Is low downforce the answer?

Earlier this month, Motorsport Magazine had Frank Dernie on their podcast.  As you may expect he covered a wide range of issues, but one in particular inspired this post.  When discussing the current problems with Formula 1, Dernie doesn’t agree with what has been discussed by many on this site, of reducing the downforce as an aid to improving the quality of the racing. In answer to this he quotes the rules change in 1983 when the shaped underbody that produced a massive amount of downforce was banned, to be replaced by a flat floor.  The result was the downforce produced in1983 was only 20% of that produced in 1982.  The figures from the wind tunnel were so bad that Dernie though he had missed something, and that the Williams would be completely uncompetitive that year.  As it turned out, they weren’t too far off the pace with the team maintaining the fourth place in the constructors championship they had in 1982.

Dernie’s argument was that if low downforce was the answer, then we should be remembering 1983 as being one of the best seasons of racing ever, especially when compared to 1982.  It is very difficult at this range to provide definitive evidence on the quality of the racing.   Unfortunately it isn’t possible to go back and watch all the races live to judge.  So I looked at the number of overtakes (by counting the changes in position on the lap charts on the forix database) that took place during each race on the circuits that were used in both 1982 and 1983.  I have discounted Imola, as only 14 cars started in 1982 due to the FISA-FOCA dispute, and the race identified as Great Britain is Brands Hatch (Silverstone was the British GP in ’83 while Brands was used for the European round).

Overtakes 82-83

I have discounted anything that took place in the first lap, and those that appear to be the result of a car pitting of retiring.  We can see that while the overall number of passes is similar in both years, in general it is higher in 1983.  We also have to remember that 1982 was the end of a period of rules stability where cars had been developed to have downforce produced by the shaped underbody of the car, and although sliding skirts had been banned in 1981, teams has soon developed was around this issue.  The change to flat floors for 1983 was significant, and this would have spread the field further apart.  Looking at the qualifying times, and the differences between pole, tenth and twentieth places over the two years, we can see that this is generally the case.

Field Spread 82-83

South Africa was held at the beginning of 1982 and the end of 1983, so that may help explain why the field had closed up by late 1983.  So although there were generally wider differences in car performance, there were usually more overtakes in 1983.  However this doesn’t necessarily mean that the racing was better.

Dernie’s ideas for what should be done to improve the racing merit consideration:

  • He wanted the tyres to be made harder wearing, offering less grip (using this as a means to extend braking distances rather than reducing downforce). This he argued would allow the drivers to race harder for longer.
  • Semi-Automatic gearboxes to be banned – the skill that used to be required to change gear smoothly without breaking the gearbox is no longer required, drivers now just pull ona paddle, and the electronics takes care of the rest.
  • Drive by wire throttle pedals reduces the skill required to drive the car. These days with no direct mechanical link between throttle pedal and the engine throttle, the pedal can be programmed so that 10% of the pedal movement gives 10% of the torque from the power unit.  The MGU-K and MGU-H can be arranged to fill in any holes in the power delivery from the Internal Combustion Engine.  In the 3 litre days, a 10% movement of the throttle pedal would result in 90% of the available torque being delivered to the wheels, with the drivers job in smoothly applying power out of a corner being so much harder.  In the first turbo era, applying the throttle would change very little, and there was a second or more delay before the large turbo spun up to speed before the power would arrive at the rear wheels, knowing just when to open the throttle to take account of that delay separated the great drivers from those that were only very good.

So have the cars got too easy to drive, such that it is masking the difference between the truly exceptional drivers and the rest?  Are the changes to the 2017 regulations which look like increasing the downforce levels with bigger wings going to help the racing?  Share your opinions below.

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charlie white

I would say low downforce is A answer but not THE answer. I would take the issue a few step further by raising overall ride height by 10mm, banning the cascade multi-element front wing and rear diffuser. And adios to the FIA high degradation tires for harder tires. However, if Frank wanted longer braking distances, then let’s exchange steel brakes for the present carbon brakes(something I’ve been preaching for years). Elimination of drive-by-wire throttles and semi-auto gearboxes? I could live with that. Neither the FIA or the teams will accept Frank’s or my suggestions.

Gaetano Colosi

Hmmmmm …. who says more overtaking makes better racing? The last race at Spain was riveting right until the end. If overtaking was easier the Ferrari’s would have overtaken the ‘Bull’s and disappeared into the distance. Would have turned an amazing race into ‘ho-hum’.

Roger Flerity

If the Mercs hadn’t crashed out, they would have been 1-2 and the entire Red Bull vs Ferrari race would have been for 3-5th, ho-hum. The two silver cars being out did not improve the sport or indicate the solving of anything, just the one-off for the one race.

