Formula 1 race cars are fast, and when you can top out at 380km/h—that’s 236mph for the US fans in the crowd—aerodynamics becomes a serious advantage or disadvantage, depending on how you use it. Enter the DRS (Drag Reduction System).
Introduced in 2011, the DRS is essentially a new level of control over the rear wing/spoiler, used only on straightaways that increase the driver’s ability to make a pass. With a press of a button, the wing shifts to a horizontal position, increasing speed.
It’s a simple use of aerodynamics, nothing fancy or high-tech, and certainly nothing that’s even remotely innovative. It’s a testament to the power of aerodynamic forces that a simple twist of the rear wing can boost speeds upwards of 20km/h.
Aerodynamics isn’t a difficult area of scientific study—that’s not a slight on scientists who make it their area of expertise, and the math is overwhelmingly ridiculous—but in terms of what the laymen can understand, it’s pretty simple.
You can test the forces of aerodynamics by simply holding your hand out of the window while driving. Hold it palm facing forward and feel the level of drag. Dip your fingers forward and down, turning your hand into a horizontal object. Now you have an idea of how the rear wing works.
Technically, it’s the “four forces of flight”. However, for the purposes of this article—and Formula 1 racing—it’s going to apply to F1 race cars.
As F1 race cars move, wind resistance is generated around the vehicle in an invisible cone. The wind presses down on the rear wing, which is like a wedge, facing forward at a downward angle. This creates a level of drag on the vehicle, both slowing it down and pushing the car downward.
The weight of Formula 1 race cars isn’t much compared to the likes of NASCAR, but it still has an effect.
The thrust is provided by the engine, propelling the car forward and increasing wind resistance the faster it goes.
According to Formula 1 rules, the rear wing’s DRS can only be engaged for a short period of time. And only activated when the race cars are on a straightaway. Pressing the button to engage the DRS shifts the rear wing into a completely horizontal position, reducing the level of drag.
The idea is to reduce drag on a straightaway, enabling the race cars to pass each other. With the reduction in drag, speed can increase up to 20km/h for a very short period.
FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) realized that Formula One was hemorrhaging viewers. Formula One had become stale, with nothing more than a steady progression of the same cars throughout most of each race.
In an attempt to bring back some excitement and a level of competition in the sport, FIA decided to go forward with the introduction of the DRS in 2011.
It was doing exactly what it was intended to do by facilitating passing on the straightaways. The fierce competition returned and, as a result, created a division between proponents and critics.
Proponents loved the fact that cars could now pass each other far more often, while critics feel like it was too much, allowing cars to pass each other far too easily.
The thing is, the FIA only authorized it at very precise points during a race. Also, there are strict measurements and requirements as to the location and angle of the rear wing.
As you can see, it’s not as if the FIA just threw this rule out there and let the chaos ensue. The DRS system is only available for specific sections of the track and only then if the driver is within the one-second parameter for overtaking another vehicle.
As if it wasn’t already specific enough, drivers aren’t allowed to engage the system at all for the first two laps of any race. Only racetracks with multiple straightaways have two DRS zones—areas where activation is allowed—while most other tracks only have a single zone.
There are never going to be DRS zones outside of straightaways. The downward force applied to F1 racecars is necessary when coming through corners. Otherwise, they risk one or more of the tires leaving the tarmac, which could potentially be disastrous.
During qualification and general practice sessions, the DRS can be activated as much as the driver wants. Since there are no other race cars on the track, the danger is minimized.
The Drag Reduction System in Formula One racing was an innovative attempt to reduce drag and facilitate overtaking. It’s also created a lot of controversies, which is good for the sport because negative attention is still attention.
Most Critics think that it makes drivers lazy, only attempting to overtake within the DRS window instead of trying to race and pass throughout the rest of the track. Critics also believe that it has made passing far too easy.
Proponents believe that it has created a more competitive atmosphere by leaving behind the days of rare passing, with qualification being the predominant point of competition, not the actual race.
Regardless of opinions, the DRS system has definitely returned attention to the sport and welcomed new fans as well. It also shows that the FIA recognizes the engagement problem for their sport. And is working to try and correct the problem.