At the beginning of each season, every Formula 1 team’s drivers and technical staff are focused on the same goal: to test and develop their cars as intelligently and as effectively as possible, in an effort to make them faster than those of their rival teams.
Obviously, not all of them can succeed. Inevitably, some will be quicker than others. We don’t yet know which teams will winter best, although I’m sure we all have our own private theories.
But, although a car’s outright pace is of course crucial, it’s nothing unless the guy in its cockpit is able to exploit it. That involves successfully harnessing a number of disparate elements of a driver’s craft, but I want to focus in this month’s blog on just one very important aspect of that skill-set, and it’s something that’s addressed during testing very rarely, if at all: overtaking.
Purists tend to criticise DRS (Drag Reduction Systems, aka moveable rear wings), but in my view they’re wrong to do so. Granted, initially, on some circuits, DRS occasionally made overtaking a little easier than is ideal, but on balance the contribution made by DRS has in my opinion been positive. And, more important, on the vast majority of circuits, even with DRS, overtaking is still sufficiently difficult that it demands that each driver knows how to race, not only how to drive quickly, which isn’t the same thing at all.
During my long racing career I always enjoyed race day more than qualifying day. Okay, qualifying was important, of course it was; the closer to the front of the grid you start a race, the better your chances of winning it. But, for any number of reasons, you can’t always qualify on the pole, or on the front row, and, if you regard races for which you’ve qualified sub-optimally as unwinnable, then you may well win races when you and your car are on song but you’ll never mount a season-long campaign of the kind all champions need to be able to manage.
So, in a nutshell, when you qualify less well than you’d ideally like to have done, which will inevitably happen from time to time, then you need to be able to overtake the following day.
I used to love overtaking. I used to plan my moves meticulously. If I found that I was closing on a car in front, as I did so I’d watch the way the other car was moving on the racetrack in front of me. I’d analyse the way it was slowing under braking, the way it was turning in, the way it was changing direction, the way it was putting its power down, everything. And I’d already have a mental fact-file about the man in the cockpit, of course.
As I closed up behind him, I’d begin to calculate my options. Sometimes there would be one corner on the lap on which my car was significantly better than that of my opponent, and if that were the case then I’d know that that would be the corner at which I’d make my move. But, in order that my rival wouldn’t be alerted to that fact, I’d begin to ‘show my nose’, as racing people tend to term it, which means that I’d make it look as though I was trying to overtake into a corner on which in actual fact I had no intention of trying to overtake, in an effort to unsettle my quarry.
The easiest way to overtake a man is to induce him to make a mistake, you see, and you can sometimes do that by ‘showing your nose’.
Or, alternatively, by harrying him and hassling him and, yes, ‘showing your nose’ to him repeatedly, you can often cause him to over-drive in his efforts to keep you behind, and that in turn can cause him to abuse his tyres. If he does that, and the result is degradation or blistering or graining or a flat-spot, then, again, you may find that it becomes relatively easy for you to overtake him and then drive away from him.
Or, sometimes, traffic – backmarkers whom you and your opponent are lapping – can create an overtaking opportunity.
Carlos Reutemann won the 1978 British Grand Prix for Ferrari like that. In that race my Copersucar-Fittipaldi’s Cosworth engine had expired shortly before half-distance, so I was able to watch the balance of the race from the Brands Hatch pitwall.
Carlos was in second place, closing on the leader, Niki Lauda, in a Brabham, and in truth I didn’t expect him to be able to find a way past, because Niki’s lap times were only marginally slower than Carlos’s in the crucial last stages of the race, and Niki was a truly great driver who very rarely made mistakes.
I was wrong. On lap 60, as Niki and Carlos were about to lap Bruno Giacomelli’s McLaren, Niki attempted to pass Bruno around the outside of Clearways, the long right-hander at the end of the lap, but he didn’t quite manage to pull it off. In so doing, he’d left a gap on the inside, and Carlos hurled his Ferrari into it, leaving Niki powerless to respond. It was a great victory.
If you’re not assisted by extraneous elements such as traffic or a mistake or tyre wear, then you have to pull off a ‘pure’ overtake. And if the guy in front is a great driver, or even a very good one, then he’s unlikely to slip-up. On the contrary, he’ll have spent the past few laps checking his mirrors assiduously, comparing your car’s performance with that of his own. Like you, too, he’ll know who you are, and what kind of driver you are, and he’ll be tailoring his defence accordingly. And in such circumstances the overtaking process becomes more difficult – and more extreme.
The fastest way to lap a Formula 1 car is to drive it on but not beyond its limit. If your car is handling neutrally – no understeer and no oversteer – then you can do that by driving it in geometrically perfect arcs, teasing it into an attitude perfectly tailored for each corner, apexing early and getting the power down smartly. Do that, and you’ll line your car up for the next straight as smoothly and as quickly as possible. It sometimes looks slow, but in fact it’s extremely quick. Jackie Stewart and Alain Prost are obvious examples of brilliant drivers who were able to master that art. I used to try to drive like that, too.
