KERS: Curse or blessing?

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KERS: Curse or blessing?

Lots of things have been said about the introduction of the KERS system in Formula 1. The basic idea is very simple: recover the energy that is lost during braking, store the energy and release the energy again whenever a driver feels it is ...

Lots of things have been said about the introduction of the KERS system in Formula 1. The basic idea is very simple: recover the energy that is lost during braking, store the energy and release the energy again whenever a driver feels it is necessary. The idea is not new: in the past car designers have come up with different variants of an energy recovering system, and some of them are used in today's hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius.

The McLaren KERS system.
Photo by xpb.cc.

An energy recovery system for road cars has a simple goal: save energy and thus reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses. And with oil prices increasing and fossil fuel reserves rapidly decreasing, KERS sounds like a good plan. Max Mosley thought it would be a good idea to develop such an energy recovery system to make Formula 1 more fuel-efficient and more environmentally friendly, and at the same time provide some extra power that will make it easier for drivers to overtake. Et voila, there we have the KERS dream of Max Mosley in a nutshell.

Most teams have developed a battery-based KERS system, but Williams will use a flywheel-based system. The battery system stores the energy in a capacitor-like high-end battery and the stored energy is given back to the engine by means of an electric motor connected to the driveline. The Williams system uses a flywheel to store the energy and it releases the energy again when it is reconnected to the driveline.

According to the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) 2009 technical regulations, the power of the system is limited to 60 kW (80 hp), and no more then 400 kJ of energy can be stored per lap. In plain English this means a driver has 80 hp extra for about 6.7 seconds each lap. In the future the storage capacity will be increased to 100 kW in 2011 and 200 kW in 2013.

Unfortunately, as is the case with many simple plans, there are a few catches. A Formula 1 car is not a road car, the technology is very different. Therefore the system had to be developed from scratch, forcing teams to invest millions of dollars in developing the system and many people already think KERS is a waste of money.

Disadvantages of KERS

The KERS system can weigh 35 kg or more, and for many teams this means they have to decrease the amount of ballast in the car. And because the ballast is carefully positioned in the car to get the centre of gravity as low and central to the wheelbase as possible, this will have an effect on the performance of the car. So the estimated gain of speed of 0.3 second per lap could be more or less undone by the extra weight of the KERS system and the rearrangement of the ballast.

The battery-based system stores the energy as an electrical current, and any fool knows electric currents can be dangerous. As McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa put it: "The problem with electricity is that you can't see it, and therefore you don't know where it is". The electric current stored by the system is powerful enough to kill someone (only a few milliamps through the heart can kill a person), and after a BMW-Sauber mechanic almost was electrocuted when he touched the car, many questions have been raised about the safety of the system.

A rubber glove on a Renault F1 mechanic to protect from KERS.
Photo by xpb.cc.

There are a number of potential hazards inherent in the electrical parts of the KERS system. What happens when a car is stranded in a gravel trap and has to be moved out of the danger zone? How does a marshal know if the system is still "armed" with a dangerous current or not? When is it safe to handle the car? Does rain make it more dangerous to handle the KERS system? We all know water and electricity don't go along very well.

What should the driver do, stay in the car and wait until it is safe to climb out of the car? Is there a way to discharge the batteries? The lithium batteries are filled with chemicals, what will happen when they get damaged in a crash, will the content spill all over the car or even worse, all over the driver? Can the batteries catch fire or explode?

On Tuesday FIA's Charlie Whiting tried to answer some of these questions, but to be honest, he left many questions unanswered.

According to Whiting, the cars will be fitted with a KERS status warning light, if it is in the wrong state, marshals shouldn't touch the car. Great, but what to do in an emergency when a driver is still in the car and needs help, e.g. when a driver is trapped in his car and the car catches fire and he can't get out himself? Should rescuers stand back and wait for someone from the team to appear to discharge the batteries and wait until it is safe to handle the car? I don't think so. And what if that status light gets damaged by the crash and doesn't work anymore?

He also said marshals will be "educated" by the information the FIA will provide. They will also get "a pair of gloves which are good for a thousand volts". People who work around the track will be briefed "about how to pick up parts of the car which will be clearly identified by color coding". That doesn't sound very reassuring to me at all, don't you agree? And what if it rains, gloves won't help and before you know it an unsuspecting marshal gets zapped live on TV.

Advantages of KERS

The performance of the car could be improved by the estimated 0.3 second per lap, but as said before, that advantage can be undone by extra weight of the system itself and the rearrangement of the ballast.

About the environmentally friendly aspect of KERS we can be short: no-one will ever believe Formula 1 is an environmentally friendly sport, although F1 engines have a better fuel efficiency then road car engines, they still consume 0.6 to 0.75 liters per km -- that's more like the fuel consumption of an Abrams tank. F1 is all about who gets to the finish first, and not about who uses the least amount of fuel to get to the finish.

Easier overtaking: other race series have a "push to pass" or "power boost" button, but the problem is of course that everyone has that extra boost. If in A1GP a car wants to overtake another car, the team warns the driver that the one behind him is using his power boost, and he will of course also activate his power boost to defend his position.

However, it could be interesting to see when and how drivers use the extra power provided by the KERS system, you can only use it once per lap, and therefore the strategic use of that extra power could be very interesting to watch.

Affinity with normal road cars: energy recovery systems on road cars are designed to last as long as the lifespan of the car and the same goes for the batteries. The FIA technical regulations don't say anything about the lifespan of the KERS system, and likely the batteries will be frequently replaced.

More questions

There are also, from a spectators' point of view, some unanswered questions. Can spectators at home see if a driver uses his extra power? The KERS system is connected with the ECU so it should be theoretically possible to see if a driver activates the system. Can Ferrari see whether McLaren uses the extra power? Will that information be relayed to the driver? Is it possible or even allowed to use the extra power at the start? Will all teams use the KERS system?

Well, we will see in about 8 weeks, and after a few races we will also see whether cars are faster with or without KERS, and whether KERS is a curse or a blessing for Formula One...

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Series GENERAL , F1