Without a doubt, 2011 has seen the most exciting start to a Formula 1 season for over a decade. The opening four races have provided copious amounts of overtaking – there were apparently 126 successful moves in Turkey last weekend – and drivers have been force into multiple pit stop, ensuring constant action throughout each race.
Furthermore, China saw the first on-track pass for the lead of a grand prix since last year's race in Istanbul, and television audiences have been increasing, despite the fact that Sebastian Vettel already has a dominant lead in the Constructors' Championship, has won three out of four races, led 184 racing laps, and taken every pole position.
This excitement can be largely attributed to three factors. The most obvious, and arguably the most critical, is the new tyres. Pirelli were asked to provide racier compounds than predecessor Bridgestone developed, and the Italian company have done just that. Drivers have had to carefully conserve sets of tyre throughout qualifying and races and there have been a whole range of strategies on display, from Sergio Perez doing just one stop in Australia to the four stops of the top five finishers in Istanbul. As a result, drivers are running with different levels of tyre degradation throughout the race, the speed differential between the runners is greater at different stages throughout the afternoon, and there is more overtaking.
The second factor is KERS, or the Kinetic Energy Recovery System. Energy under braking is stored in a battery and drivers can re-use it under acceleration in the form of a 'power boost'. Each driver is allowed 6.7 seconds of KERS boost on each lap and, all being well, every team runs the system at each race, bar Team Lotus, Virgin Racing and Hispania. Obviously this helps with overtaking too, provided that the driver in front does not deploy his KERS at exactly the same time to defend his position.
And the third factor is DRS – the Drag Reduction System. It is the most complicated to summarise, and definitely takes the most number of words to explain, as demonstrated here:
Otherwise known as a driver-adjustable rear-wing, the DRS essentially amounts to a small flap on said wing which can be opened when a driver presses a button on his steering wheel. This has the effect of reducing drag (hence its name) and gives the car more straight line speed. Drivers can open the rear wing any time they want during practice sessions and qualifying, but when it comes to race day, there are much stricter controls. At each track, the FIA designate a certain straight as the DRS zone. If the driver behind is within one second of the car in front at the previous corner – the DRS detection zone – then he is notified that he can use the DRS once inside the activation zone. The DRS cannot be used in the first two laps of a race, under safety car conditions, or two laps after a safety car period.
So are all these factors necessary for exciting races? Are all three necessary for great racing? Do any of them remove the driver skill from the equation? Is there now too much overtaking?
Thanks to the higher degradation of the tyres, more pit stops have become necessary. It certainly makes race reports longer, as demonstrated on this site last weekend after the 82 pit stops in Turkey. Some have argued that the last three races have been much more difficult to follow, owing to the huge number of stops; others have applauded the number of pit stops as it means that there is never a dull moment in races any more, and it also allows the pit crews of different teams to compete against one another instead of just the drivers.
Turkey was an extreme example of tyre wear, thanks to the demands of the infamous Turn 8. Australia is not. As Pat Symonds points out in this month's issue of F1 Racing Magazine, the Albert Park circuit extracts less lateral energy from the tyres than most tracks, and the energy is more evenly shared between the left and right tyres. Therefore, in the Melbourne race, two stop strategies were favoured by the podium finishers.
The tyre situation today is certainly better than last year, when the conservative tyres provided by Bridgestone would happily last for most of the race, and teams were obliged to make just one pit stop. There was even talk of introducing a second mandatory stop to spice things up – a regulation that is far too 'artificial.
Some races are going to be manic this season thanks to the tyre wear – Canada is going to be particularly frantic – but others will be more 'normal'. Perhaps next season some happy medium can be found between today's extreme tyre degradation and the situation of last season, but many fans are perfectly happy with the PZero range of compound that Pirelli are providing now.
KERS also has its detractors, but it gives engineers and designers another area in which to compete, and some teams are producing better systems than others. In fact, KERS has proved Red Bull's one and only Achilles heel so far this season, with their system not as reliable as those of their rivals. We have also seen tactical use of KERS in races, with Lewis Hamilton in China electing to save some of his energy reserves for later in a lap so he could surprise Sebastian Vettel with a pass for the lead and the eventual victory.
KERS could also be an important device for road cars, buses, and trains in the future, and therefore F1 is making a useful contribution to society, and indeed the environment, by developing the technology.
That leaves DRS. The FIA point out that it is a work in progress, and that they will continue to tweak the positioning of the detection and activation zones at the various tracks to improve the spectacle, but this subjectivity and educated-guesswork just highlights the artificiality of the system.
It is important that the activation zone is not so large as to make overtaking too easy. This was the case in Turkey, where virtually all of the attempted manoeuvres into Turn 10, the DRS zone, were successful. It seemed that all a driver had to do was press a button and the speed advantage was so great that he just breezed past the car in front.
Situations like this just make a mockery of the entire system. Overtaking is meant to be a skill, an art even, and if it is reduced to a mere button-pushing exercise, then what is the point of it all? The car in front is at an unfair disadvantage, and has no real means of defending the position. In fact, the best that car can hope for it that they can re-take the position on the next lap, in the same place, when he has access to the wonders of DRS.
China probably saw the best race so far for DRS. The FIA moved the activation zone further up the long straight after Friday practice which proved an inspired move. There were plenty of overtakes in the zone, but there were also moves in other corners, leading to some nice variety in the passing.
In both races, however, there probably would still have been a lot of overtaking, thanks to the tyres and KERS. Is DRS actually adding to the spectacle? Would it not be more exciting if drivers were actually fighting for positions through a series of corners, rather than using the huge speed advantage to just drive past one another?
Think back to the race at Imola in 2005. Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher were fighting one another for the lead through much of the final stint. (British viewers will probably remember that ITV cut to an ad-break during this particularly battle, provoking a bit of an uproar amongst fans). There was no actual overtake, but Schumacher was hounding Alonso lap after lap, and it provided one of the most exciting moments of that season.
Fans do not necessarily want to see cars passing one another on every lap, but they want to see potential moves and drivers challenging for position. DRS, especially as it was in Turkey, removes the element of uncertainty in overtaking, making it more akin to the fast and slow lanes on the M25 than a battle between the world's greatest drivers.
In complete contrast, DRS seemed to do very little in Australia. Admittedly I was sitting in the grandstands in Melbourne, without access to all of the TV graphics and commentaries, but it did appear that DRS did nothing at all for overtaking in the opening race. The FIA will insist that more tweaking is needed – but surely we can just do without? There was still overtaking in Australia – just not in the DRS zone.
The saving grace of DRS, however, could be that it assists overtaking at the tracks where it is notoriously difficult to overtake: Monaco, Valencia, Hungary, Abu Dhabi, and next weekend's race in Barcelona. If it fails here though, then it should be confined to history as yet another initiative to improve overtaking that has not lived up to expectations. Thanks to Pirelli, and their fantastic new tyres, we don't even need it.