How to properly overtake and defend your position in Formula 1

The rules of full-throttle engagement
by Niky Tamayo | Sep 8, 2014

In the fallout from the incident between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton on Lap 2 of the Belgian Grand Prix, fierce debates flared up on whether the young German deserved a penalty for the incident. That there is a debate at all highlights some of the confusion over rules covering overtaking in Formula 1.

To help ease the confusion, here's a simple guide to overtaking in Formula 1:

1. Drivers who overtake while off track must give back any positions gained. Thanks to Hamilton's move on Kimi Raikkonen at Spa in 2008, said drivers also have to wait a few turns to overtake again.

2. Drivers may use the full width of the track to defend on the straights and in the braking areas. Here, the defending car, in blue, has the right to block the attacking car, in red.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

3. Only one direction change to defend is allowed. Once again, Hamilton served as the inspiration for this, due to his questionable weaving defense against Vitaly Petrov in 2010.

4. If another car's front wing is alongside your rear wheel, you can no longer use the full width of the track. A defender may also be penalized for moving into the path of an attacker that isn't alongside them at the start of the blocking move, if it gives the attacker no time to react.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

5. Drivers who have moved off the racing line to defend must leave one car's width of space between themselves and the edge of the track when returning to the racing line. This rule clarification was inspired by another champion known for bending rules, Michael Schumacher, due to his questionable defense against Hamilton over several laps at Monza in 2011.

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6. Deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edges of the track and other abnormal changes of direction that may hinder other drivers are not permitted. This catch-all rule covers actions not specified in other rules, such as brake checks and swerves designed to intimidate other drivers.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

Let's examine the implications of these rules as they apply to overtaking in corners. While most of us see corners like this:

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

Racing drivers see them like this:

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

The racing line, in yellow, moves across the track from the outside on corner entry, also known as the braking zone, to the inside at the apex and back out at the corner exit.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

If the defender has enough of a lead, he can shut the door, which allows him to use the full width of the track in braking areas. If the attacking car hits him on the inside, the attacker is usually deemed at fault, because he has carried too much speed into the corner to make it.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

If the attacking driver gets alongside the defender, the defender is forced to leave one car's width at the apex, and must give up the corner. The attacker will get better acceleration at the apex, since the racing line has more traction and grip than the rest of the track.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

The defender cannot box in the attacker, as that will be considered an abnormal change of direction.

As you can see, it is difficult to defend the outside line. Especially against Pastor Maldonado, who has a habit of entering too hot and taking opponents out. Holding the inside line is preferable, forcing the attacker to go around the outside, where there is less grip.

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Typically, the defender will get a better jump at the apex, nosing ahead at the exit. This allows him to box out the attacker, who has the choice of backing off or going off the track.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

Is this "deliberate crowding," as discussed above? Following the racing line is not considered an abnormal change of direction by the stewards, and the rules don't state whether you are supposed to leave space on the outside at the corner exit if you are already on the racing line.

Aggressive defenders like Lewis Hamilton take advantage of this to shut the door on the outside line. Rosberg did this to Hamilton in Canada earlier this year, too. Unless the attacker is nearly parallel or even ahead on the exit, he doesn't have a chance of overtaking.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

Or he could do a Rosberg, and refuse to concede the line.

Formula 1 spotlight: overtaking and defense

Last year, this would have been considered a penalty for Rosberg, but with the clamor for more exciting racing, and in consideration of the rather marginal overlap, the stewards opted to take no action.

The Mercedes team was not so forgiving. This was a costly mistake, and tensions will be high for the remainder of the season. Mercedes F1 executive director Toto Wolff may claim the air has been cleared, but the rest of us expect fireworks from these two young, hotheaded drivers.

Illustrations by Niky Tamayo

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