What is the Formula 1 “DRS” system and how does it work?

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

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

Until the introduction of the revolutionary new ground effect machines for 2022, F1’s reliance on body downforce has always had the detrimental effect of causing a pursuing car to suffer a massive loss of downforce in due to the magnitude of the turbulence emitted by the car. before.

This meant that overtaking was always very difficult unless there was a huge difference in pace between the cars – the pursuing driver simply couldn’t get close enough to the car ahead 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 clashed and emerged behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov. Lap after lap the obviously faster Alonso chased Petrov but failed to pass despite Yas Marina’s long straights. As a result, Alonso would lose the title fight to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.

What is F1 DRS?

For 2011, the F1 rules have been changed to allow the introduction of ‘DRS’. For “Drag Reduction System”, the idea was that this solution would serve as a means of overtaking aid – 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 rear wing of the pursuing driver opens and flattens. This is done via a driver-activated mechanism on the steering wheel, and must be triggered manually.

The opening in the rear wing, sometimes referred to as a ‘letterbox’, reduces the downforce produced by the rear wing, as air simply passes through the rear wing rather than pressing towards down as it passes 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 reach a higher top speed.

The intention is to allow the pursuing car to get into position to attack the car ahead and perhaps line up before the next corner.

DRS automatically turns off, ie. the rear wing flap returns to its default position, generating downforce, as soon as the driver lifts the accelerator or touches the brake. Disabling DRS is critically important to restore downforce before the next turn.

But DRS cannot be used freely during a race – there are several stipulations as to how drivers can use this additional weapon.

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

When can DRS be used?

Before each Grand Prix weekend, the FIA ​​confirms the “DRS zones” for that race track. These have been carefully evaluated and modified over the years, and are generally only marked for sections of the track where it is safe for a driver to have significantly less rear downforce.

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

The zones are usually a few hundred meters long, depend on the circuit and are the only areas of the track in which the pilots can open their rear wing. Separately, there are “DRS detection points”, where gaps between drivers on the track are measured. The number of these detection points also varies, as the FIA ​​sees fit.

Throughout practice and qualifying, which are not race scenarios, drivers can use DRS as much as they want in marked areas as they want to achieve faster lap times – a qualifying lap not assisted by DRS is not particularly effective these days.

However, the rules change for race conditions. In an average Grand Prix, unaffected by wet weather, the DRS system is activated remotely for use by Race Control. This happens two laps into the race.

Once those two laps are up and DRS is activated by Race Control, the gaps between the riders define who can open their rear wing and use the overtaking weapon.

If a car is within 1 second of a car ahead (the system is not advanced enough to differentiate between cars doing a lap or whatever) when cars pass the ‘DRS detection point’ ”, the pursuing car will have access to the system in the next DRS area and may be in a position to attack.

The system is deactivated in wet conditions, the timing of its reactivation being at the discretion of Race Control. A Safety Car or Virtual Safety Car intervention also causes DRS to be deactivated until two race laps have elapsed again, for the sake of fairness when race conditions have resumed.

Simply put, just watch for gaps. If the gap between two bickering pilots is exactly one second, or less, the pilot behind will have access to the drag reduction system. But the nature of the system means it’s possible to use tactics in combat, like using run-in cars to get DRS help in defense.

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 tried to let the other pass the detection point first.

Knowing that the other driver would have access to DRS and render the lead car virtually incapable of defending itself on the long Jeddah straights, this led to the bizarre sight of rivals braking in unusual places to let the another driver!

Max Verstappen pursued by Charles Leclerc.  Saudi Arabia March 2022

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

Does F1 still need DRS?

Since DRS was introduced as a way to help facilitate overtaking, it has become strictly seeing pilots simply pass the pilot in front on runways where the air density means the effect of lower drag is more powerful, or simply the area is too long for the lead pilot to have any defense.

Criticisms of 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 the wheel-to-wheel battle, without the same turbulence and lack of downforce for the next car, there are question marks as to whether the DRS should continue to be part of the regulations. .

There have been whispers from F1 chiefs that the sport no longer needs the system in place, but no concrete steps have yet been put in place to facilitate its removal.

Earlier this season, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel suggested F1 should think about ways to race without the system.

“The interesting part would be to take the DRS off and see how the racing actually goes, if you’re able to overtake a lot better than you were in the past,” he said after the new regulations were introduced.

“I’m just a bit cautious about DRS, because it was introduced as an aid to help with overtaking, but now I kind of feel like it’s the only thing that allows you to overtake sometimes.

“So ideally we have a set of regulations that allows us to track and race without DRS. You know, the DRS hasn’t existed for 70 years. It was introduced 10 years ago to help, on an experimental basis.

While DRS was once a necessity, it may no longer be crucial to spectacle and, in fact, may even be detrimental to sporting fairness. Will F1 end up abandoning the system in its cars?