Overtaking is an essential part of any form of racing. Being able to pass your opponents out on track gives you the ability to make up more positions and finish higher than you started. This can leave some fans wondering why there is little to no overtaking in many F1 races.
The 6 key reasons overtaking in F1 is so difficult are:
- Track layouts
- The size of the cars
- Aerodynamics of the cars
- Weight of the cars
- Lifespan of the tires
- Speed of the cars
Formula 1 is a challenging sport, and simply keeping these machines under control and on the racing line is difficult. However, having to overtake other cars that are just as fast and challenging to drive is even more difficult, and below we go into detail as to why this is the case.
There is not less overtaking in F1 than there used to be, contrary to much popular belief. Since the implementation of DRS, there have actually been several seasons with far more overtakes than in the past. However, some races do see fewer overtakes than they used to, such as the Monaco GP.
However, there has undoubtedly been fluctuation over the years in terms of number of overtakes per race, per season, and in the number that fans can see on TV. This has to do with the ever-changing designs of the cars, and the bigger and more aerodynamically advanced they have become, the harder it has become for drivers to perform overtakes.
Even as the number of races increased during the late 90s and the early 2000s, the number of overtakes during the season generally remained lower than they were in the 1980s. This is a clear indication that overtaking became much more difficult, and much less common in the 2000s.
ERS & DRS
The number of overtakes began to rise again in 2010, as the massive shake up in the aerodynamic rules truly came into effect with cars adapting by using blown diffusers. The introduction of KERS (now part of the ERS) could also have played a role in the sudden increase in the number of overtakes.
The 2010 to 2013 Formula 1 era was arguably the most competitive, despite the Red Bull domination at the time. The 2012 season saw the highest number of overtakes in a single season, with 870 in total. This season even beat out the 2011 season, which saw an average of 43.2 per race, compared to 2012’s 43.5 per race.
The increase in overtakes in the last decade or so is largely thanks to DRS. This is the drag reduction system that allows cars to open a flap in their rear wing for reduced drag and increased speed at certain parts of the track if they’re close enough to the car in front. To some this makes for somewhat artificial overtakes, but there’s no doubt it’s increased the total number from previous lows.
In 2017 and 2018 there was another drop in the number of overtakes per season. In 2017 the aerodynamic regulations were changed to make the cars wider and larger. The cars became two meters wide – wider than ever before – and this made overtaking much more difficult.
Ever since, overtaking has been slowly increasing every season. The 2022 season brought in some major aerodynamic overhauls which make the cars much easier to follow, allowing them to get much closer to one another without losing downforce – much like the 1980s.
It’s Hard To Find Data
It should be noted that it’s very difficult to find accurate data on the number of overtakes per season. You need to consider if overtakes when cars pit count, along with those resulting from mechanical issues causing the leading car to go slow, and any that occur on the first lap, when things are notoriously chaotic.
Not all overtakes are shown on TV either, where the majority of fans see the races. This was more of a problem in the past, where the way F1 was filmed meant it was tough to keep track of every move. Nowadays, we can get nearly unlimited access to an F1 race via instant replays, so almost all overtakes make it to your TV screen at some point.
In 2022, Formula 1 teams experienced major rule changes that would see the cars adapt to a drastic new look and feel. The “new era” of Formula 1 was brought into effect with the aim of improving overtaking by reducing the amount of dirty air coming off the wake of the car in front.
Doing so would allow the cars behind to get much closer than before, allowing for more overtaking opportunities to be created. In addition, it was estimated that drivers would need less of a pace advantage over the car ahead of them in order to pull off an overtake.
The main idea behind this is the fact that dirty air causes the cars behind to lose massive amounts of downforce and therefore grip, which means that they cannot get close to the car ahead of them. Instead, the cars would use their floor to generate downforce with a beam wing that directs dirty air up into the air and over the car behind.
DRS has undoubtedly helped with overtaking. The drag reduction system allows cars that are close enough to those in front in specific parts of the track to gain a speed advantage over their competitors, which makes overtaking much easier, although it’s usually only on the longest straights.
DRS (Drag Reduction System) is an overtaking aid that was introduced to Formula 1 in 2011. DRS is a flap on the rear wing that opens up at the press of a button, and this means that the car has less drag, and can gain an advantage of around 10-12 kph, or 6-8 mph on a straight, although when combined with a good slipstream this can be much higher.
The catch is that the driver is only allowed to use DRS when they are within one second of the car in front of them. The fact that the car behind gets DRS and not the car in front gives the driver behind a much better chance at overtaking.
Despite all the controversies surrounding DRS, it is clear that it has helped overtaking enormously. When it was introduced in 2011, overtakes suddenly went through the roof. Even though the figures drop after 2013, there is still a clear distinction compared to the previous era, and they’re likely to increase again in future.
With all the debate surrounding DRS, Formula 1 has considered moving away from the overtaking aid in the near future if the 2022 aerodynamic rule changes work as they are intended to. While DRS has been a significant help when it comes to overtaking, not everyone loves it.
The Formula 1 community has been divided over DRS, claiming that it has been used to create artificial racing and bland overtakes rather than wheel to wheel racing that fans love. While this is true in a sense, the reality is that the introduction of DRS has definitely helped to increase the overtaking numbers over the years.
There are a lot of different factors to consider when it comes to elements that influence overtaking. Ultimately, one car needs to be faster than another in order to overtake. However, as the famous Murray Walker always said, “catching is one thing, overtaking is another.”
Even if one car is much faster than another, an opportunity needs to present itself in order for the overtake to become possible. The track layout is one of the most important factors to consider here, and that’s one of the main reasons Monaco does not have many overtakes.
