Formula One - On and Off Track week 19

Formula One - On and Off Track week 19

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • DRS and the Monaco Grand Prix
  • Qualifying - times they are a changing

DRS and the Monaco Grand Prix

Before the Turkish Grand Prix several drivers had already hinted that using the DRS (Drag Reduction System) in the streets of the principality of Monaco would be a bad idea from a safety point of view. The FIA and other Formula One chiefs have considered to ban the device during the Monaco Grand Prix, but now apparently have changed their mind and the system will also be allowed on May 29 when 24 cars will again rule the streets of Monaco.

No DRS ban for Monaco
No DRS ban for Monaco

Photo by:

The system has been a great success, and especially the FIA is very keen to prove DRS can be used on fast and slow circuits alike, although they have admitted they are still fine-tuning the system, in particular the point and the length of the detection zone is of great influence of the working of the adjustable wing on the following activation zone. There are only two points where the FIA could setup the system, the start/finish straight or, more likely, in the tunnel and the part that leads to the chicane, which is already a good spot to overtake.

To any spectator it is obvious why the Monaco circuit is dangerous to begin with, the narrow streets and the sharp turns and chicanes leave little room for errors, just a bit off the line and a driver will be inspecting the guardrail from close-by. Just losing concentration for a few tenths of a second is enough to send a driver into the barrier, even the late and great Ayrton Senna crashed his McLaren in the last turn before the tunnel section while he was comfortably leading the race in 1988.

Although only one Formula One driver lost his life in Monaco -- Lorenzo Bandini in 1967 -- the circuit has seen its share of close calls. The short sprint from the start/finish line to the St. Devote corner has made many victims, luckily for the drivers there is a run-off area which has saved them from sustaining serious injuries. But the really treacherous part is the tunnel, and the left-right chicane, the Nouvelle Chicane, that leads into the harbor section of the circuit, which was also the place where Bandini lost his life.

The chicane has been the scene of several big accidents, and although that part has a run-off area as well, the guardrail that separates the track from the run-off area has almost claimed the life of Austrian Karl Wendlinger who in 1994 missed his breaking point when he exited the tunnel, his Sauber slammed sideways into the pointy section of the guardrail. During the impact the Austrian’s head hit the barrier. Help arrived quick, but Wendlinger remained in a coma for several weeks, and doctors feared for his life. He did recover and drove a few races for Sauber again in 1995, but he had lost his speed and resigned from the Sauber team and started a new career in sports car and touring car racing. In 2003 it was Jenson Button who crashed his BAR into that same barrier with almost 185 mph, he was knocked unconscious and was rushed to a hospital where he had to stay the night.

Jenson Button escaped serious injuries in 2003
Jenson Button escaped serious injuries in 2003

Photo by: Brousseau Photo

And now again a big step forwards to 2011 again, not only the exit of the tunnel and the following chicane are dangerous, but the tunnel itself has a few unique features which would justify the ban of DRS for this race. The tunnel has unique aerodynamic properties, in the past it has been established cars in the tunnel can lose 20 to 30 percent of their down force. With an active DRS wing, cars will lose even more down force, which could just be enough to make a driver a passenger in his own car, completely miss the breaking point, and slam into the barrier.

Another concern is the fact a driver who deploys his DRS in the tunnel, has to go off his line in order to pass a car, and as Nico Hulkenberg last year demonstrated during the first lap of the race, this is not really a good idea, as the inexperienced German ended up in the barrier even before he had even exited the tunnel. The new Pirellis make things even more complicated, as the rubber that falls of the tyres, the marbles, accumulate along the dirty part of the track, and there will be a lot of marbles in the tunnel as well.

Rubens Barrichello, chairman of the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association) added his two cents today, and publicly expressed his concerns after FIA race director Charlie Whiting confirmed the system will not be banned in Monaco. “I just think it is wrong, I would love the people at the top to sit in the car and try to do the tunnel with the DRS open,” the Brazilian told the UK Daily Express. “In my opinion, they are waiting for something bad to happen. And when it happens, they will just say, 'oh, next year we will not have it for Monaco.' The drivers have not been listened to right now and I think it is the wrong decision,” a disgruntled Barrichello stated.

