That took a second reading, didn’t it? The perfect summation of my go-to-confusion when I, a rookie fan, first heard of DRS in Formula One.
Four DRS zones in Melbourne.
You just know someone will waste them all, appealing deliveries which clearly pitched outside the line of leg stump.
—Tom Arron (@norramot) April 5, 2022
In a cricket-obsessed country, you (and I) will be forgiven for thinking it stands for Decision Review System. And it does, just not in Formula 1. In this rich, niche, fast and flashy sport I started following last year thanks to a certain netflix show that shall remain unnamed till it redeems itself next season, DRS stands for Drag Reduction System.
Ironically named since learning about it was a drag and validated my schooldays dislike for physics. But you cannot hope to be a ‘better fan’ of F1 without knowing how and, more importantly, when DRS works. So I delved into it last weekend, the perfect opportunity since the upgraded Albert Park for the Australian Grand Prix was to initially have four of them, the highest for any race circuit.
Seeing Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen bring to life the Lucknowi tehzeeb of pehle aap — I think it’s called ‘DRS chicken’ in the West — at over 150 mph in saudi arabia had already piqued my interest. So what is this DRS that spooked two highly competitive racers into letting the other pass first at exactly the right moment?
In simple terms, DRS is an overtaking assist built into Formula cars. In complicated terms, it reduces the downforce, which accelerates a lagging because into overtaking the one it is following. In more complicated terms, the DRS button opens a rear wing flap to reduce aerodynamic drag, giving the car trailing in dirty or turbulent air a pace power-up to overtake the car in front.
Fair warning: aerodynamics is to Formula 1 what quantum is to Marvel
So this clears up the what part but the how requires a closer look, literally, since this action is deployed in million-dollar machines at speeds that only a miniscule percentage of humanity has experienced. So bear with me.
Let’s start with the rear wing of a Formula 1 car. It’s good for advertising, but it’s great for aerodynamics (fair warning: aerodynamics is to Formula 1 what quantum is to Marvel). This wing, located high in the rear, covers the breadth of the car and keeps it on the ground at speeds excess of 350kmph by providing downforce or downward thrust.
When the DRS is activated, a flap on this wing is lifted to open up a maximum of 50mm, decreasing the downforce and giving the driver a speed advantage of 10-12 kmph to overtake the next car.
Does that sound rather like a free-for-all unfair advantage in what basically is a test of speed, not strategy? Well, for one, F1 is as much about who is smarter as who is faster, so there are rules teams must strategically follow to use DRS. Secondly, DRS was introduced in 2011 to be fair to cars caught in dirty air.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who switched over from Formula 1 to IndyCar, has described DRS as “giving Picasso Photoshop”
Dirty or turbulent air is what Formula 1 cars leave behind in their wake as they shoot through the air. This dirty air prevents the trailing car from getting close to the one in front, which cruises ahead in clean air. The trailing car essentially has to fight against the wind.
And to stop DRS from becoming a free-for-all, especially at the start of a race when cars are bunched closer together, there are rules on when you can and cannot deploy the assist.
Drivers can activate DRS only within marked zones on the track. The trailing car has to be within one second of the car it wants to overtake since that’s when drag reduction is more rewarding. Drivers cannot use DRS to defend their positions against a trailing car unless the car in front of them too is at one second distance. Drivers also can’t deploy DRS unless two laps have passed at either the start, restart or resumption of a race following a safety car.
Most race circuits have at least one DRS zone, though some have as many as three. The new Melbourne circuit was to initially have four but was reduced to three. If race control feels conditions for racing are dangerous like during rain, DRS may be suspended altogether.
DRS zones have two components to them — the detection zone where sensors determine whether the one second condition is applicable, and the activation zone where the driver presses the DRS button to activate it. It gets deactivated when the driver releases the button or brakes.
How effective DRS can be depends on driver skill and car specs, but tire temperature and tracks, like cricket pitches, play a big role here. DRS doesn’t do much at the Italian GP in Monza apparently, but can come in handy in Bahrain and Belgium that have longer straights.
DRS has been a contentious debate in Formula 1 for more than 10 years now but even those who want it scrapped admit it’s a necessary evil. Opponents have proposed limiting the number of times DRS can be used per race or going with the IndyCar style of overtaking. Known as the push-to-pass system, IndyCar drivers, too, can press a button on their steering wheel to get a 60 bhp (brake horse power) power-up. While they can use it on any part of the track to attack or defend irrespective of their distance to the car in front, its use is limited to 200 seconds with maximum of 15 seconds in each push.
Drivers Marcus Ericsson and Juan Pablo Montoya who switched over from Formula 1 to IndyCar both bat for the pass-to-push system over DRS. Montoya, in fact, has said that overtaking is an art and the DRS is like “giving Picasso Photoshop”.
It was hoped that the 2022 generation of F1 cars would be built with aerodynamics that make natural overtaking easier – and we are seeing closer racing this year — but the cat-and-mouse skit between Leclerc and Verstappen in Saudi Arabia didn’t help the case for DRS. After Bahrain, fans were looking forward to more duels between the Red Bull champion and Ferrari challenger, but were disappointed to see strategy play second fiddle to speed.
— WTF1 (@wtf1official) March 27, 2022
Eight laps to go on the 50-lap street circuit, Verstappen was trailing behind Leclrec but overtook on the last corner overshooting the DRS detection zone, taking the Monegasque’s bait hook, line and sinker. Leclerc rode the Prancing Horses to DRS advantage on Turn 1 of the next lap and retook the lead.
The Dutchman wised up in time and locked up tires with the Ferrari, both trying to stay behind the other so as not to concede DRS advantage in the final lapse. The Red Bull finally overtook on Lap 47 with a clean pass to win his first race of the season after the retirement heartbreak in Bahrain.
“It worked once and then the second time, he (Verstappen) understood so he braked very early and then there was a bit of a mess, but I think it was it was fun,” Leclerc said after the Jeddah race.
The dummying and threatening was thrilling no doubt with who-will-blink-first element to it, but fueled the entertainment versus sport debate that F1 has been swinging between, particularly after the Netflix show that shall not be named.
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner coyly conceded that positioning of DRS detection zones should be looked at “in future years”. “The DRS is so powerful you could see that there was a game of cat and mouse going on between the drivers, where they’d actually brake to a point that they actually accelerated into the corner… You definitely want to avoid being in that situation ,” Motorsport quoted him as saying.
This seems to be the safe position adopted by teams, while drivers have been more vocal in their thumbs up for DRS.
“I think DRS needs to stay for now… 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,” Leclerc told Motorsport.
His Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz agreed. “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,” the Spaniard said.
While car development may blunt it in the coming years or decades, purists, for now, will have to put up with both DRS and DTS (oops).