What is Formula One DRS?

In the years leading up to 2011, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the FIA, were growing increasingly concerned that the jewel in their crown, their spectacle of racing, the Formula One, was becoming a mere procession of vehicles on a racing track.

Overtaking was seen as a thing of the past. Qualifying, ensuring a start near to the front of the grid was paramount. As a result, television audiences were switching off in the tens of thousands. Something needed to be done to return the sparkle to that jewel. And in 2011, the DRS system was, apparently, the answer.

DRS, the Drag Reduction System, is a mechanism installed within the motorcar which allows the driver, at the push of a button, to move a flap situated within the rear wing of the racing car to a horizontal position. This allows unimpeded airflow through the rear wing and thus reduces excess drag.

So, were the FIA “on the right track” in introducing DRS? Did it restore the spectacle of the Grand Prix to the glories of yesteryear? Moreover, did it allow for more frequent overtaking maneuvers within the race?

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What, specifically is DRS?

As we have mentioned, the concept of DRS was introduced by the FIA to facilitate overtaking during racing conditions. When modern F1 cars get close to a car in front, the turbulent air causes a loss of downforce. This makes it very hard to overtake under braking or cornering.

However, the use of this new DRS concession was to be allowed only if certain conditions were met during the race.

The rear wing of a formula one car is designed to generate immense downforce, keeping the car firmly planted on the track surface. It manages this by introducing a series of angled flaps over which air must flow, directing the airflow upwards and over the back of the car. As the car moves forward, the mass of airflow forces the flaps, and thus the car, to squat down.

You will see the exact opposite effect at any airport by observing the position of the wing flaps of an aircraft on takeoff. While Formula One cars do not need to become airborne, they want to travel as rapidly as possible.

Unfortunately, the consequence of downforce is a form of turbulence called drag. And while drag will keep a Formula One car firmly planted onto a race track, especially while cornering, it will also reduce the speed of the car.

The DRS allows the flap of the rear wing to move into a more horizontal position, reducing the drag factor, increasing the top speed, facilitating overtaking maneuvers, and satisfying the finest intentions of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, by providing a spectacle of racing.

That is not to say that the FIA gave carte blanche to the various teams to create their own unique versions of the Drag Reduction System. On the contrary, the specifications of the allowable DRS systems are very closely regulated by the FIA. Their official site, fia.com, states the following:

“Drag Reduction System (DRS)

Inboard of a given Y plane, the incidence of the entire RW Flap described in Article 3.10.1 may be varied whilst the car is in motion provided:

a. The Y plane in question is on or inboard of Y=520.

b. The axis of rotation of the RW Flap must be fixed and located no more than 20mm below the upper extremity and no more than 20mm forward of the rear extremity of RV-RW-PROFILES at all times.

c. Any such variation of incidence maintains compliance with all of the bodywork regulations with the exception of Article 3.10.1.

d. It cannot be used to change the geometry of any duct, either directly or indirectly, other than the change to the distance between adjacent sections permitted by Article 3.10.1.

e. The design is such that failure of the system will result in the uppermost closed section returning to the normal high incidence position.

f. Any alteration of the incidence of the uppermost closed section may only be commanded by direct driver input and controlled using the control electronics specified in Article 8.3.

The actuator mechanism to achieve the above adjustment must lie inboard of Y=25, no more than 30mm above the top surface of RV-RW-PROFILES and not extend beyond RVRW-PROFILES in the forward or rearward direction when viewed from above.

Furthermore, any additional minimal bodywork associated with the adjustment of the RW FLAP must be located outboard of Y=515mm and below the top surface of RV-RW-PROFILES.”

If you understood any of those regulations, you might also stand a very good chance of becoming the chief engineer at any of the current Formula One teams. To simplify the above, it should suffice to say that activating the DRS allows the driver to go faster within certain prescribed engineering parameters.

The engineers from the Caterham Formula One Team explain in simple terms how it works in this video:

Who controls the DRS?

The driver controls the activation of the Drag Reduction System from within the cockpit of the car. The various Formula One teams use slightly different methods to allow the driver to engage the system, but it is usually by means of a button on the car’s steering wheel. However, during the race, there are strict guidelines from the FIA regarding when and where it can be activated – More of which later.

When the car enters the zone in which the DRS can be activated, the driver will hear an audio tone in his helmet, and, on top of that, an indicator on the steering wheel will also light up to let him know he can engage the system.

Here is a short clip of the system actually working on the rear wing of a Sauber Formula One car:

It is disengaged automatically when the brakes are applied, but some drivers, Louis Hamilton is one such racer, prefer to deactivate the DRS manually before the braking zone, so they are at maximum downforce when they start braking.

