 2021 at the US Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA). Max Verstappen managed to hold off Lewis Hamilton on the last few laps thanks to some DRS behind backmarker Mick Schumacher.

F1 drivers also use DRS in qualifying and free practice. Just like in the race, the cars can only use their drag reduction system in dedicated DRS zones. The difference, however, is that the drivers don’t need to be within 1 second of the car in front to use DRS in qualifying or free practice.

After 2 Laps

DRS cannot be used within the first two laps of the race start, restart, or after a safety car has been deployed. However, in 2023, F1 is trialing a one-lap rule rather than the standard two laps in each of these cases, but only during the Sprint races. This is in a bid to assess whether the spectacle can be improved by allowing earlier use of DRS, without negatively affecting the racing.

When It’s Safe

DRS may also not be enabled if the FIA deems it to be unsafe, such as due to heavy rain. When the track is damp, but with no standing water, the race director may enable DRS if they deem it safe to do so. Other causes for DRS being disabled include debris on the track in the DRS zones.

In The DRS Zones

We’ll talk more about these in the next section, but the DRS zones are specific areas of the track where drivers are allowed to activate their drag reduction system. They have an activation point denoted by a white line on the track, and drivers may only activate DRS once they pass this line. DRS zones have varying lengths, and they usually end just before a corner.

No Limit

There is no limit to how many times DRS can be used during an F1 race. As long as the driver is within 1 second of the driver in front when they pass the DRS detection zone, and as long as DRS has been enabled by the race director at that point, they can use DRS.

These rules and restrictions on the use of DRS prevent it from being abused by drivers. If the leading car of the race were to use DRS as often as they liked they would likely never be caught up by the chasing drivers. Likewise, if the car in front could use it as a defense mechanism at any time, there would be no advantage to the chasing car.

KEY POINTS

• DRS allows drivers to reduce drag on the straights through a flap that opens in the rear wing of the car

• They can only use it if they are within 1 second of the car in front

• DRS zones dictate where a driver can use DRS on the track

Where Are The DRS Zones On An F1 Track?

The DRS zones at an F1 circuit are usually on the longest straights. Circuits tend to have between 1 and 4 DRS zones, and they are always preceded by a DRS detection zone. Monaco, for example, has 1 DRS zone, while the Red Bull Ring and the Bahrain circuit each have 3 DRS zones.

Number Of DRS Zones On F1 Tracks

Number of DRS ZonesNumber of Tracks
38
211
14

Most F1 tracks have 2 or 3 DRS zones (83% of them in 2023). Tracks that have just 1 DRS zone include Monaco, Imola, Suzuka, and the Losail International Circuit in Qatar.

These zones differ in length, and they consist of a detection point and an activation zone. There are sensors under the track at the detection points that determine the gap between the two cars, and if it is within one second, the chasing driver can press their DRS button in the activation zone.

Key Fact: The longest DRS zone is at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez circuit in Mexico, which is 997 meters long. The shortest DRS zone is at the Hungaroring in Hungary, at just 360 meters in length.

DRS Detection Points

When one driver passes over the DRS detection point (where there is a sensor under the track surface), the sensor registers this by picking up the car’s transponder, which is a device used for tracking where the cars are on track and for lap timing information. When another car passes over the detection point, the sensor does the same thing.

This allows the time difference between the two cars to be almost instantaneously calculated. If the gap is within 1 second, once the trailing driver passes over a similar timing sensor at the beginning of the activation zone (which will be some distance after the detection zone), they will see a light on their steering wheel (and possibly hear a beep in their ear) that tells them they can use DRS.

DRS Activation Zones

They can then press the button or paddle on their steering wheel that is dedicated to DRS, and the flap in their rear wing will open. Their DRS will remain active until they release their throttle by a specific amount or press the brake pedal. It will also deactivate if the driver reaches the end of the DRS zone, where there is another sensor at the end of the straight.

However, drivers will usually brake or release the throttle by enough to deactivate DRS before they reach this point, otherwise they’d struggle to make the corner. Drivers can also deactivate DRS manually by pressing the button again, and some drivers may do this just before they hit the brakes to give them maximum downforce for corner entry.

Can DRS Deactivate Automatically?

Many other discussions of DRS zones leave out the idea that the DRS zone has an end point, meaning there is a point before the corner where the car will automatically close the DRS even without any driver input. The primary reason for this is safety of course, but without a physical, detectable end point, the driver would technically be able to reactivate DRS after the corner.

