Will Gray

Gray Matter: F1′s ‘expensive and complex monster’ that FIA are right to ban

Will Gray

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F1’s innovative ‘FRIC’ suspension systems are set to be sidelined from this weekend’s German Grand Prix – but how do they work, what makes the FIA think they are illegal and is their exclusion set in stone?

Fully connected suspension systems first arrived in F1 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Originally passive, they were quickly developed into electro-hydraulic active systems, which were run until banned on cost grounds in 1994.

The concept disappeared entirely until Lotus resurrected it in 2008 and since then it has grown into an expensive and complex monster with all teams using systems, some more technologically advanced than others.

The reason behind its use is simple.

As the car moves around the track, it is subjected to forces of pitch, roll and yaw – and the smaller these movements can be the better the car will handle, both mechanically and aerodynamically.

Active suspension used ride height sensors to predict the upcoming bumps in the road and trigger hydraulic actuators to move the suspension in advance to smooth out the ride – actively ‘avoiding’ the bumps rather than passively reacting to the effect of hitting them.

The FRIC (front and rear interconnected) system is the next best solution.

It has hydraulic cylinders integrated into the suspension in each corner of the car with a central passive hydraulic actuator and a system of valves connecting front and rear.

When the suspension moves up or down at one corner the opposite reacts accordingly. For example, as a car heads into a corner and a driver brakes hard, the car will try to nose dive into the corner but the FRIC system balances out the load to keep the car more level.

That’s all fine, except it is believed teams are starting to use clever valve set-ups to activate certain movements solely for aerodynamic benefit – specifically making the rear of the car drop at high speed to reduce the angle of attack of the rear wing and cut downforce.

It is likely that this kind of use has caused the recent debate.

The FIA bans all use of movable aerodynamic devices, and while the standard use for FRIC could be argued as having its focus on the mechanical performance, using it to actively reduce drag does not.

This has given the FIA the excuse to force out the systems more quickly than the original plan, which was to drop them in favour of active ride in 2017.

The reason they want rid of them is that the cost of development is exorbitant and with even more secrets and innovative uses still to be found, the FIA was keen to put a stop to it before it increased the spending war between the top teams even further.

In fact, however, banning it in mid-season could have the opposite effect in the short-term.

Many teams used the post-British Grand Prix test at Silverstone to run without FRIC, in preparation for the ban, so it is clearly not hard to make that alteration.

What is hard, however, is to optimise the car once FRIC is gone.

The system balances out the load on the tyres, so without it they will have to work harder and tyre wear could come more into play; from an aerodynamic perspective, some aerodynamic devices may start to stall when they otherwise would not have done so as an immediate fix teams may have to increase ride heights; and finally the cars will become much less predictable to drive, benefitting some drivers and working against others.

So the teams will have to adjust their cars - and this itself will see the bigger teams spending more looking for new opportunities in this area as they re-optimise the car in a non-FRIC configuration.

McLaren was have confirmed they will not run FRIC in Germany this weekend – and that decision means they would almost certainly protest any rival still running the system.

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However, when the double diffuser was introduced in 2009, inventors Brawn robustly defended it twice before it was finally deemed legal.

At the time, Ferrari’s lawyer Nigel Tozzi argued: “If the appeal is dismissed, the claims by the FIA that they want to make the sport more attractive and reduce costs will sound hollow.”

The same sentiment could be considered this week.

But the FIA still has to prove the system is illegal – and if a team have a clever enough argument to contest it, then the attempts to kerb costs, for now at least, will have failed again.

So it will be interesting to see whether any team will dare to challenge that view at scrutineering on Thursday...

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