But when you’re planning an overtaking manoeuvre, and the car ahead is only slightly slower than your own, and the driver of that car is making no mistakes, and there’s no tyre wear apparent, and no traffic ahead, then you have to abandon geometrically perfect arcs. Instead, you have to force your way past, and the result is what race fans love to see more than almost anything else: the archetypal on-the-limit overtake, both cars shrouded in tyre smoke, both drivers sawing at the wheels.
Perhaps the most famous example of an archetypal on-the-limit overtake in ‘my’ era was Gilles Villeneuve’s amazing move on René Arnoux, into the first corner at Dijon-Prenois, in 1979. Again, I was able to follow that famous dice from the pitwall, since my Copersucar-Fittipaldi’s Cosworth engine had again gone ‘pop’ about 30 laps from the end.
René’s Renault was a quicker car than Gilles’s Ferrari that day, and René had duly passed Gilles for second place a few laps from the end. The very next lap, though, already too far behind to be able to essay a conventional overtake, Gilles left his braking later than late, locked up all four Michelins in the most spectacular fashion, and muscled his Ferrari inside René’s Renault and strong-armed his way around Turn One ahead.
I used the word ‘extreme’ a few paragraphs ago, to describe that kind of overtake, and undoubtedly Gilles’s overtake of René was extreme that day. But race fans still speak of it in hushed and reverent tones even now, 35 long years later, and rightly so. That’s what racing is all about.
If you were to ask me to list the overtakes that gave me most pleasure, and of which I’m proudest, I know immediately the two I’d choose.
The first one came in the 1973 Argentine Grand Prix, the first race of that year’s Formula 1 season. I was reigning world champion, and I really wanted to start the defence of my crown with a strong race. I’d qualified second, which was encouraging, beaten to the pole only by Clay Regazzoni’s BRM. Third on the grid was Jacky Ickx for Ferrari, fourth was Jackie Stewart for Tyrrell, fifth was my Lotus team-mate Ronnie Peterson and sixth was Jackie’s Tyrrell team-mate Francois Cevert.
Unfortunately, I made an indifferent start, dropping a few places. Worse, Francois made a brilliant one, briefly taking the lead from his P6 grid slot; Clay passed Francois before the end of lap one, however. In third place was Jackie, just ahead of me in fourth.
We circulated in that formation for a third of the race’s 96 laps, until Francois and then Jackie both passed Clay, meaning that the two Tyrrells were first and second, Francois ahead, Clay third and me still fourth.
But, in his efforts to keep Jackie back, Clay had worn his tyres to the stage where they’d lost a lot of grip – an example of what I was describing a few paragraphs ago – with the result that I was able to nip past his BRM and try to chase down the two Tyrrells.
I could and did close the gap to them, and soon Jackie’s gearbox was dead-ahead of me, clear and close. The trouble was, although my Lotus was handling better than the Tyrrells, they were quicker on the straights, which meant I was unable to draft or slipstream them. In turn, that meant that it was going to be very difficult for me to get close to them for the braking areas before each corner. Clearly, I was going to have to do something extreme.
Following Jackie, I identified the last-corner combo as the optimal passing point – a long parabolic downhill right-hander followed immediately by a tricky 90-degree left.
One of the tactics I’d perfected over the past few years was never to ‘show my nose’ on the approach to the corner on which I actually intended to overtake. That way, when I finally made my move, I always figured it would come as a surprise to my opponent. So, sure enough, I began to feint left and right on the approaches to various corners around the lap – moves that Jackie parried expertly and fairly as you’d expect of a driver as excellent as he – but always driving in line astern behind him through that last-corner combo.
By lap 75 I could see that Jackie’s tyres were no longer in tip-top condition, so I decided that I’d make my move on the following lap. As we both charged towards the last-corner combo for the 76th time, I left my braking very late indeed, locked up all four wheels as I slewed my Lotus down the inside of Jackie’s Tyrrell, chucked my car to the right, pitching it sideways, holding the slide but crucially keeping it inside Jackie’s line as I did so, then gathering it all up and pulling ahead as I got the power down through the 90-degree left.
I was now second, with only Francois’s Tyrrell ahead of me. It took me about 10 laps to catch him – and, by the time I’d done so, I’d worked out that I’d have to pass him in exactly the same place and in precisely the same way as I’d dispatched Jackie. On lap 86 I did exactly that, eventually taking the win by just 4.5sec from Francois. If anything it was an even better move, since Francois’s tyres were still in good shape and he fought me every inch of the way.
I savoured that victory, and I’m proud of it still. I achieved it by marrying the right strategy with the appropriate tactics, and nailing my overtakes aggressively yet fairly when the time came.
