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Are F1's current cars too big for Monaco?

Throughout its 70-plus years on the Formula 1 calendar, Monaco has been burdened with the reputation of being a venue not particularly conducive to racing and overtaking.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Erik Junius

Certainly, the risk of mounting a successful passing move on the principality's streets is high, and any misjudged moves on a driver can often come at a high price.

While Monaco earned its reputation when the cars in F1 were not particularly egregious in size, the current crop of oversized machines has exacerbated the situation.

20 years ago, F1 cars were approximately 4.5m in length and 1.8m wide, and it was tough even then to accommodate two cars running side by side. They've ballooned in size since then through various regulatory changes: every car is now two metres wide, and most are north of 5.5m in length.

Three-time F1 champion Nelson Piquet once opined that Monaco was like riding a bicycle in a living room; nowadays, it's probably like steering a Challenger tank through an en suite bathroom.

Packaging and aerodynamics are the main culprits in explaining why F1 cars have become so engorged over the years. Aerodynamicists began to identify that running with a longer floor offered more downforce, and thus wheelbases became longer and longer through the years. As the car grew, the internals could be repackaged to ensure the bodywork became tighter, creating ever more radical 'Coke-bottle' sections at the rear of the car.

The aerodynamic changes in 2017 created another step change in the swelling sizes of F1 cars, where the cars' widths were expanded to two metres after nearly two decades of running at a 1.8m track width. This was to increase the speeds of the cars, but at the cost of their ability to race closely on track.

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

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

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

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

There's definitely a case to be made that F1 has outgrown Monaco as a venue, but that may simply be a case of perception - after all, many people questioned Monaco's place on the calendar even when the cars were considerably smaller.

Let's take overtakes as a metric of how well the cars have been able to race each other around Monaco, with contextual elements marked on the below graph of overtakes per season to illustrate their effect.

 

The figures in 1993's race were boosted by Alain Prost's recovery drive after a penalty and a stall following a jump start, but action remained high despite the wide-track cars. The cars were generally smaller and more nimble, and thus better suited to dealing with the Monaco circuit compared to those that would follow.

Refuelling regulations brought a sharp decline in overtaking figures, as teams figured that they could do their passing in the pits with a better strategy rather than try to mount a risky pass on track. The 1997 and 2008 peaks came in wet races, while the attritional nature of 1996 did not yield many passes.

The ability to move up the field through fuel strategy largely masked the early days of the narrow-track regulations, although 2005 and 2006 proved that overtaking could be managed if the field was bunched up by the safety car. Michael Schumacher's 2006 recovery drive from the back of the grid, after being thrown out of qualifying for parking his Ferrari at the Rascasse, admittedly pumped up the latter case's figures.

When refuelling was ditched in 2010 there was not an initial improvement in passing numbers, but from 2011 onwards there was a rise to more consistent double-figure totals. This coincided with the addition of DRS, but it is generally agreed that the overtaking aid is of limited use on the start-finish straight.

Figures immediately dropped with the return to wide-track cars from 2017 and beyond. The length and width - and therefore, weight - of the cars had grown and the cars had become much more ponderous as a result.

At full lock with a normal setup, needed to navigate the Fairmont hairpin, the current cars aren't able to make the corner. Modifications are usually made to the suspension arms to ensure the wheels can turn enough.

With the sole Monaco race following the change in aerodynamic regulations having been run in wet-dry conditions, it's too early to say definitively if the current crop of cars are no longer equipped to deal with the circuit. 2023 needs a dry race to showcase the current generation's true abilities, although that looks unlikely given forecasts in the area suggest rain across the grand prix weekend.

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

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

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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

There's a very clear decline in our metric of the ability to battle on-track since the regulations changed in 2017. By comparison, Formula E - running at a 1700mm width - can claim over 100 overtakes per race at Monaco in a 45-minute race. To say "you can't overtake in Monaco" is disingenuous, then; if F1 ever opted for a return to smaller cars, Monaco stands a chance of producing decent races...

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