Laurent Mekies, the chief engineer of the Toro Rosso Formula One Team, explains the automatic disengaging process under braking –

“The moment the driver starts braking for a corner, the flap automatically moves back to its original high-downforce position. We must also take into account the time it takes the flow of air to reattach, which takes about half a second”.

When can the Drag Reduction System be engaged?

On race day and during the actual race, the drivers cannot use the DRS anytime they wish to (as is the case during practice and qualifying). Laurent Mekies explains the process that allows the drivers to engage the system –

“There are timing loops embedded in the tarmac, and the system calculates the gap between all cars. When the pursuing car is within one second of the car in front when both cars cross the detection point, this turns on a light on the dashboard, and the driver can activate the DRS and try to overtake. The detection of the gap between the two cars and the lighting system is fully automatized. So it is the timing system that allows the DRS to be activated or not,”

The DRS can only be used once a driver has closed to within a second of the car ahead at a specified detection point, the DRS Zone, on the circuit.

Is DRS used during qualifying?

During the free practice sessions before race day and qualifying, the driver can use the DRS as and when they wish.

Laurent Mekies of Toro Rosso explains how the drivers utilize the Drag Reduction System during practice sessions

“We don’t need to do computer simulations to know where to use the DRS. The driver must activate it everywhere, with the obvious exception of the corners. There’s always a gain in lap time when using the DRS as often as possible.”

How many times can it be used during the race?

Drivers can only start using the Drag Reduction System when they have completed two racing laps. After that point, if the timing loop system indicates a driver that he is within the parameters set by the FIA that will allow him to engage the system, he is free to do so as many times as he wishes to. However, the race leader can use the DRS only when he is lapping the field.

Where is the DRS zone?

Formula One cars require as much downforce as their flaps and wings can provide to negotiate a given corner with as much grip as possible. If the DRS were to be active during a cornering maneuver, it would be neither safe nor speedy for the car or the driver, forcing the car to understeer or oversteer and exhibit a general lack of aerodynamic grip.

Because of this, and staying with the original intention of introducing the system to the sport, i.e., that of facilitating overtaking, DRS zones are set upon the straightaways. The timing loops embedded in the track are normally to be found just after a car exits a corner and then just before the next corner, allowing for the activation and deactivation of the system only when the car can travel at those times its maximum possible speed.

Most racing circuits have only one DRS zone, but some, with multiple straightaways, have been allowed to have two.

The advantages and disadvantages of the Drag Reduction System

The advantage of the DR system is readily apparent, so the implementation of the Drag Reduction System has fulfilled the aim of the FIA for there to be more overtaking in the sport. There is now somewhat more “overtaking” than in the years leading up to 2011.

However, the question remains: have the FIA achieved its desire to make motorsport a more engaging spectacle for the fans? Have they succeeded in providing a more attractive financial proposition for the sponsors who, ultimately, rely on motor racing fans to tune in on television to watch their teams attempt to win a race? Eyeballs on television screens translate to money in the bank.

Many commentators have decried the Drag Reduction System as “artificial,” “not real racing,” and that it actively discourages real overtaking because it makes it tactically smarter for the driver to wait until they are in the DRS zone rather than make a risky overtaking move anywhere else on the circuit.

That it is precisely these “risky” overtaking maneuvres that the real racing fans tune in to see. This corner overtaking action was what made Formula One racing in earlier years the great spectacle it was. It is certainly safer and even faster these days, but some would say that the package as a whole has been sanitized.

The problem for the FIA remains. And that problem can be summed up in two words: Dirty Air. This is something that is still waiting to be resolved.

Effectively, the overriding issue that has made overtaking so infrequent in the years before the adoption of DRS is the amount of dirty, or turbulent, air thrown back off the wings, flaps, and bodywork of the leading car onto the following cars.

Formula 1 cars are highly reliant on their aerodynamics for grip. The closer a race car gets to the one in front of it, the more turbulent the air in which it is driving becomes, and the less grip the car has as a consequence.

Because of this issue, even equally well-matched Formula One cars will struggle to follow each other closely enough to attempt to overtake in a corner.

As a result of this turbulence, it is difficult to follow the lead car closely enough around a corner, so by the time they get to a straightaway, the gap is more often than not too large for the following car to get alongside the leading car to attempt to overtake before the next corner.

Final thoughts

Over the years, there have been some engineering attempts to minimize the dirty air effect, but this has never really succeeded as constructors have always found new ways to achieve greater downforce than the new rule change has caused them to lose.

DRS is thus a way to address this issue. The aim is to strike a balance wherein enough of the performance lost due to driving within the dirty air thrown of the lead car is, in return, awarded back to the chasing driver by way of a straight-line speed advantage so that overtaking becomes possible. For now, it seems, the Drag Reduction System is the most equitable solution to the problem.

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