Motor Sport: Max and the speed factor

David Tremayne says the lack of overtaking is undermining F1
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The Independent Online
THE FIRST overtaking move in last weekend's Spanish GP in Barcelona - if you exclude the start - came after four laps when Mika Salo passed Alexander Wurz for 16th place. The next came on lap 16 when Alex Zanardi passed Giancarlo Fisi-chella for 14th. At the head of the field the order did not change until the first round of pit stops, those magic wild-card shuffles which restack the deck and are the only way drivers can outfox each other these days.

When even Michael Schumacher says that it is easier to await the pit stop than to try overtaking out on the track, you know the sport is in big trouble.

The Spanish race was universally panned as a "Dull Affair". But the truth is that this has long been the norm. Back in Phoenix in 1990 when Jean Alesi gave everyone heart failure by actually repassing Ayrton Senna immediately after the great Brazilian had just deprived his Tyrrell of the lead of the US GP, observers felt the way they would if they watched an eclipse of the sun.

It was not always so. Back in the British GP at Silverstone 30 years ago, Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt waged a brilliant fight for the lead which compromised neither as they lapped at record speed. "We passed and repassed each other four or five times every lap," Stewart recalls, "and each time either of us saw the other coming in his mirrors, aiming for a gap, we let him by and latched on to the back of his car, already planning our own next move."

Today's drivers crave a similar chance, but their cars deny them. Back in 1969 the science of F1 aerodynamics was in its infancy. That British GP came only months after a ban on the tall wings mounted on spindly stilts which had caused serious accidents for Rindt and his Lotus team-mate Graham Hill.

Now aerodynamics is the single most important design factor. Almost everything else is secondary to controlling airflow. That's another reason why modern cars all look so similar that many would be hard-pressed to tell them apart if they were stripped of their gaudy liveries and paraded in their carbon black.

"Back in the Sixties or Seventies," says Patrick Head, technical director of Williams, "there were still several ways of achieving the same end. What has happened is that over the years things have become very much more intensive and the technical solutions have become polarised. Everyone uses sophisticated wind tunnels, and provided they do the research work properly, the results will tell you that a nose so many inches high, and sidepods so many inches long, is the way to go."

Today's cars share one trait with the "wing cars" of 20 years ago, which created a low pressure area beneath the car to create ground effect which sucked them closer to the track and thus made them go faster round corners. To improve the seal, sliding plastic skirts were used. It was an era which favoured drivers with steel "cojones", such as the Australian Alan Jones, who braved them round the tracks. If one of these skirts stuck up, the first the driver usually knew was when he came to, sitting in the scenery, after going off track at high speed.

The modern siblings no longer create such massive ground effect, since shaped undersides and skirts were banned, but they run on the same knife edge. Once corrective steering lock has been used up and the hard-compound grooved tyres have surrendered their grip the driver suddenly becomes a passenger as the car spins. Their rear-end turbulence also upsets the front-end grip of following cars while failing to produce the slipstream effect which can aid overtaking. The FIA president, Max Mosley, believes F1 to be a chess match - many agree that it is about as entertaining - and this Catch 22 is its equivalent of stalemate.

Soon after this weekend's Canadian GP, which promises more of the same, the team owners are scheduled to meet to thrash out discussions for the sport's future. This will come not a moment too soon. "An F1 car is dependent in cornering on its level of grip," says Gary Anderson, technical director of Stewart GP. "What I'd like to see is a significant reduction in downforce and a return to wide slick tyres, because that way the driver can really lean on the car and drive the tyre through the corner. That's when you get overtaking back." The drivers agree. Damon Hill describes the current regulations as "a blind alley", adding: "We need to have a long, hard look and make the cars more fun to drive and more exciting." Last weekend the former champion was particularly incensed to discover that something as minor as a change of wind direction completely upset the behaviour of his Jordan.

But Mosley is unlikely to be swayed from his view that narrow grooved tyres and high downforce remain the way to go. Citing safety, he counters: "Any 15 year-old student of physics will tell you that if a car is going at a lower speed when it has an accident, its impact speed will be slower too."

"I'd really like to meet this 15- year-old who knows so much more than we do," says Head, while pointing out that the old slicks scrubbed off a great deal of speed before a car hit anything whereas the grooved tyres manifestly do not.

Perhaps Max should invite his student friend along to the summit meeting.