It’s always challenging identifying the thin line that differentiates an overly aggressive move versus a safe-yet-firm move when defending against a rival down a straightaway. With the excessive speeds reached on these sections of the course, the differentials in speeds, and the likelihood of touching if the brakes are applied at varying times, defending too aggressively is a very dangerous endeavor. There are basic rules put in place to keep aggressive or overly-defensive drivers from endangering others and/or themselves when challenged by rivals, but there is always room for the defending driver to place themselves in a position that gives them an edge without jeopardizing anyone’s race.
Many series nowadays allow for one defensive move, but the rules are often misinterpreted and clever drivers knows how to fade, blend, and defend their positions without imposing massive risks on themselves and the drivers around them.
There are two general rules to remember when leading and trying to retain a position when an opponent is challenging you down a straight. First, there must be a car’s width left for the opposing driver in the braking zone. If they’ve got a better run off the preceding corner and are slipstreaming you down the straight, you can defend by moving towards the inside before the braking zone. Once you apply the brakes, you must leave them enough room to brake alongside you. Forcing them to the outside gives you the ability to dictate the pace through the corner, and a well-timed lift off the throttle, safely in the middle of the corner, gives them nowhere to go.
The second thing to remember is the time at which you make that one allowed defensive move. Blending over to minimize the amount of room you’ve given should be done predictably; make your intentions clear and be decisive. Being generous enough to move across slowly and still give them a place to move when it comes time to brake, since so often the two cars are running alongside to some extent, is a great way to avoid incident and stay ahead.
Stepping Over the Line
If a move is too abrupt and precedes the braking zone by much, it can be quite dangerous. If it causes an opponent to lift or brake on the straight, it’s a great way to cause a serious wreck – see Mark Webber’s violent crash at the 2010 European Grand Prix.
If you have the skill to fade over slightly while braking, you’re likely to put your opponent in a very dangerous position. It’s a good idea for both parties to try and remain as straight as possible while braking at the end of a straight, since you run the risk of pushing your opponent off the track, which can at the minimum incur a penalty, and at the worst, provoke your opponent to spin and possibly crash into you. See Hamilton and Rosberg’s incident at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix to realize how important it is to leave room.
Coming back to the idea of one move per corner, it’s important to leave your opponent room and not react to their counter-movement. If you make your first defensive move and the other driver tries to occupy the space on the circuit you’ve recently opened, and you decide to react to their movement and cover that recently-opened piece of real estate, this is considered weaving and will likely be punished. When two moves are done abruptly in reaction to an attacker’s move, they become life-threatening.
The onus is not entirely on the defending driver either. The attacking driver must telegraph their intentions and make sure they commit to their move. Being tentative is usually ineffective, and surprisingly dangerous.
Again, squeezing a driver into the wall or forcing them to lift, brake, or take abrupt, evasive action at high speed on a straightaway is incredibly dangerous. There are few ways better to launch a car into the air at triple-digit speeds. While this behavior is generally unaccepted, it’s less strictly enforced against in European racing. However, it’s very strongly punished in the States, and any driver looking to have a long career with a decent reputation will learn how to avoid unnecessary risk, have a little patience, and know when they’ve been beaten. At least then they’ll have another chance to fight back at the next corner, instead of ending up in the wall, or the hospital.