Motor racing: Grand design turns circuits into sideshows

David Tremayne considers why Sunday's events on the track in Montreal typified exactly what is wrong with Formula One
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The Independent Online
NOTHING more effectively highlighted the vexed problem of overtaking than the games of dodgem cars that enlivened the two attempts necessary to get Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix under way.

On the first effort five cars were involved in an accident as Alexander Wurz's Benetton rolled over Jean Alesi's Sauber; in the second, Jarno Trulli's Prost had a coming together with Alesi's car.

"The problem is that too many young drivers get greedy," Alesi said. "When you make a good start there comes a point when you have to be satisfied with the progress you have made, otherwise you cannot get round the corner. There is no point to try and pass everyone, it just doesn't work."

Such is the difficulty in overtaking in F1 these days, however, that the start and the pitstops represent the best opportunities. The rest is often follow-my-leader. Ricardo Rosset has scarcely set the road alight this season, yet a driver of Johnny Herbert's calibre lacked the straightline speed to pass his Tyrrell and struggled for several laps before finally squeezing ahead.

Jacques Villeneuve, whose own effort to pass Giancarlo Fisichella ended with an embarrassing trip across the gravel bed and the incident that lost him his Williams' rear wing, said: "Part of the problem is the attitude in grand prix racing. When I arrived here the only thing that people could tell me was that overtaking was impossible, and that you shouldn't even bother to try. If you go into a race in that spirit, all you think of is when to make the next pit stop, to give yourself a chance of overtaking someone.

"Often you can even see another driver thinking about passing someone, then in the middle of it he thinks: 'Oh, I shouldn't be doing this'. It's as if it's in his mind not to do it, so he never tries it. If you end up banging wheels and crashing, the criticism that follows will outweigh the positive reaction that should come from your having tried to pass someone. It's almost as if it's better not to try."

Formula One is criticised for its lack of overtaking, particularly in comparison with the American ChampCar series in which pitstops play just as significant a role, yet the on-track action is often spectacular.

The FIA, the sport's governing body, is investigating how to improve the possibilities for overtaking in F1, and one suggestion has been to abandon the flat-bottomed cars used since 1983, and to revert to those with shaped ground-effect undersides similar to ChampCars.

A higher minimum weight and reversion to steel, rather than carbon, brakes have also been mooted. The reigning ChampCar champion, Alex Zanardi, a former F1 driver, said: "There is more that you can do with the car, and it does not suffer so much from the aerodynamic turbulence that prevents other drivers following you closely enough to try overtaking."

On the oval tracks that comprise a significant part of the FedEx ChampCar series, the cars regularly run inches apart at more than 200mph, whereas F1 cars lose a sizeable amount of downforce the moment they get too close to one another. Patrick Head, the technical director of Williams, reports that their telemetry indicates an appreciable reduction in downforce when one car gets within 50 metres of another.

"There are two issues here," Ron Dennis, the McLaren chief, suggests. "Close racing and overtaking. If you want close racing you must have stable regulations which remain unchanged for long periods."

Villeneuve said: "As long as we remain so dependent on downforce, the more difficult it is going to be to follow people around corners. The cars are now so aerodynamically efficient, even on the straight, that you cannot slipstream any more."

The underlying problem is that the designers are too clever. Historically, any attempt to limit downforce, since the late Colin Chapman taught his rivals how to harness it effectively in the Seventies, has always been circumvented by the ingenuity of the designers.

The answer is thus far more complex than it might first seem. Until a satisfactory compromise is reached, races will tend to be processional, or else irresistible forces will continue to meet immovable forces to the detriment of the world's most highly developed race cars.