Gaetano Colosi

totally missed the point. making overtaking easier is NOT the answer to better racing. Taking that theory of making overtaking easier to the extreme ….. there will no longer be a race, there will be a ‘see who can lap fastest’.

Richard Bunce

Not sure 1982 to 1983 comparison is the best since 1982 much of the downforce was generated by ground effects that at least some believe is better able to run close to the car ahead. I would like to see ground effects returned and get rid of the front wings that disrupts races as always getting damaged.

Richard Bunce

Perhaps this data actually shows that ground effects downforce makes better racing than topside aero downforce… although many other changes in the mix too… tires, etc.

Roger Flerity

Significantly cutting down-force and getting rid of the diffuser, while also regulating the up-wash ploom behind the cars would make a massive difference, and negate the need for the fake DRS silliness. Put real (read fat) tires back on the cars and racing would be tighter. Would likely change nothing in who finishes where, but it would be different. The other area that needs addressed is the paved runoff areas, which allow drivers to slip up massively and not loose anything. MotoGP/2/3 is superior racing, because ONE mistake and your race is done. F1 allows drivers to make several big… Read more »


The problem with gravel is that its simply not safe. Cars can catch in the gravel & start rolling, as indeed happened at Melbourne this year. Its a pity there’s no middle ground between unsafe gravel/grass and paved runoffs that barely even slow cars down.

Don Thorpe

Paved run off with tall “rumble strips” would address the running off with no penalty issue.


Potentially, yes. Provided they can’t make cars roll, and that they won’t cause serious injury in a bike race if a rider comes off & slides across the rumble strips at 200km/h.

Roger Flerity

What happened in Melbourn had nothing to do with gravel, it would have been worse had that area been paved and the cars speed was not arrested at all, that’s why the gravel is where it is. Weber flipped a car mid track long before going off track, so paving the runoffs won’t keep that from happening. The FIA has simply taken the paved runoffs to the extreme to keep the cars running (for the show), which is providing the drivers a way to exploit and make errors without the penalty. MotoGP has gravel everywhere, and the riders do whatever… Read more »


It wasn’t Webber, it was Alonso, and you need to look again – he was sliding until he reached the gravel, which gripped the car & put him into a roll.

What’s even worse is it made him airborne, so he wasn’t slowing at all & hit that barrier at high speed. He would have been better if it was paved, as he would have slid the whole way & slowed down a lot more.


His suggestion of hard wearing lower-grip tyres that allow drivers to push – that would have worked fine in the old refueling days, but in the current F1 it’d result in races with no pitstops. The whole element of pit & tyre strategy, undercutting and so on, would be gone. Instead you’d have processions, where the faster cars just stretch away and there’s even less overtaking than before. That said, its a pity that Pirelli still haven’t developed compounds that allow drivers to push but have a cliff in their performance. Thermal degradation was a mistake in my opinion, all… Read more »


I have doubts about his 82/83 example, and I still remained convinced that down force is the problem not the solution. That said, I agree 100% with all of his other points. To use a poker analogy, I’d like to see his bet, and raise him one – by adding ferrous brake rotors to the list. The extension of the braking zones that that would bring would really add to the overtaking potential in F1. And I’d add cross-ply tires to the list – just for fun. Basically anything that can get rid if the point-and-shoot nature of the current… Read more »

the Late Idi Armin

the best way would be to allow adjustable wings to it doesn’t matter about downforce so much any more.

Paul KieferJr

Here’s a little anecdote regarding “Low Downforce”: Recently, NASCAR mandated a similar aerodynamic rule. As a result, the cars were harder to drive, but the drivers were having fun with it, working hard to keep it in line. The same may apply in F1.


It appears to have improved the racing as well. The Kansas race was surprisingly enjoyable.

Paul KieferJr

Racing for most of the season has improved. We’ve had many close finishes starting from Daytona.


I will take this with a grain of salt. Reducing the downforce from ground effects would in theory make overtaking harder because of the increase in dependence on the wings.


On the subject of tyres, Frank Dernie also said a harder-wearing tyre would allow more different lines going into corners, simply by not producing as much marbles. With the current tyres, within a few laps the racing line gets rubbered in, with massive grip as the result. On either side of the line, the veritable sea of marbles makes running there virtually impossible. If there’s anything that creates processional racing, it is the single file created by the marbles. A move to steel brakes (as suggested by charlie white earlier in the discussion), possibly with larger discs allowed by going… Read more »


I have been saying for years now (including on this forum) that the marbles make a one line track and less grip makes for better racing, that low downforce is not a panacea (my concern is they pass up to their relative pace and then the whole parade just goes round and round in order) that electronics are doing too much for the driver and that the driver should shift. So, just because one other person is as crazy as I am doesn’t mean anything, but it felt good to read this piece, thanks for it! On the other hand,… Read more »

Meine Postma

On the other hand he introduced a lot of those new techniques, right?