Car Design Changes Made Overtaking More Common in Formula 1

This year was the first season of Formula 1’s updated technical rules, which had the potential to shake up the competitive order as teams made big changes to their cars.

A new set of aerodynamic regulations were intended to create more action by making it easier for drivers to battle wheel-to-wheel and attempt to overtake. The rule changes were among the biggest ever in Formula 1. The only part that carried over from the 2021 cars was the steering wheel.

There was no change at the top of Formula 1 as Max Verstappen of Red Bull claimed his second championship in a row. But most drivers felt the technical rule changes had paid off and made the series more exciting.

“Definitely, the racing improved,” Verstappen said. “Some tracks are a little bit better than others, but on some tracks it’s just very difficult to pass anyway, it doesn’t matter what car you use. Overall, the rules have been pretty good.”

With fewer technical freedoms than in previous years, it meant there were more similar car designs throughout the field, something that was intended to create closer competition.

“It has helped to compress the field a bit and to have races with more competition, and fighting,” said Xevi Pujolar, the head of track-side engineering at Alfa Romeo.

“All the drivers now, they say that it’s possible to race closer together,” he said. “It’s giving more opportunities during the race. So on that side, I think it’s gone pretty much as planned.”

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen steers his car in the pit lane during the qualifying session at the Singapore Grand Prix. He won a record 15 races in a single season.Credit…Pool photo by Mohd Rasfan

Formula 1 wanted the new rules to reduce what is known as “dirty air,” which is the aerodynamic wake a car produces. When another car gets close, the change in airflow can cause the car to lose down force, making it hard to get close to the car in front. By reducing the wake and making it easier for cars to follow each other, Formula 1 hoped there would be more overtaking.

Esteban Ocon of Alpine thought the new cars had improved the racing.

“There were a lot of races that were mega with close fights,” he said, picking Saudi Arabia and Brazil as two of the most exciting. He said the back-and-forth overtaking reminded him of go-kart racing.

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It used to be that when drivers found the opportunity to overtake, “you had to go for it, that was it,” Ocon said. “Now, it’s very different. It’s definitely gone in the right direction.”

According to Pirelli, Formula 1’s tire supplier, there was a 30 percent increase in overtaking from 2021 to 2022. In 2021, the company recorded that overtaking took place 599 times compared with 785 this year.

Mario Isola, Pirelli’s head of Formula 1 and car racing, said it showed the “package was working well” with the new rules. Updated tires were also introduced for 2022 that were designed to let drivers attack more without overheating their rubber, something that could cause them to lose performance.

This year, Isola said, “drivers were fighting, two or three cars together, overtaking each other, trying to use any possibility or any mistake from the competitor to overtake and pushing for not just one corner, but three, four, five laps.”

But not every driver was convinced the new rules had been a total success. Sebastian Vettel, who retired from Formula 1 at the end of the season, felt there was not a big difference because there was a reduced slipstream effect, which is when a driver is directly behind another car and gains along a straight to set up the ability to overtake.

“I don’t want to say it has failed,” he said. “But certainly, a lot of effort had gone in and not all the effort came out.”

Ocon thought the slipstream was something Formula 1 “needs to improve” to help increase overtaking even more. He also thought the new cars were less fun to drive than previous ones because of their increased weight.

Nikolas Tombazis, the head of single seaters for Formula 1’s governing body, the F.I.A., was one of the architects of the new rules. He disagreed with Vettel.

Mechanics from Mercedes prepare tires during a practice session in São Paulo ahead of the Brazil Grand Prix. Updated tires were introduced for 2022 that let drivers attack without overheating their rubber.Credit…Mauro Pimentel/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images

“It did improve the ability of cars to follow each other,” Tombazis said. “Clearly, a good race needs also to have teams close to each other fighting.” But he acknowledged that “in the second half of this season, it was not so close: There was a clear-cut winner.”

That was Verstappen, who won a record 15 races in a single season. His team, Red Bull, won 17 races, including 10 of the final 11. Ferrari and Mercedes were the only other teams to win races. In 22 races, only once did another team finish in the top three. That was McLaren, whose driver, Lando Norris, finished third in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

“I was hoping that we could see a bit more variety in the finishing order, with maybe more midfield teams getting the chance to fight for podiums,” said Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri, who went a full season without finishing on the podium for only the second time in his Formula 1 career.

“Hopefully this is something that can improve over the next couple of years and get the field closer together, have more teams fighting for podiums.”

The new rules were intended to work with Formula 1’s new cost cap, which was introduced in 2021. This limits teams to spending $140 million per year in a bid to make spending in the series more sustainable as well as remove the advantage of the bigger, richer teams.

But Tombazis said the continued dominance of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes “wasn’t unexpected” because it would take time for the rules to even out the competitive order.

“There’s still an initial advantage for people,” he said. “It was bound to still be the better-off teams that adapted better to the rules.

“I think the gaps were very low for it being the first year of the new regulations. I think if it was the fifth year like that, it would be a bit more worrying.”

Carlos Sainz of Ferrari was also confident that the rules would bring more teams into the fight at the front.

“As soon as these regulations stabilize, I think we are all going to converge,” he said. “The championship is just going to keep getting more and more interesting with the passing of the years. I think it’s going in the right direction.”

There is good reason for this optimism. Behind the top three teams, the midfield was much closer than in the past, providing a lot of action. Only one team, Williams, failed to record a top-five finish this season, while every team scored a point for the first time in three years.

“The entertainment value is better, I think,” said Günther Steiner, the team principal of Haas. “A lot of people watch Formula 1 because there are always battles everywhere, and I think for that, it was a very good step forward.”

The rules will be largely the same for next year apart from the car floors, which will change to try and stop them from bouncing. This was a consequence of the new aerodynamic rules that had the cars as close to the ground as possible to generate down force.

It led to intervention from the F.I.A. on safety grounds after drivers raised concerns, forcing teams to change their designs for 2023 and raise their floors.

“It caught everyone a bit by surprise,” Tombazis said. “I think it’s going to be reduced inherently next year with the changes.”

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