Skip to main content

What is DRS in Formula 1? This speed boost, explained

When sacriificing traction wins races

Lewis Hamilton (44) driving for Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team during The Australian Formula One Grand Prix Race on April 02, 2023, at The Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit in Albert Park, Australia.
davidhewison / Adobe Stock

“You may now use DRS.”

Formula 1 races are exciting contests with speeds often exceeding 200 miles per hour. When you watch or listen to a broadcast of an F1 race, you may hear references to DRS. The initials stand for “drag reduction system,” but knowing that probably doesn’t help much. Complex and detailed FIA F1 rules and regulations control the design, construction, and use of DRS. Still, you don’t want to read hundreds of pages of detailed engineering specifications, which doesn’t help either.

Here’s a quick answer to the question of DRS: F1 drivers can use DRS to temporarily reduce drag and downforce to increase speed to try to pass when they are within one second of the car in front of them, but only when they are within designated DRS zones of a racetrack, typically on straightaways. Read on for a deeper explanation.

Formula 1 cars winding their way down a track.
Picture Credit By Rick Dikeman / Wikimedia Commons

Why is DRS important in F1 racing?

Downforce is huge in F1 racing. The cars weigh about 1,760 pounds and have 830 horsepower engines that accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds. Unlike regular cars, however, F1 cars accelerate even faster at higher speeds because the complex aerodynamics of their bodies use the force of rushing air to push them down on the track. This force, called downforce, improves traction and handling. Without it, cars would be hard to drive around corners or even straight lines at racing speeds.

Because the varied race tracks and street circuits in F1 Grand Prix have many curves and are often relatively narrow, passing cars, also called overtaking, can be difficult or nearly impossible. The FIA approved DRS in order to help drivers overtake other race cars. When a driver is in a DRS activated zone and also within one second of a leading car, they can press a button to engage DRS, which drops a flap on the back wing of the car, significantly reducing the wing’s drag and cutting the downforce.

Pirelli F1 racing tires on Red Bull Racing Formula 1 race car.
Randomwinner / Pixabay

How much does DRS help Formula 1 cars?

F1 drivers have mixed feelings about DRS, but dropping the flap definitely helps with overtaking. F1 cars and tracks have sophisticated sensor and signaling technology, and the DRS light on the driver’s steering wheel- better described as a steering yoke- can only do so when the car is in a DRS zone. Tracks vary. Most Grand Prix circuits have two or three DRS zones, although the Monaco Grand Prix circuit has only one, and the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park has four.

According to various sources and studies, when an F1 car engages the DRS, the gain in speed can range from 5 to 20 mph. That may not seem like much benefit, but when F1 race cars’ lap times differ within hundredths of a second, a temporary speed boost can be a big help.

DRS can result in unexpected ways. For example, if a line of cars are close together and all but the first in the group is one second of the car in front, the whole train of cars could theoretically engage DRS, except the leader. Tactically, when two cars are competing, and neither can get ahead, sometimes a driver will let the other car slip ahead momentarily to gain the right to engage DRS.

Editors' Recommendations

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends Contributing Editor Bruce Brown is a member of the Smart Homes and Cars teams. He also writes technology news…
How much do F1 drivers make?
Verstappen and Hamilton each likely earn more than $100 million
Max Verstappen driving a Red Bull F1 race car.

Do you mean they get money, too? During the Formula 1 racing season, F1 drivers travel to exotic locations, get treated like superstars, and drive incredibly fast cars to compete with some of the world's top drivers. They also get paid salaries estimated to start at $1 million per season and may earn a lot more in bonuses, prizes, endorsements, and sponsorships.

From the live event spectators' and TV viewers' perspectives, it may appear that F1 race car drivers lead glamorous lives, but the reality for even the best drivers is a relatively short career training, practicing, and performing under constant pressure. Aspiring F1 drivers start young, usually under 10, and focus on racing, hoping that by the time they reach the minimum F1 driving age of 18, an F1 team will want them. If a driver succeeds in getting a seat in an F1 race car, then the scrutiny of the intensely data-centric F1 world commences. F1 driver performance is measured in many ways, including salaries and overall income.
Why F1 driver salaries matter

Read more
How much horsepower does a Formula 1 car have?
Drivers win the races, but how much horsepower does a Formula 1 cars have?
Red Bull's Max Verstappen driving a victory circle.

Formula 1 cars produce an incredible amount of horsepower. Watching them buzz around the track makes it easy to forget that each is an engineering marvel. F1 race car engines, or, to use the correct term, power units, produce prodigious amounts of energy, following specific and strictly enforced FIA F1 Regulations for technical, sporting, and financial matters.

F1 cars get the most possible from every element in their design and construction. Still, the first question fans often ask is, "How much horsepower do F1 engines have?" The simple answer for the 2024 F1 season is approximately 1,000 horsepower, but there's much more to it.
Why  F1 engine horsepower matters

Read more
How does qualifying work in Formula 1?
F1 pole position winners win the race more than 40% of the time
F1 starting grid for the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.

In the three-day schedule of F1 Grand Prix events, the qualifying session is second in importance only to the Grand Prix itself. Even in the limited number of Grand Prix events that include F1 Sprint races, you can strongly argue that the qualifying event for the traditional race is more important. The FIA F1 Sporting Regulations specify the rules and operations of F1 qualifying.

Why Formula 1 qualifying matters

Read more