Who Controls DRS In F1? Is It Automatic?

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DRS (drag reduction system) has been in F1 since 2011. It helps to improve overtaking by opening a flap in the rear wings of the cars, which reduces the overall drag of the car, improving the car’s top speed. But many fans might be wondering how drivers control their DRS and if it’s automatic.

F1 drivers control DRS and it does not open automatically. When in the DRS zone, and provided they are within 1 second of the driver in front, they open the flap in their rear wing by pressing a button on the steering wheel. It closes when they brake, lift off the throttle, or leave the DRS zone.

While DRS can be activated by the driver, they are only allowed to use the overtaking aid in the designated DRS zones, usually found on the longest straights. Below, we discuss when F1 drivers can and cannot use DRS in more detail, and how the system activates and deactivates.

When Can An F1 Driver Use DRS?

An F1 driver can use DRS when they are in a designated DRS zone and are within 1 second of the car in front when they reach the DRS detection zone. F1 drivers cannot use DRS within the first 2 laps of a race, within 2 laps of a safety car or restart, and also usually when the track is wet.

With the DRS open, a Formula 1 car gains a speed advantage in a straight line. The open rear wing will reduce the amount of drag that the car has, which allows it to increase its top speed by between 6-12 mph, or 10-20 kph. But the only way this becomes an advantage is if the usage of the system is limited to specific areas and scenarios.

Formula 1 drivers can use their DRS when they are within one second of the car ahead of them. The challenge is staying within a second until they reach the DRS detection zone, which is the area where the gap between the two cars is measured by sensors. It’s often difficult for drivers to maintain this gap in order to get DRS for the upcoming activation zone.

DRS Zones

Drivers can only use their DRS when they are in a designated DRS zone. These zones are placed on the straights that offer the best overtaking opportunities on the track. DRS zones are used to prevent the drivers from using their DRS at any point on the track and whenever they want to.

If drivers were able to use their drag reduction system at any point, no driver would be able to gain an advantage over another. Drivers would simply be stuck in something known as a DRS train, which we still see to this day. DRS trains happen when multiple cars are within one second of another and all of them use their DRS, resulting in no cars gaining an advantage.

How Many DRS Zones Does Each Circuit Have?

F1 tracks tend to have between 1 and 3 DRS zones each. Some circuits have as many as 3 DRS zones, whereas others can have just 1 DRS zone. It all depends on the nature of the circuit and the overtaking opportunities that drivers would have while racing on it.

For example, Monaco only has one DRS zone because there is only one straight – the main straight – where DRS can safely be used. The rest of the circuit is too bumpy, too narrow, and the tunnel section has too much curvature for a DRS zone. Other circuits such as Bahrain have three because of the three long straights that offer great overtaking opportunities.

Which Circuit Has The Most DRS Zones?

The 2022 Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park was set to have four DRS zones. This would have been the most DRS zones at any circuit in the history of the sport. However, following the first and second free practice sessions, the fourth DRS zone between turns eight and nine was scrapped.

Drivers and teams voiced their safety concerns over the DRS zone which was implemented into a section that is technically not a straight and requires the drivers to turn at high speed. With DRS active, the cars have significantly less rear downforce and stability, making it incredibly easy for the drivers to lose control over their cars – which is a serious safety concern.

Is DRS Controlled By The Driver In F1?

DRS is controlled by the driver in F1. Drivers activate DRS when they cross the first line of the DRS activation zone, and their rear wing stays open as long as they are in this zone. Drivers can manually deactivate it by pressing the button again, by braking, or by lifting off the throttle.

DRS is controlled by the driver from inside the car. Drivers simply need to press a button on their steering wheel to activate DRS and open the flap on the rear wing. This gives the car a top speed advantage and gives the driver an opportunity to overtake the car in front of them.

However, DRS does not always make it easy for cars to overtake one another. Drivers still need to pull alongside and out brake the car in front of them. Using DRS will help them reach their top speed faster, but it’s not a guaranteed ticket to overtaking the other car. Drivers need to make sure to activate their DRS as soon as possible to maximize their top speed on the straight.

DRS Is Not Always Available

If drivers aren’t allowed to use their DRS, they won’t be able to open their rear wing even if they press the DRS button. The FIA can choose to disable DRS on all cars for various reasons too. This will prevent the drivers from opening their rear wing even if they press the button on their steering wheel when in the activation zone and close enough to the car in front.

DRS is not available:

  • Within 2 laps of the race starting
  • Within 2 laps of a safety car period
  • Within 2 laps of a restart
  • If the track is deemed unsafe (i.e. if it’s too wet)
NOTE: The first three circumstances above apply to both normal races and Sprint races, while the last one applies to all sessions, including qualifying and free practice sessions

How Do F1 Drivers Know When To Use DRS?

F1 drivers know when to use DRS either via an audible beep in their ear or by a light on the steering wheel, or a combination of both. F1 drivers also simply know when to use DRS as they can judge the gap to the car in front and know by memory where the DRS activation zone begins. 

When DRS is available to a driver they may be given an audible and visual cue. When drivers are within one second of the car in front of them, they will hear an audible tone in their earphones, and they may be given a signal on their digital dashboard or a light on their steering wheel depending on the driver’s preference.