Rubens Barrichello, chairman of the GPDA
Rubens Barrichello, chairman of the GPDA

Photo by:

Heikki Kovalainen supports the ban, “I think it's not a bad idea. In Monaco it's generally difficult to overtake anyway and all the potential consequences that there could be in Monaco, you don't want it to fail you don't want to have any attention going anywhere else but at the track,” he told ITV. “So I think there's many things that support the ban and even the fact that you probably don't gain that much of a benefit in Monaco because you just don't have a straight line, or the room, to drive past the other car,” the Fin commented

Apparently, the argument teams used to go ahead with DRS in Monaco, is that they otherwise would have to build a new rear wing specially for Monaco, which would cost them a lot of money. Which would mean they prefer to save money, even though it could jeopardize the lives of their drivers. And there is of course the easy option, just disable the wing in Monaco, and no team will have to spend extra money, driver’s lives would be exposed to the extra risks, and everybody will be happy.

The race in Monaco is already a spectacle, and there is no need to ‘spice up’ the race. It is expected the FIA will soon make an official announcement about the use of the DRS wing in Monaco.

Qualifying - times they are a changing

Team Lotus driver Jarno Trulli has in his column for the Italian La Republica newspaper announced ‘the end of qualifying’. The Italian driver has noticed the same others already have noticed: qualifying on the fast degrading Pirelli tyres has now caused a landslide in the usual approach teams had so far during qualifying. Their approach has been the same for decades: the closer you are to the front of the start grid, the closer you are to the finish line, it has always been that simple.

But as Bob Dylan already sung in the early sixties, ‘Times, they are a changing’, and this also applies to Formula One. Mark Webber’s impressive march from 18th on the start grid to a third place on the podium during the Chinese Grand Prix, has provided plenty of food for thought for the engineers, who have been making calculations and even have simulated different strategies on the computer to work out which one delivers the best result.

Webber jokingly said after the race that he in the future might skip Q2 and Q3 again, little did he know it might actually not be such a bad idea after all. With the new Pirellis, Formula One has became quite another ball game, the fast degradation forces drivers to be careful with the tyres, especially during the first few laps when they are on a fresh set of tyres.

Mark Weber, from 18th to third during Chinese GP
Mark Weber, from 18th to third during Chinese GP

Photo by:

During qualifying for the Turkish Grand Prix it became apparent team tactics and tyre strategies are now already being implemented during those three qualifying sessions on Saturday, or one might also say: qualifying has now become a part of the race itself. Of course teams are trying to control a race by working out the most profitable pit stop scenario, which has now become even more complicated as several teams during the Turkish Grand Prix have sacrificed a few places on the start grid in order to save an extra set of soft tyres for the race.

In the past Formula One has seen different qualifying formats come and go again. Since the official start of the Formula One World Championship in 1950 qualifying was simple, drivers could try to put their fastest lap on the clocks on Friday and Saturday, their fastest time was their qualifying time and determined the order of the start grid. In the very early days of the sport, there were not even official qualifying sessions, and the best time of the practice sessions determined the order of the start grid.

Over the years there have been limitations to the number of laps a driver could use to set his qualifying time, and there have also been restrictions as to how many cars were allowed to participate in the race. With sometimes as many as 37 competitors, it was decided it was too dangerous to have all those 37 cars on the track during qualifying, and a pre-qualifying session was introduced.

In the early eighties there were pre-qualifying sessions on Thursday afternoon, and in the early nineties on Friday morning at 8am. Only the four fastest drivers were allowed to participate in the qualifying sessions. In the eighties teams who had ended up on the last four positions of the previous championship had to pre-qualify, as well as the new teams. In the nineties the teams who had produced the worst race results during the last six months had to pre-qualify and again the new teams as well. After the 1992 season the idea of the pre-qualifying sessions was abandoned, as less than 26 cars entered the championship.