Granted, there wasn’t much margin in either overtake, but the risks I’d taken were calculated risks. For instance, I’d never have essayed such moves in the early laps of a race, or when the prize was but a minor placing. But when the reward is a win, and when all other overtaking avenues have been exhausted, then a champion has to know how to move into ‘extreme’ mode, and that’s what I did on that memorable afternoon in January, 41 long years ago.
The second overtake I want to tell you about came during the 1989 Indy 500.
I’d qualified in P3, which meant I was on the outside of the front row, alongside Al Unser Jnr (P2) and Rick Mears (who had taken the pole).
I got a good start, and pulled into a good lead. My car was feeling great, and I was able to reel off the laps smoothly and precisely, adding to my lead with every tour.
The first 350 miles went perfectly for me, and I held the lead throughout. But Michael Andretti, son of the legendary Mario, was beginning to close on me, and after 400 miles he was right behind. The following lap he got past – there was no way I could have prevented it. Some days God appears to be smiling on you, however, and Sunday May 28th 1989 was one of those days, for Michael’s engine blew just a few laps after he’d passed me.
So I was back in the lead, and feeling good again. But, just as I was beginning to feel confident, a caution period closed things up again, and, after the yellow flags had been furled again, at 460 miles, I found myself just 3.0sec ahead of Al Unser Jnr, son of the legendary Al Unser Snr. But Little Al, as we used to call him, was flying, and at 462 miles he was right on my tail.
Remember that average lap speeds at Indy are and already were in 1989 well in excess of 200mph [322kmh], so let’s just say you need to keep an extremely cool head when you’re lapping at that kind of pace with another car’s nose-cone sniffing your gearbox.
For the next 20-odd miles we lapped in close proximity, then at 485 miles we encountered traffic – backmarkers – and at one point we very nearly touched wheels as we lapped them together.
After 490 miles the inevitable happened: I could hold Al Jnr back no longer, and he passed me for the lead in Turn Three.
I was massively disappointed. I’d never yet won the Indy 500, and I’d led more than 150 laps that afternoon already, and yet it appeared that I was going to miss out yet again. And then I said to myself, “No, Emerson, you can still win this.”
At 495 miles, with just two laps to go, I saw traffic up ahead of Little Al. I was behind him, but not by much, and the slower cars ahead made it impossible for him to lap at maximum speed, allowing me to close right up on him again.
On the back straightaway I pointed my car’s nose inside his, got level, and we ran around Turn One wheel to wheel, me on the inside. As we powered on towards Turn Two we were still side by side, and we ran around that turn next to each other also, just as we had in Turn One.
It was unbelievably close, and fearsomely tense, both of us lapping on the high side of 200mph [322km/h], within arm’s length of each other.
As we approached Turn Three, it was clear that neither of us was about to back off. I held the inside line, and, as I turned in, Al Jnr was still there, just above me, dead-level. Suddenly, I felt my car get a bit ‘loose’ at the rear. I kept my foot hard in, balancing the slide, which isn’t easy at more than 200mph [322km/h], and our cars touched as I did so. He spun out, and I went on to take the win with just one lap to go – my first Indy 500 victory.
As I drove the winning lap, under yellows, Little Al stood by the edge of the track and gave me a ‘thumbs up’ sign. Afterwards he was asked by the media whether he blamed me for our contact, and he said, “Nah. It couldn’t have been avoided. Me and Emmo both wanted to win this one too badly.”
I think you’d have to classify that as an ‘extreme’ overtake, too!
Having said that, with guys like Al Jnr, you know you can run close without fear. I could say the same about any and all of the true greats – in Formula 1 as well as in Indycar. It’s only when you’re racing someone a little less talented, and who’s therefore having to over-drive merely to deliver optimal lap-times, that the problems arise. Because, when a guy in that position gets into an ‘extreme’ situation, then he has no talent reserve on which to draw, and the result can be disaster.
It’s exactly the same today. Nothing has changed. Some drivers of my generation decry modern Formula 1, accusing today’s racers of dangerous driving, of leaving no margin. Undoubtedly, we’ve seen some questionable moves in recent years – but so we did years ago. For example, one of my fiercest rivals, Clay Regazzoni, whom I fought and beat to the 1974 world championship, was a lovely guy off-track, but was unacceptably combative as soon as he pulled his visor down. We used to say he had the widest car in Formula 1, on account of the fact that he would weave from side to side even on the straights.
Even with DRS, overtaking today is still difficult, and that’s as it should be: it’s supposed to be difficult. That’s what makes a great passing manoeuvre such a wonderful spectacle to behold. I’ve always been fully supportive of the need to make racing as safe as possible, but that doesn’t mean it should or indeed can ever be entirely risk-free. And that’s as true now as it’s ever been – as true for Jenson and Fernando, now, as it was for Jackie and Francois and Carlos and Ronnie and me, then.
Moreover, now, as then, the truly great drivers always allow and always have allowed their rivals room in which to operate; they always respect and always have respected one another’s space; they always race hard and fair and always have done.