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Opinion: Are DRS and overtaking aids good for junior series?

by Craig Woollard

Formula 1 is entering its 10th season with the controversial Drag Reduction System overtaking aid this year. Just four drivers on the grid have experience from a time when overtaking was ?too difficult?, meaning that we are inevitably nearing having an entire generation of drivers who have had the advantage of this – unquestionably unfair – overtaking band-aid.

The introduction of the device ? ?for the show? ? drastically ramped up overtaking numbers in F1, but the fact that the debate about the quality of the racing has continued in its ferocity suggests DRS didn’t solve the underlying problem.

When it is in the sweet spot, even the harshest DRS critic has to accept it can be beneficial. But that scenario is often infrequent and relies on plenty of variables such as tyres, wing levels, wind and temperature.

DRS’s longevity in F1 isn’t the greatest marker of its popularity, rather that its been picked up other high-level events and series such as the Le Mans 24 Hours, DTM, and F1’s feeder series Formula 2, FIA Formula 3 and Formula V8 3.5.

America has gone in a different direction with push-to-pass (P2P), an engine boost system with limited supply that is used for attack and defence in IndyCar. Its support series Indy Lights has P2P that, like DRS, can only be used to attack. While grid sizes are measly for the latter, it’s hard to argue against IndyCar producing some of the finest single-seater racing right now. MotorSport Vision’s F2 series that ran from 2009 to 2012 had a popular P2P system that was the deciding factor in several race wins, and Super Formula currently has its own version of the system for its aerodynamically complex cars.

Formula E ? which can also boast exceptional races despite racing exclusively on street circuits ? has the slightly less restrictive Attack Mode and Fan Boost power boosting overtaking aids. In F1, too many overtakes seem far too easy because of a combination of fresh tyres, car performance and, of course, DRS.

It only took one trial year in F1 before it was picked up by FV8 3.5, albeit in a reduced capacity that could be used in defence, while GP2/F2 and FIA F3 have gone for F1’s approach. For two years GP3 ran DRS but limited activations for races.

In terms of ?the show?, it?s worked out pretty well. The cars being identical meant the racing is closer anyway ? with FV83.5 being really strong after it introduced its DRS-equipped Dallara T12 for 2012. F2 races are immensely enjoyable to the point where they?re usually better than the F1 races they support, despite also being faster and having more disruptive aero than ever before. It?s too early to tell with FIA F3 and Lights, where grids of 30 cars and eight cars change the nature of the racing.

The question here is not necessarily about ?the show?. The primary purpose of junior series is to teach drivers on their way up the ladder, and competent racecraft is a crucial skill for any professional championship. It’s very important that drivers are able to race without these aids and it can show off the great from the merely good. On the flipside, F1 and IndyCar are running with overtaking aids anyway, so drivers in the junior categories may as well have them too, and get used to using them in combat.

However, plenty of series still rely on ?natural? overtaking ? notably in sportscars. There is zero merit to running those aids for a future career in that form of motorsport and does make F2 a little bit less relevant than it perhaps could be in that regard. That doesn?t stop drivers successfully jumping from that level over into racing with a roof, as F2?s most recent champion Nyck de Vries proved while dovetailing his title-winning campaign with a drive in the World Endurance Championship.

How important is ?the show? in junior single-seater racing? There is a case that it is really important. If drivers are not being watched, then how are they supposed to build a fanbase, to pick up sponsors, to learn what it is like to have media interest? In that regard, it is beneficial to have devices that assist overtaking ? including the unfair ones.

Conversely, it also must remain a place where drivers can develop and showcase their skills. They must avoid the fate of, say, World Touring Cars ? which diminished in status after loading up with gimmicks and seeing what stuck.

The nature of single-seaters ? where overtaking has always historically been difficult from the moment that they started to sprout aerodynamic wings ? needs to also be considered. It had to be accepted that overtaking should never be too easy, but that is what separates the top-tier from the others. In an ideal world, we wouldn?t need overtaking aids in F1 or in any other category and it will all be natural and there will still be lots of overtaking. But that?s not how the wizardry of physics works.

The now-defunct FIA European F3 championship seemed to find a really good balance between having a chassis that promoted overtaking while also not making it too difficult to do so at a number of circuits. Tight and twisty venues such as Zandvoort and Pau are hard to make passes on, but that hasn?t stopped those venues producing some cracking contests over the years. For every one of those circuits, there is also a Spa and a Macau ? and how many three-wide scraps have they produced over the years without DRS? Plenty. So really, there?s no excuse on the junior ladder.

As far as gimmicks go, DRS is hardly the most controversial thing to feature on the junior ladder, including ones devised to produce overtaking. Discussing reverse grids opens up a whole new can of worms ? be it partially or fully reversed grids. Briefly touching on that subject, those are good for ?the show?, and force drivers to get a bit creative in the races.

Overtaking aids might be less of a controversial topic if it was implemented in a way that FR3.5 used DRS, or as an engine boost as IndyCar uses. The art of defending is an important skill for drivers to learn ? especially after Max Verstappen had the rulebook rewritten on it ? and drivers are often powerless to do so when the car behind has a vast straight-line speed advantage.

If F1 ditches DRS as it really should for the next generation of cars (scheduled for 2022 at the time of writing) then really Formula One Management should consider scrapping the device on F2 and F3 cars as soon as possible too. If that makes overtaking a bit trickier, then so be it. At the very least, allow it to be used to defend. The racing in FR3.5 was a different kind of mega to how it is in contemporary F2. But it certainly felt a bit more natural then compared to how it does now.