Formula One - KERS, diffusers, overtaking and other inconveniences

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Formula One - KERS, diffusers, overtaking and other inconveniences

With eight races behind us in the Formula One World Championship, it's now time to see if the changes in the regulations have had the desired effect: more overtaking and thus more exciting races. Several surveys had revealed that the fans very ...

With eight races behind us in the Formula One World Championship, it's now time to see if the changes in the regulations have had the desired effect: more overtaking and thus more exciting races. Several surveys had revealed that the fans very desperately wanted to see more action on the track. The new aerodynamic regulations, the result of recommendations made by the FIA Overtaking Working Group, the introduction of KERS and the return of the slick tyres were all part of a plan to make overtaking in Formula One easier.

The most successful teams in 2010, Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing.
Photo by xpb.cc.

The double-decker diffuser

At the start of the season, we were all pleasantly surprised by the miraculous revival of the Honda team, now operating under the name Brawn GP. The successes of Brawn drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello have without a doubt also sparked new enthusiasm for the sport. The other two teams using a similar diffuser, Williams and Toyota, also did remarkably well at the start of the season.

But soon there was trouble in paradise, many teams felt the double-decker diffuser used by the afore mentioned teams was the only reason for their successes and tried to convince the FIA to ban the design. After a few meetings the FIA concluded the diffuser was within the regulations and that left the other teams with no other option than to build their own version of the double-decker diffuser.

In a way it was quite funny to see that the idea of the double-decker diffuser was not part of the FIA plan to make overtaking easier (some people suggest it makes overtaking more difficult), but was the result of the ingenuity of the designers, who were just exploring the loopholes in the new technical regulations, something that is as old as Formula One itself.

The story is always the same, every revolutionary design is always greeted with protests from other competitors. When Colin Chapman came up with the idea of the reverse wing effect in 1979, other teams started protesting and demanded the FIA would outlaw the design. To no avail, Lotus won the championship with Mario Andretti behind the wheel. And now, thirty years on, the reverse wing effect is considered to be one of the most innovative designs in Formula One ever.

If you look at the former Champ car series, or the current IRL series, you will see that there are no technical innovations possible, simply because most parts of the cars and engines are standardized, and the rules are very tight, which means designers have no business in IRL. If Formula One wants to be the pinnacle of motorsports, standardized cars, engines and gearboxes are a dead-end street.

KERS

Several team principals today claim that the introduction of the KERS system was a costly mistake. The system was introduced at the same time the new aerodynamic regulations for 2009 were introduced, which made it even more difficult for teams to evaluate the pros and cons of the system. The FIA didn't make the KERS system mandatory, and that resulted in a bad start for Max Mosley's brainchild. At the start of the 2009 season Brawn- Mercedes, Red Bull Racing and Toyota announced they would not use the system, and coincidence or not, they seem to do remarkably well without it.

Red Bull Racing, successful without KERS.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Only BMW-Sauber, Ferrari, McLaren and Renault have sofar used the system this year, Force India would use the system provided by Mercedes, and Toro Rosso the Ferrari system. But both teams recently decided they would not go ahead with their KERS plans, and are now instead concentrating on the development of their aerodynamic package.

BMW-Sauber has also dumped the system, arguing it will be easier for them to evaluate their revised aerodynamics, and they feel more progress can be made without the installation of KERS. The Williams team -- like BMW, also a strong advocate of the system -- spent millions on their flywheel based version of KERS, but has sofar never used the device during a race. The flywheel version of KERS is even heavier than the electronic version, and Williams designer Patrick Head believes the extra weight could have a negative impact on the handling of the FW31.

Renault hasn't used the system during the last few races and are also concentrating on the development of the aerodynamics of their car. Ferrari has used the system primarily as a replacement for the banned electronic launch control, but are now also considering to abandon it for the remainder of the season. McLaren used KERS during all races, but at Silverstone Hamilton raced without it, and it seems McLaren is also considering to abandon the system.

A few weeks ago, the FOTA announced they wanted to abandon the system entirely in 2010. Flavio Briatore about KERS: "The FOTA immediately understood that KERS would turn out to be a money-eating device and the FIA should have taken note of this. It was necessary to discuss this prior to the season, as should have been the case with the diffusers. Not having done that forced us to spend amounts of money that are just as ridiculous as useless."

The costs of the development of KERS for all teams together have been estimated between $50 and $100 million, whatever the correct figure is, it is a lot of money. The impact the system would have was overestimated, with only 60 kW power output for six seconds it doesn't really improve the lap times, and the argument KERS would improve overtaking, becomes worthless at the moment all cars are fitted with the system. With the FOTA presently seeking a ban of the system, it seems that KERS will die a quiet death.

Overtaking

There are a few problems with the evaluation of easier overtaking. Some circuits have very good overtaking opportunities, and other circuits have not. Overtaking is also a driver's skill, some drivers are very good in exploiting overtaking opportunities, others are not and are stuck behind another car for many laps before they find a way to get past. It also depends on what your interpretation of the term 'easier overtaking' is.

KERS could be helpful in creating more overtaking opportunities, but when a driver pushes his KERS button to overtake the car in front of him on the straight, we can hardly call that an exciting action, and from a spectators point of view it doesn't really add anything to the show. And in the end, whether a driver succeeds to overtake or not is irrelevant, it is the actual battle for a position that makes a race more attractive for spectators.

The field is much closer together this year.
Photo by xpb.cc.

There is also the trade-off between easy overtaking on the one hand, and closely matched lap times on the other hand. If there is only 0.2 second difference in lap times between two cars, it is inevitable overtaking will be more difficult. But closer lap times also mean the field will be closer together, which in its turn leads to closer racing and more cars dicing for positions, and that definitely improves the show.

After eight races

With still nine races left on the F1 calendar, it is perhaps too early to give the final verdict, but the F1 field is now much tighter than it was in the past, a difference of 0.2 second during qualifying this season, could mean the difference between fifth or fifteenth place. Cars are closer together and this creates more overtaking opportunities. The 'easier to overtake' plans of the FIA were sabotaged by rain during the races in Malaysia and China, but both races were nevertheless spectacular to watch.

Although Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing sofar won all races, it doesn't mean races were boring. Due to the revised aerodynamic regulations teams like McLaren and BMW-Sauber are now fighting at the back of the field (they obviously have a major problem with the design of their car), giving other teams the opportunity to score some points.

The last races at Istanbul and Silverstone were less attractive because the leaders were way ahead of the rest of the field, but we did see some good dog fights at the back of the field. Some drivers complained they were 'stuck' behind another car, but a well planned tactical pit stop could have changed that situation. All in all, I think there is no reason to conclude that the 'easier to overtake' regulations didn't have a positive effect on Formula One this year.

The only thing that definitely had a negative impact on Formula One is the ongoing war between the FIA and FOTA. Although it seems there is now an agreement between the two parties about the regulations for 2010, this doesn't mean the war is over. Many decisions still have to be made before 2010, and I'm sure we will see more political cat-and-mouse games between the FIA and the FOTA.

But let's stick to our subject, overtaking. As said before, it's the battle for a position that makes a race more attractive, not the overtaking itself. Remember the legendary dual between Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell in the streets of Monaco in 1992? During the last laps of the race Mansell in his Williams tried to overtake Senna's McLaren to take first place, he tried left, right, on the outside, on the inside, he braked later, accelerated earlier, he tried every trick in the book and more, but did not succeed in overtaking him. Very frustrating for Mansell, but boy, wasn't it spectacular to watch?

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Series GENERAL , F1