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The Globe and Mail

The one rule F1 should borrow from IndyCar

The lighted circuit for the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix night race in Singapore.


With the turmoil that is IndyCar race control these days, advising Formula One to look to the North American series for advice on rules would be perilous at best.

But, if F1 ignored IndyCar's inconsistent penalties, terrible in-race calls and rewriting history when things go wrong and focused solely on its push-to-pass system, grand prix racing might see something the series does extremely well. In fact, IndyCar's rules surrounding the overtake aid should be adopted by F1 to replace the yawn-inducing drag reduction system's (DRS) designated passing zones. DRS was introduced in F1 this year as a way to help increase overtaking on track.

IndyCar's push-to-pass system gives the driver extra horsepower at the touch of a button on the steering wheel. The system triggers an electronic control device that ups engine revs enough to give the driver an added five to 20 horsepower. The actual amount of boost depends on factors such as how rich or lean the driver is running his fuel mixture when he activates the device.

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While it varies from race-to-race, the system gives drivers a set amount of boost pushes per race of a set duration, which they can use at any time. The system needs 10 seconds to reset between uses. Drivers are told the number and duration of the push-to-passes available prior to each race.

IndyCar adapted the system from the now-defunct Champ Car Series which gave its drivers 100 extra horsepower per button press by increasing their engine's turbo boost.

One of the beauties of the IndyCar system is that it gives the driver complete control to decide when and how to use the added horses, whether it's to increase a gap from a pursuer, pass another car or defend against an overtaking manoeuvre.

On the other hand, once enabled by race control two laps into the action, F1's DRS may be used as many times as the driver wishes, provided his car is less than one second behind another when crossing the "detection point" on each lap.

When activated, the DRS essentially flattens one of the elements on the rear wing of the car, creating a hole that reduces drag enough to give it an extra 10 to 15 kilometres per hour of straight-line speed.

The problem with the F1 system is that it makes overtaking an opponent way too easy. Yes, there was the difficulty that McLaren's Lewis Hamilton experienced trying to get by Michael Schumacher's Mercedes in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza two weeks ago, but that kind of thing has been the exception in 2011.

Instead, most of the time when drivers get within a second of a rival, they simply push a button and use the extra speed to cruise past the in the "DRS activation" zone. In some races, such as the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in June, it was almost painful to watch drivers who became sitting ducks as a DRS-enabled car made them look like they were standing still.

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In addition, the system has a huge flaw in the fact that it activates when a driver gets within a second of any other car at the detection point — even back markers and lapped traffic, so racers can deploy the device on the DRS straight even though there is no longer a car there overtake. For example, luck of the draw may find one of the leaders lapping a car obliged to get out of the way just as he crosses the detection point, which would allow him to use the system on the DRS straight and increase his lap time, even though there's no car there to pass.

One more strange regulation surrounding the DRS is the fact that the drivers are allowed to use it at any time during qualifying, which seems counterintuitive since the system is not supposed to be designed to lower lap times, but to assist in overtaking. Allowing its use in practice is reasonable since it helps ensure the drivers figure out where it is safe to deploy the system at each track.

A quick fix to all these problems would be to adopt IndyCar's regulations surrounding its push-to-pass system.

F1 should axe the detection points and overtaking zones in favour of putting control into the hands of the drivers. Give them a specific number of DRS deployments per race that they can use to pass another car, gain time on a rival, or defend against a passing attempt. Rather than simply making passes a given for the drivers whenever they come up behind a rival, the system would become a strategic tool that they must manage just like pitstops, tires and fuel.

As is seen in IndyCar, some drivers use up their allotment early and pay for it in the later stages of a race, while others manage their push-to-pass more effectively, keeping some in reserve for a late race challenge or to fight off a rival in the closing stages.

Most importantly, it would remove the fait accompli situation that occurs in almost every case where a driver uses the DRS to overtake. And frankly, it has to change because passing a driver who has no chance of fighting back is neither exciting nor sporting.

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Let's Chase fuel economy races from championship

There may not be anything less exciting than a bunch of drivers doing impressions of grannies as they try to save fuel to get to the end of a race.

Nevertheless, NASCAR decided to start the 2011 championship-deciding Chase for the Cup with a yawner of a race from the Chicagoland Speedway.

And it's not just the fans who feel drivers lifting off the throttle and saving gas isn't exactly exciting racing.

"It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans and you have to run half throttle and can't floor it or you will run out of gas," said Ford driver Matt Kenseth.

"It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference. There were so many races this year that have been like that already where the guy running half throttle, or pitted off sequence or whatever and has won. I wish they could figure out how to fix it because it is not a lot of fun."

There's an easy way to fix at least two of the fuel mileage races in the Chase: Replace them with the road courses at Infineon and Watkins Glen. While it might irk purists, it certainly would make the Chase much more interesting.

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Motorsports columnist

There's an old saying about timing being everything in racing and Jeff Pappone's career as a motorsport correspondent shows that it also applies to journalists covering the sport too. More

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