'DRS is here to stay' — why F1 drivers don't want to let it go

F1

Drivers say that F1's new 2022 cars can follow more closely, bringing more overtaking chances than before. But many say DRS is still needed and they enjoy racing with it

16 LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari F1-75, 01 VERSTAPPEN Max (nld), Red Bull Racing RB18, action during the Formula 1 STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix 2022, 2nd round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, from March 25 to 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Close battle will continue before until one car gets a big upgrade, says Sainz

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Two races into the 2022 Formula 1 season and we’ve already seen some great racing, highlighted by the lead battles between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc that raged over several laps in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

We need to see a few more samples in order to see how things play out at different types of tracks, especially as the first two venues featured three DRS zones, which won’t be the case everywhere this year.

However it’s already apparent that an improved ability to follow combined with DRS activation has created scope for more entertainment than we’ve been used to in the recent past. And it’s up to the drivers to learn how to make the most of the opportunities they now have.

A little like the Monza slip-streamers of the pre-chicane era, drivers now have to play a game of chess in order to ensure that they are still in front when it matters. In Bahrain Leclerc didn’t resist Verstappen’s first two attempts to get by, and instead ensured that he had the optimum run through the first corner complex in order to re-pass on the next straight.

Max Verstappen locks up as he battles Charles Leclerc in the 2022 Saudi Arabian GP

The DRS zones are now a greater part of the tactical battle between drivers

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

In Jeddah there was a game of cat-and-mouse as one point both drivers proved reluctant to lead through the final DRS detection zone and then be the one who was passed on the pit straight.

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“I am really enjoying it, that is for sure,” Leclerc said when asked by Motor Sport about this new style of racing. “I think Bahrain is one of the easiest tracks to fight on the calendar. I think here we were also helped by those hard tyres, I think everyone felt quite good with them, and they were very good tyres to push on. It was allowing us to follow each other very closely.

“But together with that it is for sure a big step forward compared to last year in terms of predictability. Whenever we are behind another car it is much more predictable, what you’re going to get from your own car. Last year you didn’t really know which balance you will get going into a corner, and that will make it very difficult for our confidence to follow. And you will also lose much more grip.

“So it is definitely a step towards the right direction, and I love it. I think for racing it’s great. When Max overtook me at first I thought my race was, not over as I never give up, but that at this point it will be extremely difficult for me to stay behind. And I was very surprised that I could actually stay there.”

The purists may not like DRS, and Ross Brawn has said that he hopes to one day get rid of it. But for the time being remains a key part of the equation.

01 VERSTAPPEN Max (nld), Red Bull Racing RB18, 16 LECLERC Charles (mco), Scuderia Ferrari F1-75, action chequered flag, drapeau a damier during the Formula 1 STC Saudi Arabian Grand Prix 2022, 2nd round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, from March 25 to 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - Photo DPPI

The new car designs helped Leclerc and Verstappen to battle to the end in Saudi – but Leclerc says DRS is still needed

DPPI

“I think DRS needs to stay for now,” said Leclerc. “Otherwise the races would be very boring! As much as following has been better from last year to this year, I still think it’s not enough to get rid of the DRS. I actually quite enjoy it. It’s part of the strategy for each driver in terms of defending and overtaking, and it’s part of racing for now.”

“I agree,” said his Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz. “I think without DRS it’s almost impossible to overtake nowadays. What it has improved is the predictability of the car when you’re following, and it’s given us a much more predictable balance, and the ability to stay closer through the corners.

“But without those three or four tenths that DRS gives you in each straight, it would be impossible to pass. Also because the slipstream is lower than last year. We might need to consider making the DRS effect a tiny bit lower, just to not have the delta speeds that we see nowadays, that some overtakes are maybe a bit too easy.

“But I think the DRS is here to stay, because so far with the speeds that we’re doing in the corners it is still difficult to overtake.”

