Although the FIA has now found the device to be illegal, it is yet unclear on what grounds this decision was based on. There are a few possible reasons, and I would like to go through them with you. It’s an interesting exercise and, in a sense, reveals the ambiguity that is often embedded within the rules. It also serves to show how brilliant engineer minds can invent stuff that are well beyond anything the FIA technical rules can foresee.
Before we start, let’s get our basics straight. The Lotus device is a project that is being developed since, allegedly, January 2010. Bob Bell who recently switched from Lotus (Renault, at the time) to Mercedes apparently took the idea with him and the Brackley based team are said to be ready to run such a system in 2012. The same more or less applies to Ferrari who are reported to have developed a similar system. The rumours that go round, and which have not been verified at this stage, are that Red Bull have been in fact running such a system for at least a year and a half, which allowed them to run increased rake without fear of the endplates touching the ground, and possibly run softer suspension solutions. It’s not clear at the moment whether McLaren or any other team had plans to run the device in 2012. Judging by how stiff the McLaren was sprung at the front end, one would imagine that they didn’t have any such solution in 2011.
The device was a simple technical solution, and it’s a development of ideas that first appeared in motorbikes in the early 80s. It consists of a master hydraulic cylinder which is powered by the brake torque to raise the push rod of the suspension, thereby preventing the car from diving under braking. This apparently means that the pushrod will be of a telescopic design. The consequences of that will be examined later on.
Let’s see now on what basis the device may have been banned. We will refer to the 2012 Technical Rules, which is a good read anyway.
1. Paragraph 3.15 – “Aerodynamic influence”
“No part having an aerodynamic influence and no part of the bodywork, with the exception of the skid block in 3.13 above, may under any circumstances be located below the reference plane”
One would expect that the cylinders, located at the lower part of the brake ducts, would always be above the reference plane. However, it’s questionable whether this can be guaranteed for an entire race and under any circumstance. Imagine a scenario where a F1 car goes hard over a kerb. The suspension will compress and the wheel will rise dramatically in relation to the sprung part of the car. It would be hard to prove that every part of the device remains above the reference plane, unless (a) the limit of the suspension travel is such that the device remains above the reference plane or (b) they install proximity sensors which can provide data at the end of the race regarding the relative position of the lower part of the device to the ground. In any case, this rule was specifically written to prevent the teams from fitting any sort of flaps, turning vanes, etc below the reference plane, but if we accept that this device alters the aerodynamic characteristics of the car, then the rule should apply to it as well.
2. Paragraph 3.15 – “Aerodynamic Influence”
“Any device or construction that is designed to bridge the gap between the sprung part of the car and the ground is prohibited under all circumstances.”
As we have explored in previous blogs, the device does indeed contribute to manipulating the ride height of the car during braking. More specifically, the device is designed to increase the gap at the front (in comparison to what the gap would be if the device was not fitted) and, as a consequence, decrease the gap at the back.
It then all depends on how one interprets the term “bridge the gap”. Apparently this rule was written as such to prevent side skirts that completely connect the ground to the car, creating the notorious ground effect. Most engineers would translate “bridge the gap” as connecting the car to the ground. However, one may argue that this term can also refer to bringing the car closer to the ground artificially; it’s a matter of interpretation. One can say why such an argument may be a bit thin, but if the FIA want (for political reasons, or whatever) to ban the device, then it is a possibility.
3. Paragraph 3.15 – “Aerodynamic Influence”
“With the exception of the parts necessary for the adjustment described in Article 3.18, any car system, device or procedure which uses driver movement as a means of altering the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is prohibited.”
That’s a juicy one. There is no question that the car alters the aerodynamic characteristics of the car. That’s partly what it’s designed to do. A car that approaches the corners at the designed rake is aerodynamically more balanced and predictable than a car which exhibits dive characteristics. There is the counter-argument that every component of a car actually alters the aerodynamic characteristics of a car – from the brakes to the steering wheel. However, none of these parts’ purpose and design is to change the aero characteristics.
