The overtaking dilemma
Once again a promoter has massaged attendance figures: the weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix allegedly had 115 000 spectators over the full three-day period. Given that Friday and Saturday had way less than 10 000 paying punters respectively, that makes race day attendance almost 100k – highly unlikely unless around 60 000 of them were disguised as empty seats on stands at the back end of the undulating circuit.
And, more is the pity that the race was (again) so poorly attended, for the undulating Istanbul Otopark is a superb facility, most unlike other ‘Tilkedromes’, which are generally situated on the flattest land for miles around in regions earmarked for future tourism development.
Cynically named after F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone’ favourite track architect Hermann Tilke, these ‘superstadiums’ generally have massive grandstands, enormous pit/paddock complexes, futuristic design, wide track surfaces with extended run-offs – and a total lack of character. Turkey has all the first four plus challenge in spades, plus enough challenges to cause virtually all drivers to crease their faces with broad grins when asked to describe the place.
And, those who don’t? Invariably they have had problems perfecting Turn 8, a triple-apex high-speed corner which ranks up there with Spa’s Eau Rouge and Pouhon in the difficulty stakes and its ability to sort heroes from zeroes.
However, in common with Tilke’s other efforts – think Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi – overtaking in Turkey has in the past been at a premium. Yes, Istanbul enjoyed maybe 10% more of the spectacle than the others, but rewind to last year and the sight of the Red Bulls crashing into each other at high speed as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber disputed the lead. When McLaren inherited the one-two its management perched on the pit wall immediately commanded its driver pairing to ‘conserve fuel’…
So onto this year: lap charts show over 100 changes of on-track position during the race’s 58 laps, driven primarily by Pirelli tyres with (planned) high levels of degradation coupled with the top speed advantage offered to challengers by the drag-reducing rear wing. Crucially this benefit is not offered to victims: Effectively once a driver enters the ‘DRS zone’ within a second of the car ahead the former activate a moveable rear wing element which flattens to increase top speed down the straight; the driver ahead may not, though, trigger his DRS in retaliation…
‘A bit like forcing the leader in a marathon to strap ten kilos of lead to his shoes everytime he runs uphill’ is how a paddock sage described the situation – ahead of the race, for we were discussing the previous race in China, which, too, saw an excess of overtakes.
So, has overtaking become too easy? When a Fernando Alonso, skilled as the Spaniard is, driving a Ferrari patently not on performance terms with the Red Bull of Mark Webber, is able to effortlessly ‘do’ the robust Australian down the main straight – only to lose his advantage under identical circumstance a few laps later – the question surely deserves to be asked.
While it can be argued that overtaking in previous years was at a premium due to extremely durable rubber (and fuel stops when still mandated), the fact is F1 has swung from one extreme to the other. On Sunday Ferrari Sporting Director Stefano Domenicalli told this column he thought overtaking had now become a ‘bit excessive’, while Paul Hembrey, Pirelli’s Director of Motorsport, suggested that it was still early days, but that the situation should be monitored.
The next two races – Spain and Monaco – are hosted by circuits where overtaking has in the past been notoriously difficult, for self-explanatory reasons in the case of the latter. Should we once again have flip-flopping changes of position then the FIA surely needs to take action of sorts, for an overtake a minute surely detracts from the spectacle.