When they have been given this signal, the driver will prepare to push the DRS button at the upcoming DRS zone in order to open up their rear wing. As soon as they pass the DRS activation line they need to push their DRS button as quickly as possible in order to open the wing as early as they possibly can.

Mistiming The DRS Zone

Drivers don’t want to mistime their DRS activation. If the driver presses the DRS button too early, the DRS won’t open, which means that they could lose out on some of the benefits of DRS. F1 drivers are so good at what they do that this is unlikely to ever happen, and they would most likely correct their mistake rapidly anyway.

If the driver presses their DRS button too late, they will be wasting valuable time where they could have been using DRS. The longer the DRS stays open, the higher the top speed the car is usually able to reach. Even a couple of extra meters can make a big difference at the end of the straight, and it could be the difference between pulling off the overtake and staying behind.

KEY POINTS

• F1 drivers are in control of their DRS

• They can only use it within specified zones and when within 1 second of the car in front

• DRS is not available to any drivers at various points during an F1 race

• They know when to use it via audible beeps and lights on the steering wheel

How Do F1 Drivers Activate DRS?

F1 drivers activate DRS with a button or paddle on their steering wheel, with the specific location of the activation button/paddle varying between teams and drivers. F1 drivers deactivate DRS by braking, lifting significantly off the throttle, or by leaving the DRS activation zone.

In free practice and qualifying, drivers can use DRS in the activation zones at any time, regardless of how close they are to cars in front, but in a race they need to be within one second of the car ahead of them. The car in front can be a lapped car or a car fighting for position.

Formula 1 drivers can activate their DRS from inside the cockpit of the car. They can open the flap in the rear wing by pressing a button or using a paddle on their steering wheel. Once they activate it, an actuator opens the flap in the rear wing. With the DRS open, the car will have less drag and will be able to reach a higher top speed on the straight.

What Happens If The DRS Does Not Activate?

If the driver is not within a second of the car in front of them at the DRS detection zone their DRS will not activate even if they press the DRS button. It’s important to remember that the DRS detection line and the DRS activation line are not the same thing. The detection zone can be quite a distance before the activation point, and it’s the only area where the required DRS gap will be measured.

However, DRS is still a mechanical part that could be faulty. As with any part on a Formula 1 car, there is a risk of the part becoming damaged. Max Verstappen, for example, struggled to activate his DRS at the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix due to a mechanical fault on his Red Bull’s DRS system (he still won the race, though in large part thanks to race leader Leclerc retiring).

How Do F1 Drivers Deactivate DRS?

F1 drivers deactivate DRS by pressing the button/paddle again, braking, lifting significantly off the throttle, or by leaving the DRS zone. Usually, DRS is deactivated when the driver presses the brakes for the upcoming corner, but they may deactivate it sooner if they need to take avoiding action.

While the DRS is open, the car might be reaching higher top speeds, but it becomes nearly impossible for the car to turn safely. The gap in the rear wing means that the car will lose a lot of its rear downforce and stability. This could lead to the car easily spinning with the slightest turning of the steering wheel.

As such, it’s crucial that the DRS closes by the time the driver starts braking for the corner. However, every millisecond that the DRS is closed, the driver will be losing their top speed advantage. This is why the deactivation of the DRS has been made incredibly accurate and efficient.

As soon as the driver lifts their foot off the throttle or touches the brake the DRS will automatically close. This gives the car the ability to slow down quickly, and it also gives the car the stability to get around the corner quickly and with more stability.

What Happens When DRS Won’t Close?

Since the cars lose stability when the rear wing is open, it becomes dangerous to leave the wing open when the car needs to corner. In some cases, the DRS can become stuck open as the actuator fails to close it properly.

This causes a dangerous situation for the drivers, teams, and spectators, as the driver with the broken DRS has a higher risk of losing control of their car. The car with the faulty DRS will be shown the mechanical black flag (black flag with orange circle). This means the team has to bring their car into the pits and fix the issue or retire the car.

Faulty DRS is taken very seriously by the FIA because of the dangers involved in driving with an unstable car. If the wing is not repaired by the team, the driver will be disqualified from the race for driving with an unsafe car

KEY POINTS

• F1 drivers activate DRS using a button or paddle on their steering wheel

• They can deactivate it with this same button or paddle, or by decelerating or leaving the DRS zone

• DRS reduces drag but it also makes the rear of the car unstable in the corners

• Drivers with faulty DRS systems may need to retire the car 

How Do F1 Drivers Judge DRS Zones?

F1 drivers judge DRS zones very easily as they know the tracks very well. F1 drivers memorize the tracks to a very fine degree of detail, both through racing on them and in simulators. This means they know exactly where the DRS zones are, and they can reliably open their rear wing when required.

Formula 1 drivers need to open their DRS at the perfect moment if they are going to maximize their top speed at the end of the straight and potentially overtake the car in front of them. This means that they will need to judge when they’ll reach the DRS activation zone and push their DRS button at the right time.

While F1 drivers have driven on the tracks countless times, they’ve also done a lot of laps in the simulators and so they know the tracks like the back of their hand. Not only that, but they’ll practice using DRS in free practice sessions before the race to really dial it in and make it second nature. 

Final Thoughts

F1 drivers control their DRS by pressing a button or paddle on their steering wheel if they are within 1 second of the car ahead of them. DRS will automatically close when the driver lifts off the throttle or touches the brakes, which gives the car enough stability to slow down and corner properly.