Are F1’s current cars too big for Monaco?

By | May 26, 2023

Admittedly, the risk of pulling off a successful overtaking move on the principality’s streets is high, and any misjudged moves on a driver can often come at a high price.

While Monaco gained its reputation when the cars in F1 were not particularly formidable in size, today’s crop of oversized machines has exacerbated the situation.

20 years ago, F1 cars were about 4.5 meters long and 1.8 meters wide, and it was tough even then to fit two cars running side by side. They have grown in size since then through various regulatory changes: each car is now two meters wide, and most are north of 5.5 meters long.

Three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet once thought Monaco was like riding a bike in a living room; nowadays it’s probably like piloting a Challenger tank through a private bathroom.

Packaging and aerodynamics are the main culprits in explaining why F1 cars have become so crowded over the years. Aerodynamicists began to identify that running with a longer floor produced more downforce, thus the wheelbases became longer and longer over the years. As the car grew, the interior could be repackaged to ensure the body became tighter, creating increasingly radical ‘Coke bottle’ sections at the back of the car.

The aerodynamic changes in 2017 created another step change in the tread sizes of F1 cars, with the width of the cars being widened to two meters after almost two decades of running on a 1.8m track gauge. This was to increase the speed of the cars, but at the expense of their ability to drive close to the track.

Although many of the 2022 changes were enforced to lift the restrictions developed by the 2017 rules, the wide-track cars still persist. Developments carried out into 2023 have diluted the first effect of improved following between the cars experienced last year.

A rare side-by-side moment from Lando Norris and George Russell in 2022.

Photo: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

There is definitely a case to be made that F1 has outgrown Monaco as a venue, but it may simply be a case of perception – after all, there were many who questioned Monaco’s place on the calendar even when the cars were significantly smaller.

Let’s take overtaking as a measure of how well the cars have been able to race against each other around Monaco, with contextual elements highlighted in the graph below of overtaking per season to illustrate the effect.

The numbers in the 1993 race were boosted by Alain Prost’s recovery drive after a penalty and a stop after a false start, but the action remained high despite the wide track cars. The cars were generally smaller and more agile, and thus better suited to handling the Monaco circuit compared to those that would follow.

The refueling rules led to a sharp drop in overtaking, as teams figured they could manage the pass in the pits with a better strategy rather than trying to set up a risky pass on the track. The peaks in 1997 and 2008 came in wet races, while the exhaustion in 1996 did not produce many passes.

The ability to move up the field through fuel strategy largely masked the early days of the narrow gauge regulation, although 2005 and 2006 showed that overtaking could be managed if the field was brought together by the safety car. Michael Schumacher’s recovery drive from the back of the grid in 2006, after being kicked out of qualifying for parking his Ferrari at Rascasse, admittedly pumped up the numbers in the latter case.

When the tanking was dropped in 2010, there wasn’t an initial improvement in passing numbers, but from 2011 onwards there was an increase to more consistent double-digit totals. This coincided with the addition of DRS, but it is generally agreed that the overtaking assistance is of limited use on the start-finish straight.

The numbers dropped immediately with the return to wide-track cars from 2017 onwards. The length and width – and thus the weight – of the cars had grown and the cars had become much more cumbersome as a result.

In full lock with a normal setup, needed to navigate the Fairmont hairpin, the current cars can’t handle the turn. Modifications are usually made to the suspension arms to ensure that the wheels can turn enough.

With the only Monaco race since the change in aerodynamic regulations having been run in wet-dry conditions, it is too early to say definitively whether the current crop of cars are no longer equipped to cope with the track. 2023 needs a dry run to showcase the current generation’s true capabilities, although that looks unlikely given forecasts in the area suggest rain over the grand prix weekend.

29 overtakings were completed in a dramatic Monaco Grand Prix in 1993 - not a total since.

29 overtakings were completed in a dramatic Monaco Grand Prix in 1993 – not a total since.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

But science suggests that smaller, lighter cars are better equipped for the Monaco circuit, as inertia is reduced and thus the driver can benefit from a much more direct steering characteristic. Theoretically, this will allow for more precise overtaking and defensive moves, rather than emptying the inside and hoping the car stops.

There is a very clear drop in our calculation of ability to fight on the track since the regulations were changed in 2017. By comparison, Formula E – which runs on a 1700mm width – can require over 100 overtakes per race in Monaco in a 45-minute run. To say “you can’t overtake in Monaco” is disingenuous, then; if F1 ever chose to go back to smaller cars, Monaco has a chance to produce decent races…

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