Formula 1 went through a time when racing overtakes were becoming few and far between. This is why the sport introduced DRS in 2011, as a direct way to increase the number of overtakes in a season. It’s still used today, but fans may wonder when you can use DRS in F1.
You can use DRS in F1 in designated activation zones when you’re within 1 second of the car in front. DRS will be unavailable under certain conditions, such as within 2 laps of the race starting or if it’s wet, but when it’s enabled, drivers activate it via a button on their steering wheel.
DRS was introduced with the aim of creating more overtaking opportunities for drivers during the course of a Grand Prix. Below, we will discuss the ins and outs of when drivers can use DRS, and go over the rules surrounding when DRS is not available.
What Is DRS In F1?
DRS in F1 is short for Drag Reduction System. DRS is a system that was introduced in 2011 in an attempt to increase overtaking during races. When DRS is active, a flap in the rear wing opens to reduce the car’s drag, allowing the driver to reach a higher top speed in designated DRS zones.
With the Drag Reduction System in place, the sport saw a massive spike in overtaking as drivers could take advantage of more overtaking opportunities. While DRS has improved overtaking in F1, it has also been the focal point of controversy over the years. Despite the added overtakes, many people in the F1 community dislike the DRS system because they consider the overtaking to be artificial.
The overtaking aid has come under fire from fans and drivers over the years – so much so that it could be phased out in the future. However, it’s clear that the sport still needs DRS in order to promote overtaking even with the 2022 aerodynamic rule changes, which were brought in to make it easier for the cars to follow one another.
When Can F1 Drivers Use DRS?
F1 drivers can use DRS when they’re in a DRS activation zone, as long as they were within 1 second of the car in front of them at the detection point. There are usually between 1 and 3 DRS zones on an F1 track, and drivers can use their DRS within these zones as many times as they like in a race.
The DRS system would not improve overtaking if drivers could use it whenever they wanted to. If all the cars are constantly using their DRS systems, no driver would gain an advantage and the sport would be back at square one in terms of overtaking. The solution is to only allow drivers to use their DRS in designated zones.
Each circuit has between 1 and 3 DRS zones, which are sections of the track where the drivers are allowed to use their DRS. Oftentimes the DRS zone is on the main straight, which also tends to be the longest straight on the track. Some circuits have two or three DRS zones depending on the overtaking opportunities on the track.
Drivers can also only use DRS if they are close enough to the car in front of them. The attacking car has to be within one second of the car ahead of them at the DRS detection zone in order for their DRS to be activated in the DRS zone. One second is usually close enough for a car to catch a slipstream and pull off an overtake, but it’s still not guaranteed.
Even with these restrictions in place we still see “DRS trains” in modern Formula 1. A DRS train happens when a group of cars are all within one second of the car in front of them. The result is that the group of cars all get DRS, which ultimately means that none of them gain a top speed advantage over the car in front, making overtaking more difficult.
KEY POINTS• DRS is a flap in the car’s rear wing that opens to reduce drag and increase top speed
• Drivers can only use DRS within designated DRS zones, and they need to be within 1 second of the car in front of them
• There are usually 1-3 DRS zones per track
• DRS doesn’t guarantee an overtake, but it does make it easier to pass
When Can F1 Drivers Not Use DRS?
F1 drivers cannot use DRS when they aren’t within 1 second of the car in front of them at the DRS detection zone. Drivers also can’t use DRS within 2 laps of the race start, restart, or safety car period. DRS is also usually not enabled in wet or damp conditions for safety reasons.
Aside from being out of DRS range, there are several other scenarios where Formula 1 drivers are not allowed to use DRS either. While DRS gives the cars a top speed advantage, there’s always a tradeoff when it comes to performance in Formula 1, and in the case of DRS, that tradeoff is the handling of the car.
While the DRS wing is open, the rear wing will be producing less downforce since there is less surface area catching oncoming air to push the rear of the car into the tarmac. This means that the rear of the car would be very unstable through corners, resulting in a lot of oversteer – these cars would spin easily if they corner with the DRS wing open. This is why the DRS zones are on the straights.
This lack of rear stability creates safety concerns for the drivers. The 2022 Australian Grand Prix was set to have four DRS zones – the most in the history of the sport. However, the DRS zone between turns eight and nine was removed in Free Practice 3 following concerns from drivers and teams due to the long high-speed curve.
