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Driving Today

Formula 1 Takes Wing

New moveable rear wings should help drivers pass, but could create furor.

One of the biggest criticisms of Formula 1 racing over the course of the past few seasons has been that the cars never pass each other. After a mad dash to the front in the first lap, many lead changes take place while cars are in the pits, which may be interesting from a strategic point of view, but is pretty lame for the average race viewer. So F1 decided to do something about it, but now it seems that F1’s solution to the no pass, no mas phenomenon may spark controversy of its own.

To boost the number of successful passes (or “overtaking” in Formula 1 parlance), F1 has instituted the installation of moveable rear wings on each racecar. While driving in a straight line, a situation in which the downforce provided by the wing is unnecessary and even detrimental, the driver can move the wing into a position that lessens drag, allowing him to go faster. And the difference is significant. F1 Racing Director Charlie Whiting figures the change in wing angle can result in 6 to 8 miles per hour in additional speed at the end of a long straight. That is obviously a possible game-changer.

So if every driver has this in his arsenal of go-fast tricks, how can it promote more passing? Won’t all cars simply go faster down each straightaway? Well, the way F1 has devised it, no, they won’t. You see, the moveable wing can only be triggered when a driver is within one second of the front-running car, as determined by the F1 central race control. Once in the one-second window, a driver running behind can get a pretty significant advantage over the car that is leading the race by moving the wing and getting more straight-line speed. Formula 1 officials expect that this will lead to more passing.

To which we say, well, maybe. Or maybe it will persuade the very bright guys who figure out F1 race strategy that the right move is to run second, within reach of the leader, and then -- in the last lap -- use the moveable wing to slingshot past the lead car and on to victory.

The whole program is rife with potential controversy because the ability to deploy the moveable wing is completely in the hands of the race sanctioning body and its telemetry. We can predict with some degree of certainty that a driver will complain in at least one race this season that he was unable to deploy the wing when he should have been able to -- thus costing him the race, the big trophy, the huge paycheck and the supermodel girlfriend. We can’t wait for that to happen.