Formula 1’s 2016 season is barely done for and we already have controversy brewing for the 2017 F1 season. It revolves around the insanely complex suspension setups use primarily by Mercedes and Red Bull. Prior to Christmas F1 Technical Director Charlie Whiting suggested that stored energy suspensions would become illegal. Naturally teams wanted clarification, specifically Ferrari who actually wrote the FIA asking for clarification.
The big issue for teams here is many have already done the bulk of the design-work for their 2017 car. F1 car’s design is intertwined within itself. The aero builds off the suspension setup which involves the engine and so on. Change one thing and it could have a drastic, and extremely detrimental effect on a car. Hmm, makes me wonder why Ferrari sent the letter? Their main 2 rivals use the clever systems, perhaps a sneaky plot is afoot to try to level the playing field with Ferrari not having to spend a dime? Something to think of as Ferrari is by far the most devious team in F1 history.
So what exactly makes these suspensions so great that they provide such an enormous advantage over the field? They are able to control pitch, heave and rake of the cars through the corners. This not only makes the car more mechanically balanced but a far that isn’t constantly moving is more aerodynamically stable as well. The end result is faster corner speeds and the ability to accelerate sooner.
What’s going on here? Well in actuality it is very similar to the FRIC (Front to Rear InterConnected) systems that were banned in 2014. It makes sense that teams were looking to replicate the advantages while remaining within the rules. FRIC systems effectively worked around heave (the vertical displacement of the car) and how it was effected by rake. Simple illustration of this is in your own car. Hit the brakes hard, you and your stuff move forward and the nose of the car dips. This continues for the entirety of the braking event. The exact opposite happens when you accelerate hard. That being the force that plants your ass firmly in the back of the seat. Now, what if your car was as reliant on aero like a Formula 1 car? The addition of the advanced aero in the form of large wings means any movement especially vertical movement makes a huge difference in the car’s performance.
The way teams are getting around the banning of FRIC systems is with a system that can store and deploy suspension energy when and where it is needed. This is where Ferrari is asking for clarification. While the specifics are a bit vague (as is the case with just about everything in F1) but the question appears to revolve around these systems utilizing hydraulic accumulators. This is where it gets insanely otherworldly complicated. But effectively by storing energy during braking and acceleration events the accumulators can be deployed to keep the car in its optimal aerodynamic state. IE more downforce while braking and cornering, less while accelerating while also allowing for more mechanical grip throughout the process.
Red Red Bull was believed to deploy a similarly advanced system built around keeping a high rake (think angle of the car from front to back) With the rear end higher than the front end this is aerodynamically advantageous when thinking in terms of heave. Remember heave? That is the vertical footprint of a car. However, this is another one of those things that have to take the entire car’s design into perspective. The car has to be designed aerodynamically with rake in mind. In addition rake is much easier to tune than each individual aero element on the car, so it makes race weekends easier. That combined with what some are calling a HPC (Hydraulic Pitch Control) suspension setup helped Red Bull overtake Ferrari in 2016. Something Ferrari is none to pleased with, lending more weight to the conspiracy theory brewing around the boys from Maranello.
I’d like to point out that these systems were perfectly legal during their use. The crux of the issue is their legality going forward. The fact that their banning MIGHT be coming has to annoy just about everyone developing one of these systems. This would in turn mean they would have to develop 2 concepts to keep themselves safe. 1 with the complex setup as to not be left behind if they are not banned. But also a design with out them should the rule get changed. Frankly I say keep them. This is Formula 1, the pinnacle of motorsport, if teams want to push the tech boundaries I say let them. As long as it is safe for the drivers, spectators, etc.
I know that at some point F1 could become too expensive for even the richest teams, but were not there yet. I want the biggest baddest engines with the tech to go along with it. I want advanced aero that glues the cars to the track. I want suspensions that adapt and make the cars even faster. You can say that all of that stuff will lead to boring racing, that it will become difficult to pass, etc. Well news flash it already is difficult to pass. How do you increase passing, allow body contact. Since that will never happen in F1 we should just hope for the cars to get faster. The current pace of F1 cars is a joke. They are significantly slower than the cars of the last V10 era. Yes, the 2017 cars are getting more aero and bigger rubber and that is expected to increase their speeds but I think it wont close the gap completely. Strip the teams of the advanced tech they have developed and you slow them down even more.
F1 is supposed to be the place where tech boundaries are pushed. F1 is supposed to be the place where new technology is introduced and eventually trickles down into road cars. Instead of banning clever thinking perhaps F1 should consider allowing it, just regulate it so it doesn’t get out of hand. I know that is radical thinking for the heavy-handed FIA but every so often you have to compromise for the greater good.