Smith: How the Chinese GP debunked F1 2017’s overtaking myth

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When we entered the 2017 Formula 1 season and defined it as the beginning of a new era, it would not have been unfair to say we were overplaying things. Hyperbole always makes for good headlines, but things wouldn’t change that much, surely?

For cars that were meant to be multiple seconds per lap quicker, more challenging to drive and more exciting to watch, some fans were left a touch disappointed by the season-opener in Australia two weeks ago.

Sure, Mercedes had been beaten soundly for the first time since Singapore 2015, and sure, the cars certainly looked quicker, but the preseason concerns about the trouble drivers would have overtaking and the lack of significant (as in, really big, not just big) uptake in lap time left some disappointed. Perhaps new-style F1 wasn’t so new after all.

And then Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix happened.

While the race won’t be remembered as a classic, there were a number of standout moments that will be remembered fondly. But most importantly, it went a long way to debunking some of the myths that lingered after Australia about F1 2017.

Let’s face it: new-style F1 is not only new, but it’s awesome.

One of the biggest worries about the new cars under the 2017 regulations is that they would make overtaking much harder. Although the cars had more downforce, thus making them much quicker through the corners, this also meant there was more downforce to lose when running in the dirty air of another car. As a result, it would be harder to follow and get close to rival cars, therefore making it harder to pass.

It was hard to make any firm judgment in Australia. Sebastian Vettel was able to get relatively close to Lewis Hamilton, but made his pass through the pit stops. There weren’t a huge number of overtakes, but Albert Park has rarely been conducive to back-and-forth racing.

Shanghai was always seen as being the true test for F1 2017 – so how many overtakes were there in 2017 compared to 2016?

2016 Chinese GP Overtakes: 128
2017 Chinese GP Overtakes: 54

Less than half – so maybe the naysayers are right? Maybe it is more difficult to overtake?

They are right. It is more difficult to overtake. But that is a really, really good thing – because it has made overtaking an art form once again.

It’s difficult to remember much about the 2016 Chinese Grand Prix in terms of on-track action. Hamilton fought back from an engine issue in qualifying that left him at the back in easily the quickest car; Nico Rosberg won. But there aren’t any overtakes that immediately spring to mind.

This year’s wet-dry race in Shanghai was packed with them though. Drivers were no longer simply waiting until the long DRS zone on the back straight and then zooming past (well, except for Valtteri Bottas on Fernando Alonso, the latter’s Honda engine looking desperately feeble); they had to fight for places. DRS did its job of allowing drivers to close on competitors, but they still had to do the hard work under braking.

The challenge of overtaking was best displayed on the restart following the early safety car period. Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen were both lacking pace, with young upstart Max Verstappen – more on him to come – making light work of his Red Bull teammate, diving up to second at Turn 6.

Raikkonen was left to battle with Ricciardo, but an engine mode issue meant he could not get close enough. This in turn left Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel scrambling behind until he had enough and bolted past his teammate at Turn 6 as well. Both Verstappen and Vettel’s moves were divebombs; true late-braking contests. There was nothing easy about it.

But the best was yet to come.

With his Ferrari engine functioning just fine, Vettel was able to get closer to Ricciardo, with the faster SF70H making its advantage clear. Wise to the move that Verstappen had pulled, Ricciardo was careful to hug the inside at Turn 6 so that Vettel wouldn’t perform a similar trick – only for Vettel to respond by sweeping around the outside of the tight corner.

“When I was behind Daniel I saw him blocking down the inside because I had a good run out of Turn 4. I said ‘OK, you have to try it around the outside, brake really late and hard’,” Vettel explained.

“Fortunately he didn’t lock up. I had him in the mirror, checking, otherwise I have to open immediately before he would make contact.

“Then on the exit I was a bit compromised, a bit in the dirt, getting a bit of wheel spin, but then I got a bit my elbows out. He really squeezed me, but it was good fun and I had the inside for the next corner.”

It was a truly inspired move from Vettel – and proved everything that is so good about these new regulations. To make an overtake, you really need to work for it and hustle your opponent, looking for the smallest of errors to pounce upon. Failing that, you need to get creative – which is exactly what Vettel did.

The undisputed overtaking king in China was the young Verstappen, though. Even when he qualified down in 19th place on Saturday, there was always a feeling that he would be able to turn things around – but few foresaw the charge that followed when the lights went out.

Just as he did in Brazil last year, Verstappen seemed capable of finding grip where other drivers simply could not. Having started 16th after some of the cars around him received grid penalties, Verstappen made up a remarkable nine places on the opening lap to sit seventh, with the Dutchman admitting after the race that it did feel a bit like a video game at times.

“I had a good start, but I got a bit blocked because the two cars in front of me went into the middle so I had to back off, but still I gained one or two positions,” Verstappen explained.

“[I was] basically just trying to find a gap so trying to go round the outside in turn one, I got another car, then inside turn two, another car, outside turn three, because there was space, trying to find grip because when you’re behind a car you lose a lot of downforce so just trying to find some free space and basically everything happened.

“Also turn six, turn seven, eight, always trying to go around the outside or inside and it worked. Yeah, nine cars is quite a lot on one lap but of course very happy that it worked.”

Again, it was a matter of thinking on his feet and being savvy with his overtakes. It was a challenge. It wasn’t a case of the faster car being able to sweep past.

This was clear with Verstappen’s ballsy overtakes later in the race. His pass on Ricciardo definitely surprised his teammate, yet it was the move on Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas that really caught attention. He may have been on fresher tires and more confident with his car, yet Verstappen was still able to launch down the inside at – you guessed it – Turn 6 and make a stunning overtake against what is unquestionably a much faster car in the dry.

So although there were only 54 overtakes in this race, they were far more organic – they had to be earned. DRS worked, but was not the free-pass card it has been in China in recent years. If you wanted to get through, you still had to be the bravest – and that is surely a great thing for F1.

Yes, overtaking is more difficult in 2017. But that’s not a bad thing, as the myth suggested. It doesn’t mean that we will have processional races; China was proof of that.

If anything, it will make the racing more spectacular and give us greater entertainment – and that bodes very, very well indeed for the season to come.