The cars also have an influence on the overtaking opportunities throughout the race. If the cars are too big and wide then overtaking will naturally be more difficult as there is less space on the track in order to pull off the overtake.
All of these factors can combine to create fewer overtaking opportunities. In junior motorsports such as karting and even at Formula 3 level we often see incredibly close racing. This is because all of the cars are equal, and also the fact that they are smaller and nimbler. But there are other reasons overtaking is so difficult in F1.
Track layout is one of the key reasons for the perceived lack of overtaking in Formula 1. Many circuits on the calendar only offer one or two great overtaking sports, with some circuits (such as Monaco) offering close to no overtaking at all.
In fact, Monaco is the worst circuit when it comes to overtaking, and in the past 20 years has hosted three Grands Prix with one overtake or none at all – 2003 (0), 2000 (1), 2021 (1). That said, while it’s extremely challenging to overtake in Monaco, it’s not impossible.
Monaco is not the only culprit when it comes to a lack of overtaking. Several other races also provided a grand total of zero overtakes, with the US Grand Prix in 2005 being one example, although only 6 cars started that race. Another example with no on-track overtakes was the European Grand Prix in Valencia in 2009.
But some circuits provide lots of opportunities for overtakes. These are usually the circuits with the longest straights and the most DRS zones. Great examples are Monza in Italy, along with the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain.
It’s not just the straights though, as the best overtaking opportunities come on straights that are preceded by sections of track that allow drivers to follow close to the cars in front. If a circuit has a very long straight (like Baku, for example) but the straight is preceded by a section that isn’t too easy to follow on, overtakes on the long straight aren’t guaranteed.
When it comes to overtaking, one of the key factors that counts against modern Formula 1 cars is their size. If you compare a modern Formula 1 car to one from the 2000s you’ll see a big difference, as modern F1 cars are about 5 meters long and 2 meters wide, compared to 4.5 meters and 1.8 meters in 2005.
Despite their size and width, the cars that raced from 2017 until 2021 were still great at overtaking, albeit with the help of DRS. However, larger cars produce more dirty air behind them, and they’re also just harder to pass as they take up more of the track. This means the size of the cars has a large effect on overtaking in F1.
The move to ground effect cars using Venturi tunnels in 2022 was, in theory, a step in the right direction in terms of reducing dirty air and improving the racing. Formula 1 cars are much easier to follow, but DRS is still clearly very powerful and in many cases a requirement for overtakes.
The aerodynamics of a Formula 1 car are unique, and they’re what makes them so incredibly fast. The shape of the car creates so much downforce that F1 cars can take corners at higher speeds than any other vehicles in motorsport.
However, the aerodynamics of the cars is also what hinders them when it comes to overtaking. They are incredibly sensitive, and they need clean air in order to produce as much grip as possible. Because dirty air is essentially unavoidable in some form, the aerodynamics greatly affect overtaking in F1.
The current generation of Formula 1 cars are the heaviest that we have ever seen. They currently weigh a minimum of 798 kg, or 1,760 lbs, which is a lot more than they weighed in 2012 (640 kg/1,410 lbs).
This weight might not seem like a lot when you think about the average car, or even the average race car. However, Formula 1 cars have always been known as the small, lightweight, and nimble race cars, but to an extent that’s no longer true.
There’s no doubt that modern F1 cars are still incredibly quick and agile, but the fact they are so heavy and so large makes them trickier to race wheel to wheel with. It also makes overtaking much more difficult on twistier sections of track, and almost impossible on tighter street circuits like Monaco.
When Pirelli became F1’s exclusive tire supplier in 2011, we saw a massive spike in the number of overtakes per season. This was at the same time DRS was introduced, but the new Pirelli tires offered a lot of grip with the tradeoff of rapid degradation, which contributed to the increase in overtakes as well.
Because tire choice is the only real element of strategy in F1, given that refueling has been banned since 2010, drivers must be able to manage their tires in order to race with the optimum strategy. This means that, even if a driver has a faster car than those around them, if they need to conserve their tires to run a longer stint, they’ll often shy away from overtaking and defending.
But if a slower car is running on softer, grippier tires, they may be able to perform overtakes on much faster cars running on harder, less grippy tires. This is why we saw Max Verstappen so easily overtake Lewis Hamilton at the end of the 2021 Abu Dhabi title decider, as the difference in tire freshness made it effectively impossible for Lewis to defend.
The speed of Formula 1 cars has increased massively over the years. The 2020/2021 cars were the fastest F1 cars that we have ever seen, breaking several lap records, speed records, and generally setting much faster lap times than any other cars in the past. But faster cars in general doesn’t mean it’s easier to make overtakes.
With higher cornering speeds there is less chance for another car to get alongside and pull off an overtaking move. This leads to more DRS passes where the cars can overtake on straights or into heavy braking zones. But even then, if both cars are extremely fast, the power of DRS decreases.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the cars were significantly slower than they are now, yet we saw more overtakes without DRS and hybrid systems. This is because slower cars can often produce much closer racing, and all you need to do is watch Formula E, Formula 2, and Formula 3 (or even karting for that matter) to see this in practice.
There’s no doubt that Formula 1 could improve when it comes to overtaking. However, overtaking has been increasing in frequency in recent years. It’s much better than it was in the 2000s, but this is largely due to DRS, and so F1 may continue to change the regulations in order to promote more organic overtaking.
I created and have been writing on this site since 2019, collaborating with drivers, coaches, engineers and manufacturers to provide you with the most reliable information about motorsport. Find out more about me here.