Leclerc’s earlier comment on the tyres is intriguing. A rule change that means the top 10 qualifiers now have a free choice of starting tyre ensured that in Jeddah nobody used the fragile softs in the race, so the focus was on the medium and hard. It was apparent that drivers could push on the latter and stay close behind other cars. Juggling tyre choice around the stints is another part of the overtaking equation.

“I think the cars are better to follow, it just depends on the tyre,” Verstappen said after his win. “The hard tyre was capable of following closer, the other compounds – and this depends on the track – but they just fall apart. As soon as you follow for a few laps, they just open up.

Carlos Sainz Saudi Arabia GP 2022

Sainz: “What has improved is the predictability of the car when you’re following”

Ferrari

“Also the weight of the car pushes you over the tyre edge. So, this is something we need to look at for the future. We improved the following with the cars, and I think probably the racing.

“But if the tyres don’t let you, due to whatever reason – if it’s the weight of the actual car – that’s a bit of a shame. Because in the first stint, I think we could have actually raced a bit more if the tyre didn’t die. Everyone was basically struggling with the same thing at one point. So yeah, we need to understand that a bit better.”

In Jeddah the battles were not just for the lead. Alpine team mates Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon traded places several times in the opening stages, and in the closing laps the latter had another little fight with Lando Norris, just pipping the McLaren driver to sixth place.

The Frenchman’s beaming smile after the flag indicated just how much he had enjoyed it.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Ocon. “Good racing with Lando, good racing with Fernando, with Valtteri [Bottas]. It’s a completely different philosophy now, racing with these cars, it’s pretty much like a go-kart race. It’s definitely good fun.

“Before basically, as soon as you had the chance, you had to go for it, because you might only have one chance. Now you have two or three chances in the lap to overtake, so you need to time it right, you need to make the gap at the right time.

Fernando Alonso (Alpine-Renault) in front of teammate Estebab Ocon and Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) during the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

The battling Alpines provided much entertainment in Saudi

Grand Prix Photo

“And you know that if you don’t make the gap to the cars behind they are gonna have DRS and they can get you back. So yeah, it’s a different philosophy to racing, more like more like go-kart days, and it’s good.”

Ocon lost third place on the final straight in Jeddah on 2021, but in a similar battle with Norris for sixth this time round he managed to stay ahead.

“I have good knowledge from last year, which probably saved me from this year,” he said. “So he overtook me obviously a lap before the end. And that time, I managed to get him back in the last lap. I knew how to manage my battery in comparison to last year. And we managed to keep it under control this time.”

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Alonso, who retired from the race, was perhaps a touch less excited about F1 2022-style.

“We’re learning,” said the former champion. “It always seemed a little bit easier to overtake today. But I think it’s track specific, being three consecutive DRS zones.

“I think in Melbourne we have a lot of DRS zones as well, so we could have another interesting race. But then we need to wait and go back to normal races, Barcelona or Imola or something, and see really how easy or difficult is to overtake. I think this is a very specific track.”

Along with the drivers teams have to learn how to get best of this new style of racing, and race engineers and strategists will have to help their drivers as best they can.

“Certainly the cars are a lot different compared to the past,” said Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto. “And drivers need to learn and to adapt. But I think the two main objectives, which were to reduce the gap between the top teams and the cars behind, and the second was to have closer racing, both of these objectives have been achieved.

Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc battle for the lead of the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

The slipstreaming battle that won the race for Verstappen – we could see the same in Melbourne

Clive Mason/Getty Images

“I think now you can easily follow another car ahead of you. That has been the case not only in the overtaking, but staying closer. That is certainly the regulations, the aero concept, but the tyres as well.

“I think we need to give merit to Pirelli to have developed better tyres compared to the past, with less overheating. And now you can certainly stick closer to the car ahead. And I think the spectacle in the first races has been really been great.”

F1 technical chief Pat Symonds, one of the architects of the 2022 rules, is pleased with what he’s seen so far.

“I think we’ve got very attractive cars, cars that look very different to each other, and most important of all, we’ve got cars that can race each other,” he says. “So we got there.”