Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, June 27, 1998

Formula One High-Stakes Overtaking

Look for More Exciting Off-Track Tactics at French Grand Prix

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - American motor racing fans often complain that Formula One is boring because there is so little overtaking. This year, overtaking has become more difficult than ever and that is what has made this Grand Prix season so exciting.

With drivers searching desperately for a way to pass, the races have become an exciting, dangerous, comedy of errors.

As the season reaches its halfway point this weekend at the French Grand Prix, it is clear that because overtaking is increasingly risky and, potentially, costly to drivers, the most effective way to do it is off-track - through pit-stop strategy.

Modern Formula One cars are highly dependent on down-force, the aerodynamic effect that pushes a car to the track and helps in cornering. Other cars can interfere with that down-force, so when cars get close enough to overtake, they often become uncontrollable.

Another difficulty is the sinuous, narrow composition of most Formula One tracks. These problems weigh on drivers' minds.

Jacques Villeneuve, the world champion and former IndyCar champion, said before the Canadian Grand Prix three weeks ago that part of the problem was attitude.

He said that in 1996 when he arrived in Formula One from IndyCar, where overtaking is incessant on oval tracks, ''the only thing people could tell me was that overtaking was impossible, and that you shouldn't even bother to try.''

''If you go into a race in that spirit,'' he added, ''all you think of is when to make the next pit stop, to give yourself a chance of overtaking someone.''

But, as Villeneuve was to discover three days later, the narrow tracks do not help.

During the Canadian Grand Prix, Villeneuve tried to pass Giancarlo Fisichella, who was second, on a treacherous corner. He did not have enough room, and was too close to the edge of the track. His brakes locked and he went into the sand trap. When he re-emerged, he was struck from behind by another car and finished the race in last place.

Fisichella also knows well the cost of overtaking. During the Spanish Grand Prix in May, he attempted to overtake Ferrari's Eddie Irvine by braking late at the end of the straightaway. But the Ferrari driver also braked late, their cars collided and both spun out of the race. The stewards fined Fisichella $7,500 for dangerous driving

Two races later in Monaco, Irvine attacked Heinz-Harald Frentzen on a hairpin turn, pushing him off the track and out of the race.

The hapless Frentzen would again be shoved off by a Ferrari in Canada when Michael Schumacher, coming out of the pit lane, drove across Frentzen's path. Schumacher, who claimed he did not see him, was penalized 10 seconds but still won the race.

If he had come out of the pits behind Frentzen, who was in third, Schumacher would have lost precious time trying to overtake him.

At the Argentine Grand Prix in April, Schumacher won the race after gaining the lead through a collision with David Coulthard on lap five.

In Monaco, in an exciting but costly sequence, Schumacher overtook Alexander Wurz on a hairpin curve. Wurz immediately passed again. At the next corner, Schumacher attacked and the two cars banged wheels. Schumacher passed Wurz, but both cars had damaged suspensions. Schumacher made a long pit stop and finished last.

The damage to Wurz's car did not become apparent until after his next pit stop, when gravity intervened. With his tanks now full of gas, the bottom of the car scraped the ground. Wurz lost control, ran into the wall and ended up in the tire barriers with a destroyed car.

Drivers used to ride in slipstream of the car ahead and then slingshot past.

''As long as we remain so dependent on down-force, the more difficult it is going to be to follow people around corners,'' said Villeneuve, adding that the cars are now so aerodynamically efficient down the straight that ''a following driver cannot get a tow.''


OVERTAKING is increasingly done when the leader goes into the pits for fuel and a tire change and returns to the track in second or third place. The new leader then tries to make a shorter pit stop, or one fewer than his opponent.

Alain Prost, a quadruple world champion and now a team owner, called for a return to the days when refueling was outlawed. Races then were not, as they are now, decided by two or three sprints.

''At the moment, the cars are always light with fuel and always on fresh tires,'' he said. ''We need to come back to what we had 10 years ago. Back then, drivers were more important because they had to think about the set-up, not only for practice and qualifying but also in having something different for the race. When you are carrying 200 liters of fuel, you have to think carefully.''

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