Is low downforce the answer?

Earlier this month, Motorsport Magazine had Frank Dernie on their podcast.  As you may expect he covered a wide range of issues, but one in particular inspired this post.  When discussing the current problems with Formula 1, Dernie doesn’t agree with what has been discussed by many on this site, of reducing the downforce as an aid to improving the quality of the racing. In answer to this he quotes the rules change in 1983 when the shaped underbody that produced a massive amount of downforce was banned, to be replaced by a flat floor.  The result was the downforce produced in1983 was only 20% of that produced in 1982.  The figures from the wind tunnel were so bad that Dernie though he had missed something, and that the Williams would be completely uncompetitive that year.  As it turned out, they weren’t too far off the pace with the team maintaining the fourth place in the constructors championship they had in 1982.

Dernie’s argument was that if low downforce was the answer, then we should be remembering 1983 as being one of the best seasons of racing ever, especially when compared to 1982.  It is very difficult at this range to provide definitive evidence on the quality of the racing.   Unfortunately it isn’t possible to go back and watch all the races live to judge.  So I looked at the number of overtakes (by counting the changes in position on the lap charts on the forix database) that took place during each race on the circuits that were used in both 1982 and 1983.  I have discounted Imola, as only 14 cars started in 1982 due to the FISA-FOCA dispute, and the race identified as Great Britain is Brands Hatch (Silverstone was the British GP in ’83 while Brands was used for the European round).

Overtakes 82-83

I have discounted anything that took place in the first lap, and those that appear to be the result of a car pitting of retiring.  We can see that while the overall number of passes is similar in both years, in general it is higher in 1983.  We also have to remember that 1982 was the end of a period of rules stability where cars had been developed to have downforce produced by the shaped underbody of the car, and although sliding skirts had been banned in 1981, teams has soon developed was around this issue.  The change to flat floors for 1983 was significant, and this would have spread the field further apart.  Looking at the qualifying times, and the differences between pole, tenth and twentieth places over the two years, we can see that this is generally the case.

Field Spread 82-83

South Africa was held at the beginning of 1982 and the end of 1983, so that may help explain why the field had closed up by late 1983.  So although there were generally wider differences in car performance, there were usually more overtakes in 1983.  However this doesn’t necessarily mean that the racing was better.

Dernie’s ideas for what should be done to improve the racing merit consideration:

  • He wanted the tyres to be made harder wearing, offering less grip (using this as a means to extend braking distances rather than reducing downforce). This he argued would allow the drivers to race harder for longer.
  • Semi-Automatic gearboxes to be banned – the skill that used to be required to change gear smoothly without breaking the gearbox is no longer required, drivers now just pull ona paddle, and the electronics takes care of the rest.
  • Drive by wire throttle pedals reduces the skill required to drive the car. These days with no direct mechanical link between throttle pedal and the engine throttle, the pedal can be programmed so that 10% of the pedal movement gives 10% of the torque from the power unit.  The MGU-K and MGU-H can be arranged to fill in any holes in the power delivery from the Internal Combustion Engine.  In the 3 litre days, a 10% movement of the throttle pedal would result in 90% of the available torque being delivered to the wheels, with the drivers job in smoothly applying power out of a corner being so much harder.  In the first turbo era, applying the throttle would change very little, and there was a second or more delay before the large turbo spun up to speed before the power would arrive at the rear wheels, knowing just when to open the throttle to take account of that delay separated the great drivers from those that were only very good.

So have the cars got too easy to drive, such that it is masking the difference between the truly exceptional drivers and the rest?  Are the changes to the 2017 regulations which look like increasing the downforce levels with bigger wings going to help the racing?  Share your opinions below.