With the reduced rear stability while the DRS flap is open, the FIA naturally banned the system from being used in wet weather. Driving a Formula 1 car in the wet is an extreme challenge for the drivers as it is, and allowing drivers to use DRS in the rain is a huge safety concern.
Drivers are usually not allowed to use DRS even if the track is just damp. The race director will carefully inspect the track conditions before allowing the drivers to use DRS, monitoring it across the course of the session. Even if the track is damp and the drivers are on intermediate tires, there is a high risk of cars losing control at high speed.
The major concern with DRS in wet weather is aquaplaning. Aquaplaning is when standing water on the track lifts the car’s wheels, which disconnects the surface of the tire from the tarmac, causing the car to instantly lose all of its grip. This usually results in the car spinning out uncontrollably.
With the DRS wing open, aquaplaning is more likely to happen since the car has less downforce and would essentially become “lighter.” In other words, it’s easier for standing water to separate the tires from the tarmac. The driver will also have even less control over the car when it spins, and they will be unlikely to recover the car.
First Two Laps
The start of a Grand Prix is filled with excitement for drivers and fans alike. There’s a lot going on as the cars launch off the grid and into the first couple of laps. Since all of the cars are relatively close together, there are still a lot of overtaking opportunities for drivers on the first few laps.
But drivers aren’t allowed to use their DRS at the start of the Grand Prix or on the first two laps of the race. DRS will only be activated on the third lap of the race (provided it’s dry and there hasn’t been a safety car), at which point the cars that are still within one second of the car ahead at the detection zone will be allowed to use their DRS to try and overtake.
The problem with using DRS at the start of the race is that the entire grid is bunched up together, and this would form a long DRS train in the opening stages of the race. Ultimately none of the cars would gain an advantage from using DRS on the first two laps, and it could create dangerous scenarios if the cars are all using DRS right from the start of the race.
Until the third lap of the Grand Prix, drivers have to rely on their own skills and a bit of luck to make overtaking opportunities stick. Drivers won’t be able to rely on the overtaking aid, so they need to make sure that they stay within one second of the car ahead of them until at least the third lap of the race if they want to be able to use DRS as soon as possible.
Safety cars are crucial in Formula 1. They are used to neutralize the race if there has been a crash or if the track conditions are deemed unsafe for drivers to be racing in. The virtual safety car is the same concept, but instead of a physical safety car the drivers must stick to a certain speed (referred to as a lap time delta) during the virtual safety car period.
During either the physical safety car or the virtual safety car (VSC), drivers are not allowed to use their DRS. With the race being neutralized, drivers must slow down, and they are not allowed to overtake, which means that there is no point in using DRS during a safety car period.
After the physical safety car has gone back into the pits, the entire grid will be bunched up once again for a rolling restart. In order to prevent a DRS train from forming, and for safety reasons, the same DRS rules as a normal race start also apply here – drivers will only be allowed to use their DRS after two laps of green flag racing. (DRS can be used as normal after a VSC.)
DRS will be deactivated by the race director during this time, which means that there is no way for the drivers to use DRS. The race director will also be monitoring track conditions to ensure that it is safe for the drivers to use DRS even after the safety car period is over.
KEY POINTS• DRS will only be enabled if the track is deemed safe by the race director
• DRS will not be usable within the first 2 laps of a race, or within 2 laps of a restart or safety car period
• DRS is usually also not enabled when the track is wet or damp
How Many Times Can You Use DRS In F1?
F1 drivers can use DRS as many times as they like as long as they are within 1 second of the car in front of them and they are within the DRS activation zones. This means drivers may end up using DRS as many as 50+ times over the course of the race depending on the track and their starting position.
There is no limit to how many times F1 drivers can use DRS in a race, but obviously it depends on where they start and how many cars they have to overtake. If a driver starts the race on pole and leads every lap, they’ll likely only have to use DRS a handful of times to overtake backmarkers.
However, if a driver is starting closer to the back of the pack and is ‘out of position’ – as in they qualified lower than their true capabilities – they will likely overtake a lot of cars as they work their way back towards the front. This can see them using DRS on every lap, perhaps in every DRS zone, making it easy for the total number of times they use it to creep into the dozens.
