What is F1’s ‘DRS’ and how does it work?

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton opens his DRS at the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, May 2022.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton opens his DRS at the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, May 2022.

F1 fans will often hear the word ‘DRS’ thrown about while watching a Grand Prix. But what is ‘DRS’, and how does it work?

DRS is a relatively new addition to Formula 1’s terminology, with the system only introduced just over a decade ago.

Until the introduction of the revolutionary new ground-effect machines for 2022, F1’s reliance on over-body downforce always had the detrimental effect of causing a pursuing car to suffer a massive loss in downforce due to the extent of the turbulence thrown off by the car in front.

This meant that overtaking was always very difficult unless there was a huge pace difference between the cars – the pursuing driver simply couldn’t get near enough to the car in front to attempt a move.

A shining example of this would be the 2010 title decider at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when title protagonist Fernando Alonso pitted and emerged behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov. For lap after lap, the obviously quicker Alonso hounded Petrov but couldn’t find a way past despite the long straights of Yas Marina. Alonso would lose the title fight to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel as a result.

What is F1’s DRS?

For 2011, F1’s rules were tweaked to allow the introduction of ‘DRS’. Standing for ‘Drag Reduction System’, the idea was that this solution would serve as a means to aid overtaking – albeit something of a sticky plaster, rather than an ideal concept change.

How it works is that, when the system is activated, a flap on the pursuing driver’s rear wing opens up and flattens out. This is done via a mechanism activated by the driver on the steering wheel, and must be manually triggered.

The opening in the rear wing, sometimes referred to as the ‘letterbox’, reduces the amount of downforce the rear wing produces, due to the air simply passing through the rear wing rather than pressing downward as it flows through the flap in its usual position. The resulting lack of downforce also has the effect of significantly reducing drag which, in turn, allows the car to achieve a higher top speed.

The intention of this is to allow the pursuing car to get into a position to attack the car in front and perhaps get alongside before the next corner.

The DRS deactivates automatically, ie. the rear wing flap returns to its default, downforce-generating, position, the instant the driver lifts off the throttle or touches the brake. DRS de-activation is crucially important for restoring downforce before the next corner.

But the DRS can’t be used freely during a race – there are several stipulations as to how drivers can use this extra weapon.

Ferrari's Carlos Sainz opens his DRS at the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, May 2022.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz opens his DRS at the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, May 2022.

When can DRS be used?

Ahead of each Grand Prix weekend, the FIA confirms the ‘DRS zones’ for that race track. These have been carefully evaluated and tweaked over the years, and are typically only marked for sections of the track where it’s safe for a driver to have significantly lower rear downforce.

As such, you won’t see drivers asked to tackle anything beyond a mild curve with the DRS open, due to the potential risk of them losing control.

The zones are typically a few hundred metres long, circuit-dependent, and are the only areas of the track in which drivers can open up their rear wing. Separately, there are ‘DRS detection points’, where the gaps between the drivers on track are measured. The amount of these detection points also varies, as the FIA sees fit.

Throughout practice and qualifying, which are non-racing scenarios, drivers can use the DRS as much as they like in the marked zones as they bid for faster laptimes – a non-DRS-assisted qualifying lap isn’t particularly efficient nowadays.

However, the rules change for race conditions. In an average Grand Prix, not affected by wet weather, the DRS system is remotely activated for use by Race Control. This occurs two laps after the beginning of racing.

After these two laps have elapsed and the DRS has been activated by Race Control, the gaps between the drivers defines who can open up their rear wing and make use of the overtaking weapon.

If a car is within one second of a car in front (the system isn’t advanced enough to tell the difference between lapped cars or otherwise) as the cars pass the ‘DRS detection point’, the pursuing car will have access to the system down the next DRS zone and could be in a position to attack.

The system is deactivated in wet conditions, with the timing of switching it back on being at the discretion of Race Control. A Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car intervention also results in the DRS being switched off until two racing laps have elapsed again, in a bid to ensure fairness when racing conditions have resumed.

Put simply – just watch the gaps. If the gap between two squabbling drivers is exactly a second, or below, the driver behind will have access to the drag reduction system. But the nature of the system means there is the potential for tactics to be used in battle, such as using lapped cars to get DRS assistance in defence.

Another example of DRS tactics could be seen at this year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, when Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen each attempted to let the other cross the detection point first.

Knowing that the other driver would get access to the DRS and render the leading car virtually unable to defend down the long straights of Jeddah, it led to the bizarre sight of seeing the rivals braking in unusual places to let the other driver through!

Max Verstappen chased by Charles Leclerc. Saudi Arabia March 2022
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen chased by Charles Leclerc, the Ferrari’s DRS open. Saudi Arabia March 2022

Does F1 still need DRS?

Given that DRS was introduced as a means to help facilitate overtaking moves, it’s become de rigeur to see drivers simply sailing past the driver in front at tracks where the air density means the effect of lower drag is more powerful, or simply that the zone is too long for the lead driver to have any defence.

Criticisms of the overtaking aid remain, with the system seen as a necessary evil under the old regulations. However, with the new era of Formula 1 machinery allowing drivers to race more closely in wheel-to-wheel battle, without the same turbulence and lack of downforce for the following car, there are question marks over whether DRS should remain part of the regulations.

There have been mutterings from F1 chiefs about the sport moving away from needing the system in place, but no concrete steps have been put in place yet to facilitate its removal.

Earlier this season, four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel suggested F1 should think about ways to go racing without the system.

“The interesting bit would be to take the DRS off and see how the racing really is, if you are able to overtake a lot better than in the past,” he said, following the introduction of the new regulations.

“I’m only a bit cautious for the DRS, because it was brought in as an assistance to help overtaking but now it feels a bit like it’s the only thing that allows you to overtake at times.

“So ideally, we have a set of regulations that allows us to follow and race without DRS. You know, DRS hasn’t been there for 70 years. It was brought in 10 years ago to help, as an experiment.”

While the DRS was once a necessity, it’s perhaps no longer crucial to the show and, indeed, perhaps even detrimental to sporting fairness. Will F1 eventually drop the system from their cars?