The DRS rule tweaks that F1 could make to improve racing spectacle

Thomas Maher
Mercedes driver George Russell opens his DRS at the 2023 Australian Grand Prix. Melbourne, April 2023.

Mercedes' George Russell opens his DRS at the 2023 Australian Grand Prix. Melbourne, April 2023.

Formula 1’s DRS rules are in the spotlight again, thanks to shorter DRS zones making overtaking more difficult. But there’s a simple solution to how the overtaking aid can be used to improve the racing…

Despite F1’s revolutionary new rules aimed at improving how the new generation Formula 1 cars follow each other and are supposed to make life much easier for attacking drivers, the much-maligned Drag Reduction System (DRS) remains a necessary evil in the sport.

First introduced to F1 in 2011, the system is simple: one of the elements of the rear wing drops down to reduce drag once an attacking driver is within a second of the car in front, with the theory being that this will allow for fighting in the braking zones.

Unfortunately, F1 has seen DRS-assisted overtaking become the norm, with drivers frequently now able to use the system to simply fly past the car in front, meaning imaginative and daring overtaking has broadly become a spectacle of the past.

Cars with particularly efficient aerodynamics, such as this year’s Red Bull RB19, also enjoy further benefit of the reduced drag when the system is activated, with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez thus enjoying an advantage over their draggier rivals when they encounter them on track. This was particularly noticeable down the long straights of the uber-fast Australian and Azerbaijan Grands Prix, despite the FIA attempting to curtail the effectiveness of DRS by reducing the length of the zones in which it’s available.

This then had the unwanted side effect of reducing overtaking, even of the mundane type, even further. So does F1 persevere with the shorter DRS zones and take the hit in terms of spectacle at a time when the spectacle is the primary focus of the commercial rights holder, or does it re-introduce the longer DRS zones and hand the likes of Red Bull an even bigger advantage?

In the 12 years of DRS, the system hasn’t seen any rules tweaks – instead, F1 has focused on ‘fixing’ areas that aren’t broken, such as Saturday’s qualifying format, when seemingly straightforward changes to how the DRS is implemented could add a whole new dynamic to a Grand Prix.

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Make DRS a time-limited overtaking aid that can be used at any time

The current system activates the DRS system after two racing laps after the start or a Safety Car intervention, allowing drivers who are within a second of the car in front to open their rear wing flap and enjoy the extra speed the reduced drag unlocks – putting them possibly in a position to attack or overtake the car in front.

The unfair part of this is that the driver in front has very little defence, without just using up their full energy deployment reserves – a tactic that isn’t repeatable beyond one or two defensive phases, due to energy limitations.

Instead, why not make the DRS much more open in how it’s used. Instead of only allowing an attacking car to use the system, make it available to every car on the grid, but limit it in terms of time.

Emulating the effects of IndyCar’s push-to-pass system, equipping each car with a set amount of time to use the DRS during a race would open up a whole new dynamic of tactical racing.

For the sake of argument, each car is given 200 seconds of DRS usage during a Grand Prix, usable during all green flag conditions including the first lap. Extend out the DRS zones to make every safe straight a usable DRS zone to maximise the time drivers can use it to attack.

The key to effectiveness would thus be trying to hold onto your DRS for as long as possible until critically important to use, such as if a driver needs to make early progress – putting them on the back foot for later in the race. Defending drivers would also have the chance to respond to an attacking driver’s move, meaning nondescript blast-pasts are less likely.

Some may choose to chase track position early on in the race and use up their allocation, leaving them vulnerable later, with those more circumspect then able to fight back later on. Some may choose to use the DRS as a tool merely to improve their pace, such as trying to keep within a pitstop delta time, or trying to catch up to the driver in front – it doesn’t necessarily have to be used only in battle.

There’s also the fascinating dynamic of the fact that DRS is visible to the drivers around. For example, a defending driver may see the rear wing open on the attacking car behind, and immediately open up theirs in response – only for the driver behind to immediately close it, as they attempt to get the driver in front to use up their remaining allowance.

Overtaking moves would have to be planned out, and potentially set up laps in advance, especially with the teams frantically trying to keep track of how much DRS usage each car around them has left. Combined with the tactical use of energy deployment, it would mean even DRS-assisted overtakes require quite a bit of skill and tactical driving, and not just a free pass against a defenceless opponent.

And, most fun of all, once the 200 seconds are used up, it’s back to what F1 should be in the first place as it comes down to the driver behind to find a way past in a more organic fashion…