If drivers are in a DRS train, regardless of position, they’ll likely be using DRS every lap as well. They might never get past those in front of them, meaning they are just endlessly using DRS throughout the race. Drivers fighting for position will also use DRS more often than those that are constantly stuck outside of DRS range of those in front.
KEY FACT: Staying within a second of the car ahead is a difficult task in F1, even with the 2022 aerodynamic regulation changes that made the cars much easier to follow
The Effect Of Dirty Air
Formula 1 cars gain their advantage through the corners thanks to their aerodynamic capabilities. The shape of the car’s body, floor and wings gives it downforce, which allows them to corner at much higher speeds than any other car on the planet. However, the cars disrupt the air around them, which sends “dirty air” in their wake.
When the car behind gets too close, this turbulent air hits the front of their car. Formula 1 cars produce the most downforce when they are moving through clean, non-turbulent air. The closer they get to the car in front of them, the less downforce their car is able to produce due to the dirty air effect in the wake of the car in front.
With less downforce, the cars will be losing more and more time through the corners, which ultimately also wears their tires out faster. This means that even if a car is within one second of the car ahead of them, they won’t be able to stay within that DRS range for long, so they either need to make an overtaking move work, or use an alternative strategy to try and get past in the pits.
Can F1 Drivers Use DRS In Practice & Qualifying?
F1 drivers can use DRS in practice and qualifying sessions. Drivers are still only allowed to use DRS in the designated DRS zones during Free Practice and qualifying sessions, and DRS will not be available if the track is damp, wet or deemed otherwise unsafe by the race director.
Drivers don’t need to be within one second of another car to use DRS in qualifying or Free Practice. The driver simply needs to press their DRS button on the steering wheel to activate the system and open the rear wing up when they reach the designated DRS zone, which they’ll know by muscle memory (and a white line on the track).
DRS can give drivers a top speed gain of about 6-12 mph depending on the length of the DRS zone, making it vital in qualifying
Practice And Qualifying DRS In The Past
DRS was not always limited during Free Practice and qualifying sessions though. When the system was first introduced in 2011, drivers were free to open their DRS wherever they wanted to on the track. Of course, drivers would close the wing for cornering, but they would often open their rear wing at every other opportunity.
DRS zones did exist, but they were purely used in the Grand Prix. During qualifying, drivers usually activated their DRS wing on every straight to maximize their top speed. As soon as the driver started braking for the corner ahead of them the wing would automatically close.
This rule was changed in 2013 to the one that still stands to this day. Drivers can only use their DRS in the designated activation zones even if they are driving in Free Practice or qualifying sessions. This was mainly done for safety as drivers were using their DRS in dangerous sections, such as the Monaco tunnel and 130R at Suzuka, to gain an advantage over their rivals.
Does DRS Activate Automatically?
DRS does not activate automatically, and F1 drivers must push a button on their steering wheel (or pull a paddle depending on their setup). They will only be able to do this if they are within 1 second of the car in front, and within the DRS activation zone. It deactivates when they decelerate.
If the driver is within the one second DRS range, they will be notified with an audible beep and a light on their steering wheel that informs them that DRS is available to use at the DRS zone. The driver then needs to press the DRS button on their steering wheel to open the DRS flap on their rear wing when they pass the line that marks the start of the DRS zone.
The DRS flap will close automatically as soon as the driver leaves the DRS zone, touches the brakes, or lifts off the throttle, which allows the car to regain valuable downforce to help the driver slow down again in the braking zone and take the next corner safely.
Who Enables DRS?
DRS is enabled and disabled by the race director depending on the track conditions. In wet weather and under safety cars, DRS will be deactivated for safety reasons. When the system is active, drivers can use it if they are within one second of the car ahead of them.
KEY POINTS• F1 drivers can use DRS in practice and qualifying sessions when they’re in the DRS activation zones
• The driver is the one who controls DRS with a button on their steering wheel
• The race director decides when DRS can be enabled or disabled
F1 drivers can use DRS in the DRS activation zones when they are within 1 second of the car in front. With the DRS open, the car will be able to go faster than the car ahead of them, helping to create more overtaking opportunities. The driver has to manually activate DRS.