A total 30 drivers were allowed to enter qualifying, and only the 26 fastest were allowed to start the race. In the eighties and nineties there were two qualifying sessions, one hour on Friday and one hour on Saturday, a driver’s best time was his qualifying time. But this made qualifying boring and less transparent for spectators, when it rained on Friday, only a handful of drivers made a few laps on the wet track, and the others just stayed in the garage and simply waited for drier conditions on Saturday. Sometimes the situation was reversed, if it rained on Saturday, none of the drivers, went on the track, as they of course knew it was impossible to improve their time they had set on a dry track on Friday.

Thus it was decided to have a one hour qualifying session on Saturday, and the qualifying run on Friday was replaced by a third free practice session, so drivers still had the same track time to set up their car. As a result, all drivers now had to set their qualifying time on Saturday, and all the cars appeared on track, which at least made good television. But another problem became apparent, there were a lot of slower cars on the circuit, which resulted in hazardous situations.

In 1996 the 107% rule was introduced to prevent uncompetitive drivers to take part in the race. The rule was again abandoned after the FIA had changed the regulations, which at the time stated only 24 cars could enter a race, but also stated at least 20 cars must enter the race, if there would be less than 20 cars on the grid, the race could be abandoned altogether, and thus the 107% rule disappeared again.

Too many cars during qualifying lead to pre-qualification session in the 1980s
Too many cars during qualifying lead to pre-qualification session in the 1980s

In 2003 a new format was introduced to provide more spectacle during qualifying. A single lap qualifying system was introduced, the order of the one-lap runs was determined by a similar one-lap shoot-out on Friday. In 2005 the format was again changed, the two sessions times were added together to determine the start grid. This system was hugely unpopular, as the second session was on early Sunday morning, and not all fans were able to watch that session on TV. There was of course another problem with the single-lap shoot-out: if it started to rain after 20 minutes, all drivers who were scheduled to do their run after those 20 minutes, had a copper-bottom guarantee the would not improve the times that we recorded on a dry track.

The current qualifying format was introduced in 2006, and is now also known as the ‘knock-out’ qualifying format. All drivers are allowed on the track for the 20-minutes long first session or Q1. With 24 cars on today’s start grid the slowest seven drivers are eliminated during Q1, and in Q2, the second session, another seven drivers are eliminated. The remaining ten drivers take part in the final session Q3.

Before refueling during the race was banned, drivers could carry as much or as little fuel as they wished during Q3, which sometimes meant a slower driver could qualify in a high position by simply qualifying with an almost empty fuel tank. There was one restriction: drivers had to start the race with the same amount of fuel they had in the tank at the end of Q3. Today with a refueling ban in place, the top ten qualifiers have to start on the same tyres they used to set their qualification time, which leads this history lesson back to the Turkish Grand Prix again.

Like was the case with the fuel loads, teams now try to manipulate qualifying and the race by saving one, and sometimes even two sets of tyres. What Webber’s impressive run in China has taught Formula One, is that the last part of the race is now the most crucial part, as a driver who has a fresh set of soft tyres left for the last 15 laps, can make enormous progress as he is sometimes two to four seconds faster than the rest.

Indeed, times have changed since the first Grand Prix in 1950, and the new qualifying strategy is nothing more than the latest evolution of the sport, and without a doubt a driver will at one point this season deliberately forsake Q3, as he then has the free choice on which compound he will start the race, but more important, also has two sets of pristine soft tyres, which could prove to be the winning factor.

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Formula One - On and Off Track week 18

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Jenson Button , Rubens Barrichello , Mark Webber , Karl Wendlinger , Ayrton Senna , Heikki Kovalainen , Nico Hulkenberg
Teams Team Lotus , Sauber
Tags barrichello, drs, history, monaco, pirelli, qualifying, tyres