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DRS In F1: The Rules, What It Is, And Why It Exists

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 it means or how it works.

DRS stands for Drag Reduction System, and it is an adjustable part of the rear wing, used by drivers looking to overtake those in front of them. It can only be used when certain conditions are met.

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 conditions, to give you an understanding of why DRS is so important in Formula 1.

What Is DRS And How Does It Work?

DRS stands for Drag Reduction System, and it is an adjustable part of the rear wing, used by drivers looking to overtake those in front of them. It can only be used when certain conditions are met. It was introduced in Formula 1 in 2011, and since then it has become integral to the sport as drivers use it as often as they can in order to gain the advantage over other drivers.

The Role Of The Rear Wing

F1 cars have several components, 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, and so balancing each is key.

The rear wing allows the air above the car to push the car down to the ground, giving the tires more grip without adding weight to the car. 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 the car wants to have as little drag as possible. Downforce is created through air resistance, needed for cornering.

Straights vs Corners

But on the straight’s downforce is less essential, and the air resistance acts as a dragging force against the car’s forward momentum. Thus, in order to go faster, cars must reduce the amount of drag without sacrificing too much downforce in the corners. Enter 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, the top part of the wing opens up, which creates a gap through which the air can flow, thus reducing drag. This means the car can go faster, up to around 12kmph faster on the straights. This gives them the edge when overtaking.

The Rules Of DRS

A Substantial Gain

Although the mechanisms used in DRS can seem complex, the main takeaway is that it allows the drivers to gain around 12kmph of speed over the course of the straights on the track when trying to overtake. 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 first and perhaps most important rule regarding DRS concerns the gap between you and the car in front which you are trying to overtake. 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.

DRS Zones

These areas are called DRS zones, and there are usually between one and three of these on each track on the straights. These zones differ in length, and they consist of a detection point and an activation zone. There are sensors at the detection points which determine the gap between the two cars, and if it is within one second the chasing car can press their DRS button in the activation none.

The leading car can only use their DRS as a defense mechanism if they are also within one second of a car in front of them. Other conditions determine at which points in the race DRS can be used. It cannot be used within the first two laps of the race start, restart, or after a safety car has been deployed. It may also not be enabled if the FIA deems it to be unsafe, such as due to heavy rain.

There For A Reason

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. But why was it introduced?

Why DRS Exists

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 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 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 car is so easy to drive through, and it allows the car to generate maximum downforce as well. However, turbulent air does not generate as much downforce on the car behind, and they can lose close to 50% of their downforce abilities. This means that when cars are chasing others through corners, they cannot go as fast as they have less grip.

This is not as much of a problem on the straights, but through corners this means vital time can be lost due to the dirty air they need to drive through. This is why DRS was introduced. 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. Thus, when it gets to the straight, the gap between the two cars increases.

A Level Playing Field

With the DRS zone however, 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, levelling the playing field and giving them a better chance to overtake. This makes the racing fairer and less reliant on clean air, 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 useable 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 it to be an artificial way of overtaking. But with so much downforce generated by the modern F1 cars, it is very difficult to overtake otherwise 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.

Final Thoughts

DRS is used to try and make the playing field as level as possible in F1 without taking away the need for skill on the part of the drivers. A lot of strategy is needed to maximize the effectiveness of DRS, and it presents a decent solution to the problem of turbulent air. The conditions that need to be met to use it prevent it from being abused, and it helps to make races more exciting to watch.