The driver is never going to use DRS in the corner on purpose anyway, as it would make the car incredibly unstable due to the lack of rear downforce. However, without a detectable end point, they would theoretically be able to keep DRS activated throughout the entire lap, or activate it before the designated activation zone. Put simply, the DRS zone needs both a beginning and an end.

So, without driver input, DRS will eventually close automatically, but you’re unlikely to see this happen unless the driver severely misjudges their braking point!

KEY POINTS

• Drivers can only use DRS within specified DRS zones

• These are usually on the longest straights on the track, with most circuits having 2 or 3 of them

• DRS can be deactivated in a number of ways

Why Was DRS Introduced In F1?

DRS was introduced in F1 in 2011 in an effort to promote more overtaking, which was proving difficult due to the issue of dirty air. DRS helps drivers overtake on the straights by reducing the amount of drag they experience, making it easier to catch up to and pass leading cars.

Balancing The Advantage

Before we can say why DRS was introduced in the first place, we need to gain a basic understanding of what happens when a car is chasing another car. Essentially, F1 cars leave trails of what is called “dirty air” behind them. This is due to the aerodynamic and downforce packages on the car that manipulate the way that the air travels over, around, and under the car.

When the air hits the front and rear wings, along with other components of the car, it is basically thrown around out the back of the car in a very turbulent fashion (this is a very simplified explanation). This means the leading car can ‘cut’ through the air with ease, while leaving very volatile air behind it. Cars chasing this car now have to drive through this turbulent air.

Clean Air vs Dirty Air

The clean air in front of the leading driver allows the car to generate maximum downforce. However, turbulent air does not generate as much downforce as clean air can, and this means that, when cars are chasing others through corners, they cannot go as fast as they have less grip due to the loss of downforce.

This is not as much of a problem on the straights (where trailing cars benefit from the slipstream effect), but vital time can be lost through corners due to the dirty air they need to drive through. This is why DRS was introduced back in 2011.

As the two cars emerge from the corner onto the straight, the car behind has now lost a lot of time due to lack of downforce and therefore lack of grip. So, when it comes to the straight, the gap between the two cars is large as a result of the pace difference through the corner.

A Level Playing Field

However, with the DRS zone, as long as this gap is within a second, the chasing car can gain the advantage back. With DRS open, they can catch up to the car in front with more ease, somewhat levelling the playing field and giving them a better chance to overtake. This (ideally) makes the racing fairer, while also making it more exciting for the fans with more overtakes.

Obviously, DRS is not the magic overtake button that many people perceive it to be. Not only is it only usable in certain situations, but whether the car can overtake the car in front depends largely on the actual abilities of each vehicle. The car needs to have enough power and speed to get past, and then when they get to the next corner the driver needs to try and defend his new position.

The Best Solution Available Right Now

Many people do not like DRS and believe using it to be an artificial way of overtaking. But with so much downforce generated by modern F1 cars, it is very difficult to overtake without it due to the massive difference in advantage through clean air versus dirty air. And this is the main reason that DRS is still in F1, and will be until the problem of dirty, turbulent air is solved.

Note: The 2022 aerodynamic regulation changes did a good job of making it easier for cars to follow each other through corners. However, DRS remains on the cars and likely will for the foreseeable future.

Is DRS Fair?

DRS is fair as every driver has the ability to use it. DRS can only be used when conditions allow and the trailing driver is close enough to the car in front, so drivers must work to be able to earn the usage of DRS. On some tracks, DRS is more powerful than on others.

The clear advantage of the drag reduction system is that it presents clear opportunities for overtaking on the straights. However, the disadvantage is that many fans, teams, and drivers perceive this as artificial.

So, while DRS is fair in the sense that all drivers can use it under the same set of rules, whether or not it is the right way to approach the issue of dirty air and overtaking is a more contentious matter.

KEY POINTS

• DRS was introduced in 2011 to promote more overtaking

• It helps to negate some of the disadvantage trailing cars have when following other drivers

• It’s a controversial system, but it’s here to stay for the foreseeable future

Final Thoughts

DRS in F1 is a component of the rear wing that allows a flap to open when a driver is within 1 second of a car in front. This reduces the drag, giving DRS its name – Drag Reduction System. This reduced drag allows cars, under certain conditions, to make easier overtakes on cars in front.