How real is the protest threat over F1’s flexi-wing row?

While the nature of Monaco’s tight corners and short straights means flexi-wings will not be a defining factor on track this weekend, they remain Formula 1’s hot talking point

For while a recent move by the FIA to introduce tough tests to clamp down on ‘bendy wings’ may have been aimed at bringing an end to controversy over the matter, the response has actually opened the door for a bigger mess in the short term.

The talk now is of a potential protest at either of the next two races, with McLaren in particular saying it is ‘unacceptable’ that some teams continue to gain from running flexi-wings.

That is because the FIA is not introducing its clampdown until the French Grand Prix next month, which means teams will be still allowed to run their current designs for two more races.

For Monaco that should not be too much of a contentious issue, because the hopes of getting a gain from flexi-wings is so minimal because the straights are not long enough.

But in two weeks’ time, the layout of Baku is absolutely perfect for a flexi-wing. A car that can run in maximum downforce trim for the city section, but then have a wing that flexes down to reduce drag on the long run from the final corner, could gain over a few tenths down the straights.

And it’s that advantage, which McLaren is particularly unhappy about, that has opened the door for a potential protest – even though all the cars at the moment pass the current tests.

The way that F1’s governance process has long worked is the final ruling on the interpretation of regulations is not made by the FIA – but instead is done by race stewards.

So although all cars with flexi-wings are passing the tests at the moment to the satisfaction of the FIA, it does not automatically mean that the stewards would agree over the legality of the designs if pushed for a ruling through a protest.

The FIA’s technical directives, in which teams are informed of new tests and rule interpretations, always carry at the bottom of every page a reminder.

“Any FIA opinions given above are advisory in nature and do not constitute Technical Regulations,” it states.

“It is for the Stewards, and ultimately the FIA International Court of Appeal, to offer binding interpretations of the Technical Regulations.”

The only way, therefore, for the proper legality of cars with flexi-wings to be ruled on is actually via the stewards.

And, actually, the best piece of evidence that teams can submit in a protest about the potential for the current flexi-wings to be in breach of the regulations is the TD itself that informed teams of the new tests.

In it, FIA technical director Nikolas Tombazis made clear that the governing body felt that teams could be in breach of the rules.

He wrote that the FIA had been aware of wings that passed the current pull back tests but ‘nonetheless exhibit excessive deflections while the cars are in motion.”

He added: “We believe that such deformations can have a significant influence on the car’s aerodynamic performance, and hence could be deemed to contravene the provisions of Article 3.8 (Aerodynamic Influence), which requires all components influencing the car’s aerodynamic performance to be ‘rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car’ and to ‘remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.’”

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If a protesting team provided video evidence of the wings flexing, allied to the TD, then it would have a strong case to propose to the stewards that the rules banning flexible bodywork were being breached.

The main question is really whether a team would go ahead with a full on protest, because it’s not something that many competitors are eager to do.

McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl said about the prospect yesterday: “In principle, I'm not a big fan of protesting other teams and cars and so on.

"So, like I said, we are in dialogue with FIA, to understand what they will put in place in order to make sure that teams that designed devices or parts that allow things that you have seen in Barcelona, simply can't use these devices or parts anymore from now onwards. And then we take it from there."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Erik Junius

Mercedes may feel different, however, as it is locked in a tight fight with Red Bull for the world championship.

Plus, let’s not forget, that it was on the receiving end of a protest by Red Bull over its Dual Axis Steering System at last year’s Austrian Grand Prix.

Another potential scenario is that the actual threat of a protest may be enough to bring the matter to a head and force teams not to run their own flexi-wings any more.

If we rewind to the tail end of the 2019 F1 championship, F1 was locked in a similar scenario of the FIA technical department being happy with something, and some teams not.

That revolved around holes in the rear wheel rims of the Mercedes cars that were designed to help blow air and help control tyre temperatures.

Ferrari was unhappy with the design and felt that they were similar to the blown hub concept that Red Bull had been banned from using back in 2012.

While the FIA said it was satisfied the Mercedes design was legal, Ferrari remained uneasy – and there was the potential for a protest to be lodged.

Mercedes, having been alerted to the potential for a protest, elected to voluntarily modify its wheel rim designs to stave off the threat.

The question is therefore whether teams like Red Bull and Ferrari elect to continue running with designs that pass the tests for Baku, and risk potentially losing a result if a protest is successful.

Or will they back away and make moves to ensure their rear wings do not flex so there can be no grounds for a complaint?

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