The big question is whether it uses driver movement as a means to alter the characteristics or not. As we now know, the device is primarily activated by the brake torque (using a floating-type caliper), which means that it is, actually, not activated by the driver. However, the brake torque comes as a consequence of a driver putting his foot on the brake pedal. Although the device’s primary activating force is the brake torque, it would never become active if the driver hadn’t moved to press the brake pedal. One can see why some tend to argue that it is a driver-operated device. Let’s take this extreme scenario: Instead of the cylinders raising the push rod, they actually raise a winglet that is hidden in the car’s nose-cone (using the same brake torque as a means of power). In such a case, the winglet emerges and adds downforce at the front end at a crucial stage (during braking and cornering), i.e. at the time when more downforce and drag is actually needed. Wouldn’t that be a case of a driver-operated aerodynamic device?
I think it would be.
4. Paragraph 3.15 – “Aerodynamic Influence”
“With the exception of the driver adjustable bodywork described in Article 3.18 (in addition to minimal parts solely associated with its actuation) and the ducts described in Article 11.4, any specific part of the car influencing its aerodynamic performance: (…)
(…) – Must be rigidly secured to the entirely sprung part of the car (rigidly secured means not having any degree of freedom).”
If we accept that this device influences the aerodynamic performance of the car (which it does), then it possibly breaches that rule as well, since it is housed inside the brake ducts, it is therefore not rigidly secured on any part of the sprung part of the car. On the contrary, it enjoys the same degrees of freedom that the brake duct does. One could argue that this device is part of the duct, therefore it should be exempt according to the first sentence, however this is highly debatable. Although they are mounted inside the ducts, they are not part of the duct nor do they contribute in its operation / scope. They are there for entirely different reason than brake cooling.
5. Paragraph 10.3.4 – “Suspension members”
“Non-structural parts of suspension members are considered bodywork.”
I post this rule because I’ve seen several people arguing that the device cannot be considered “bodywork”, because it’s part of the suspension. Actually, the above rule makes it quite clear that, since it’s not part of the suspension members’ structure, it should be considered as bodywork, just like the brake ducts are considered bodywork (and not suspension) and fall under the bodywork rules in terms of dimensions.
6. Paragraph 10.3.5 – “Suspension members”
“Redundant suspension members are not allowed.”
If this device is considered to be part of the suspension, then it can be regarded as “redundant” because it doesn’t contribute in the suspension of the car. I remain of the opinion though that this device should be considered as bodywork, and therefore it’s hard to see anybody referring to this rule.
7. Paragraph 10.2.2 – “Suspension geometry”
“Any powered device which is capable of altering the configuration or affecting the performance of any part of the suspension system is forbidden.”
Another juicy one and it comes down to how you define “powered”. If by “powered” they mean externally powered by a source such as a battery or the car’s engine, then this device would not fall foul of this rule. If however the term “powered” is more general (which can be interpreted as such), then one can argue that the device is indeed powered by the brake torque and it’s not self-actuating (i.e. it’s not a rigid structure reacting to external forces such as a wing providing downforce, but it’s a mechanical device using moving parts who require some form of external power to operate).
In such a scenario, this device clearly alters the configuration of the suspension, since it raises the push rod (by extending its length), and it falls foul of the rule.
8. Paragraph 10.2.3 – “Suspension geometry”
“No adjustment may be made to the suspension system while the car is in motion.”
If you recall at the beginning of this post we talked about the pushrod being of telescopic design. This is necessary to allow the push rod to “raise” and thereby increase the ride height under braking. However, this is a clear adjustment of the suspension system which is being done while the car is in motion.
I’ve seen people argue that the suspension adjusts all the time (springs compressing, dampers going up and down, etc) but this is entirely different, because it’s not a result of the suspension reacting to the forces from the ground and the car; it’s rather an induced adjustment that includes the alteration of a suspension member’s length. It’s hard to see how one can argue that this device is not in breach of that specific rule.
As a brief conclusion, I am not amazed that the device was eventually banned. With so many rules in probable / possible breach of, it’s a small miracle it was allowed in the first place.