Stop game of follow my leader

David Tremayne on the move to bring back the days when overtaking chances abounded
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The Independent Online
The manoeuvre with which Michael Schumacher frustrated Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the start of the San Marino Grand Prix, when he weaved across the track deliberately to block his fellow countryman, was as aggressive and uncompromising a piece of borderline driving as anything that the late Ayrton Senna did to Alain Prost in the heat of their acrimonious rivalry.

But it was also symptomatic of the importance drivers place on the start in grand prix races. The way things are today, the start, and the pit stops, present by far the best opportunities for overtaking, for such is the aerodynamic character of the cars that actually passing another of even remotely similar performance, on the track, can prove impossible for even the best drivers.

When the race winner Frentzen was behind the Ferrari driver during the early stages there was little that he could do to redress the situation. But once he was ahead after his first pit stop, he could leave the red car at will. Likewise, when Jacques Villeneuve led initially he was untroubled, but when the boot was on the other foot and he was chasing Schumacher, he suffered precisely the same problem as Frentzen had.

Though much thought is currently going into revisions to the regulations for 1998 to increase braking distances in an attempt to boost overtaking opportunities, many observers believe that the introduction of narrower cars and tyres is not the answer, and that the underlying problem is an aerodynamic one. Air passes both over and underneath the cars, and where it exits the diffusor at the back end it becomes very turbulent.

Anyone who follows closely runs in that dirty air. Telemetry at Williams, for example, shows a reduction of as much as 30 per cent of a car's downforce whenever one of their drivers comes up close behind another, as he must if he wants to overtake.

The effect of this is to reduce the grip at the front of the car, and to prevent the driver getting close enough to a rival in a fast corner to be able to challenge him on the following straight. Thus, the racing often becomes a follow-my-leader procession as drivers wait until the pit stops in the hope that a more efficient turnaround will improve their position.

Jacques Villeneuve, who still leads the world championship despite yesterday's retirement, said: "I am positive that by keeping to the present regulations for as long as possible it will make the racing closer. If you had a car that was less aerodynamically efficient on the straight, then its vacuum would be stronger and you would see following drivers getting better suction from the slipstream - and better racing, too."

Many senior engineers also suggest that instead of decreasing the width of tyres, a serious reduction in the amount of aerodynamic downforce that the cars can create from their wings is the only realistic way to bring back the days when drivers passed and repassed, rather than following one another in the vain hope of pushing a rival into making a driving error.