For some teams, the removal of the fourth DRS zone made no immediate difference, but for others – notably Aston Martin – it led to some last-minute scrabbling around to change the car set-up to suit, triggering a chain of events that led to a disastrous qualifying session for the Silverstone-based team.
How the loss of the DRS zone came about was unusual, with some rivals suspecting that a clever piece of gamesmanship by wily old fox Alonso had paid off to the benefit of the Alpine team.
The DRS zone in question was the one on a rebuilt part of the track from Turn 8 to the kink at Turn 9.
In Saturday’s drivers’ briefing, Alonso suggests that with the DRS open this section of track was a little too dangerous for comfort, and that perhaps the zone should be abandoned on safety grounds.
His was the main voice in the discussion with race director Niels Wittich, and by all accounts there was little in the way of contribution from other drivers.
Wittich took Alonso’s point on board, and on Saturday morning at around 10am he sent a note to teams asking them if they agreed that there were potential safety issues with the DRS zone. Teams were given an hour to reply with their views.
Engineers up and down the pitlane thus had to discuss the issue, and inevitably – this being F1 – alongside any safety element the implications for the competitiveness of their own cars also formed part of the equation.
It wasn’t a vote as such, but in the end five teams expressed support for the idea that there was a safety issue, and five said that there wasn’t.
After taking the responses on board, Wittich sent the teams at note at 12.40pm, just 20 minutes before the start of FP3, confirming that the Turn 8/9 DRS zone had been removed.
His message read: “For safety reasons, DRS Zones will be reduced to 3 for the remainder of the event. DRS detection 1 will be moved to before Turn 9, DRS activation 1 will be after Turn 10, DRS detection 2 will remain unchanged, with the following activation zones will be renumbered accordingly.”
Fernando Alonso, Alpine A522
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
The loss of the zone had two potential points of impact on teams and their relative competitiveness.
Firstly, some cars have a more efficient and effective DRS than others, so they gain more whenever the DRS is open on a flying lap in qualifying. Taking away one of the zones would thus potentially cost them a lap time advantage that they’d enjoyed on Friday.
Secondly, an open DRS counteracts bouncing or porpoising, and given the curving nature of that section of track, not having that issue on a flying low fuel lap was obviously beneficial for those teams who suffer most.
By taking away the DRS bouncing “cure” teams either had to put up with it, or find another solution. And that’s what Aston Martin felt obliged to do, by jacking up the rear ride height, the standard way of getting rid of the bouncing.
That last-minute set-up change meant the Aston Martins went out late in FP3, and when they did take to the track both Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll crashed, leading to the downward spiral of the team’s fortunes.
In contrast, Alpine found some performance in FP3, with Alonso taking fourth place. It did not go unnoticed that bouncing has not been a big issue for the Enstone team of late. Was it a co-incidence that the man calling for the DRS zone to be culled now had a more competitive package over one lap?
Some rivals certainly believed that there had been a little gamesmanship on the part of the Spaniard, and that in effect he had played the system, although curiously his teammate Esteban Ocon didn’t seem to reap the same benefit.
During the break between sessions, Motorsport.com bumped into Alonso and joked that he’d done a good job on the DRS zone, and he responded with a ‘Who, me?’ smile.
Come qualifying, he found even more speed, and he even appeared destined to challenge for pole before a hydraulic issue sent him off the road in Q3 after setting the fastest second sector.
After the session he rued his bad luck and the missed opportunity, and when asked about the chat in the drivers’ briefing, he protested his innocence.
“It was a general view that into Turn 9 it was enough corner to be fighting wheel-to-wheel with each other tomorrow with the DRS open,” he said. “So I think the FIA, for safety reasons, decided to stop it.
“I know that you said it was helping Alpine, but Esteban was struggling in Q1, Q2, and if not, we were first and second, so I don’t think that there was a huge impact on the team…”
Others took a more cynical view. Several drivers also rued the fact that the zone’s removal will also have an impact on overtaking in Sunday’s race.
Red Bull has a particularly efficient DRS, and thus the loss of the zone potentially cost its drivers some lap time relative to rivals.
“There was only one team who complained about it and it got removed this morning,” said Max Verstappenreferencing Alonso in the briefing rather than the later team replies.
“So I don’t really understand because for me, it was way easier than doing it in, for example, in Jeddah because there were way more corners.
“For me there was never any issue with driving there with the DRS open. So yeah, you have to ask I guess the FIA why they took it away. It’s a shame, because it would have helped the racing.”
McLarenlike Alpine a team that is on top of the porpoising issue, seemed to gain relative to its rivals, with Lando Norris earning fourth on the grid. However, when asked about Alonso’s safety campaign the British driver said he would have been happy to see the DRS zone stay.
“Honestly I don’t think it needed to be removed at all,” he said. “If you compare it to Saudi for instance, you pull just as much G in terms of cornering there, and that is just as much of a speed as you do here. I think it’s just – if there was a chance of it, they would do it because they’re very fast on the straights and it benefits the Alpines quite a bit because of that.”
Norris agreed that the loss of the zone won’t help overtaking, although he still expects to see some action: “I think it’s going to make the racing a little bit worse. It’s a fact. You might not see as much of the trains and stuff like that. But I don’t see any reason why the racing is going to be poor, all of a sudden.
“I think there’s still going to be plenty of opportunity, it’s still a long straight, it’s just not DRS.”
FIA Race Director Niels Wittich has taken a pro-active stance on a variety of topics in 2022
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
The DRS saga also highlighted the bigger picture of how race director Wittich is doing things, already seen with his focus on drivers not wearing jewelery in the cockpit, and more impeding penalties being handed out in practice sessions.
While dialogue between race control and teams over safety issues is normal, the actual process of the team “vote” on DRS safety was seen by some observers as a little more unusual. Certainly, the 20-minute notice of the zone’s removal before FP3 was hardly ideal, and not just for the teams. Formula 1 believed that it needed around 40 minutes to remove the zone from its timing and information system before the session, and in the end it had half that time to get the job done.
However, while conceding that the late notice wasn’t great, McLaren boss Andreas Seidl had no issues with the process Wittich used.
“In the end you have forum of the drivers’ meeting and team manager meeting plus the direct dialogue with the race director on any issues that you see during a race weekend,” said the German.
“So any team can bring that up at any time. And then depending on the topic, from my point of view, it is down to the race director to see how he wants to deal with the topic, if he wants to consult with the all the teams as he has done today.
“But in the end he will make the decision on grounds of safety, which he can do at any time. From this point of view I don’t really see a problem.”
Sunday will tell us how good the racing will be compared to past years, even with one DRS zone missing.
After his Q3 crash, Alonso will be worth watching as he tries to make progress from 10th on the grid. The irony is that an extra DRS zone might have helped him pass more easily…