News and views on motorsports

Saturday, November 18, 2006

FIA / GPMA And Future Technology

I kinda screwed up my last post. Serves me right for not reading the Financial Times. But then, I have no online FT subscription and I refuse to pay 7 bloody ringgit for a copy at my local newstand. By now of course, everyone should have seen the official Q & A (Max just loves these) with the FIA president and Herr Goschel.

In my defence I assumed that when Max spoke of green technologies and new directions, he would be introducing measures that he spoke of earlier on in the year and which I had mentioned in my last posting. But happily the official Q & A now gives us clearer indication of the direction the FIA / GPMA intend on taking.

In the short term it seems they speak of energy recovery and reuse. In broad terms this means recovering lost heat energy and reusing it to produce additional power. Of course, one would naturally assume turbocharging would make a return and in fact, the use of turbochargers had been mentioned several times in the Q & A. This is being looked at for introduction sometime in 2011. The size of the engine would be determined by taking into account power gains by recovering and reusing braking energy and the type of fuel being used. In this case, bio-fuels had been mentioned. The idea is to produce an engine size and formula that would yield similar levels of horsepower to the current generation. To this end, fuel flow restrictions have been mooted and rev limits in the 18000 - 19000 RPM range. Although no engine size had been finalized, Mosley did mention of "a 2 litre engine" giving "650 horsepower, but the other 150 horsepower comes from ... reusing the heat from the engines and turning it into propulsive energy."

In the short term, Max has spoken about the "2009 device." This is a device that recovers energy from braking and reuses it for acceleration. This is envisioned as a "very small, very light, very efficient" device that "would revolutionize the way hybrid cars are made." A device "cost efficient" enough which "the manufacturer can put on a road car." This has been mentioned in the past so no surprises here.

Massive research into aerodynamics will face a massive chop in this new future. This according to Mosley is "manifestly irrelevant to road cars" and "is a complete waste." Far better according to Max, to promote "things to do with chassis dynamics and the interactions between different systems on the car and the most efficient way of running the drivetrain." In effect, what seems to be the point here is to reduce aero dependency and recover resultant lost grip with mechanical means.

Goschel pointed out that the latest BMW X5 comes with "integrated chassis management", "combining active steering with electronic micro systems and anti-rollbars to a new functionality." And therefore, "electronics and software technology will play a major role in car technology in future." Doubtless to say that this is the direction that the FIA and GPMA are headed towards.

You would be forgiven to think that all this flies in the face of safety and cost cutting, an idea championed by Max repeatedly. Actually none of the ideas above are anything new of revolutionary. Turbochargers have been used once but was banned because of the astronomical power outputs and safety. Drivetrain developments like regenerative braking had been in development by McLaren in 1998 but was stopped on grounds of safety and cost. CVT transmission had been tested by Williams but was also banned. Active suspension as developed originally by Lotus and then Williams and McLaren went out the window as well. So did active four wheel steering. I read somewhere that way back in the eighties, turbo diesel had been suggested by none other than John Barnard (formerly of McLaren, Ferrari and Benetton).

All the technologies above had already been in development by the teams. Or more accurately the independents. All of them banned either on safety grounds or cost and because some of them took away from the skill of the drivers and therefore reduced the spectacle of "the show." It seems hypocritical to me that when it is now suggested by the manufacturers it is suddenly alright because now it is "done in a way that has an effect on our normal technology of our core business." On cost, Max Mosley said that "research on the energy recovery and regenerative braking is already happening in the car industry, so there will only be a marginal difference between that and what will be needed in F1. All in all you don't have to make enormous changes, there will be less expenditure and it will be industry relevant." Goschel added that "the main point is that this kind of research is not a waste. It is in our main research budget anyway."

I reiterate the point that some of these technologies were already under development by the teams. But it seems that now, the manufacturers want to bring them back in and claim all the credit for it. All the better for their marketing purposes I suppose.

But no matter. I'm all for technology. But up to a limit. We cannot forget that main component in any racing car. And that is the driver. The skill of the driver must be showcased for it is after it is meant to be sport. When Goschel talks about increasing electronics and software with new found functionality in chassis dynamics, I cannot help but feel that it will increasingly diminish the spectacle of that most wonderous form of traction control, the driver's hands and feet. Lets hope not.

As for aero, I'm actually one of these people who are absolutely fascinated by anything that flies. Or applies the same technology to keep cars on the ground. Max mentioned that aero development is irrelevant to road cars. Well Max, if it is so, you helped make it that way. Look at the current aero regulations. They are unbelievably restrictive. Such restrictions merely send the teams to look for ever marginal gains in aero efficiency. And also because of the way the rules are written, the aero on a modern Formula 1 car is absolutely bastardized. Given more leeway, thats not the best way to make an upside down aerofoil. Engineers are forced into such designs by the regulations. And any attempt to make a new step is banned. And also because of the current regulations, the cars are enormously sensitive to aero turbulence. But unfortunately there are no better ways to do it. What suffers is the entertainment factor.

All very well if they shift emphasis to chassis and mechanical grip. Hopefully, the racing will improve. But to claim that Formula 1 aero is irrelevant is deceitful since the FIA made it that way. Just as calling reuse and recovery systems "the future" is shifty for there's nothing really new about it.

I still stand by my original position made several months ago. And that is Formula 1 should be about the pinnacle of racing technology. Its concern should be the science of speed and the sport of driving. Road car, social and other such concerns merely corrupt that pursuit and really should be handled elsewhere. I am glad to find that some others do share this opinion.

Tomorrow is the 53rd edition of the Macau Grand Prix, and one of the highlights is the Formula 3 race. Look at the cars competing. Do you think that it makes any road car industry, social or environmental sense? Should it? I don't think so. And neither should things like Formula Ford/Renault/BMW or even that most pure of driving machines, the kart. They all exist for sport and nothing else. Formula 1 you see, is the final progression up the scale that contains these junior formulae as its base. A base of sporting machines that are irrelevant except for its sole purpose of competition. Formula 1 should hold true to these roots.

The test now is to see how exciting the racing becomes as a result of these new measures. After all, a racing driver will race with whatever car is given to him or her. The main worry is that some of these technologies will diminish the importance of driver skills but lets hope it doesn't come to that.

1 comment:

Clive said...

It's quite simple really. Road car technology is directed towards making the vehicle as safe as possible for the idiots who are likely to drive it - but racing machines are designed to be as fast as we can make them and still be controlled by a talented driver. Driving aids like active suspension, ABS, even ground effect, belong on the road, not the race track. And the FIA/GPMA are being quite blatant about making F1 a testing ground for advances in road cars. What a great spectacle that will be...

Incidentally, I agree that the ultimate answer to all this fuss about conservation of energy will be hydrogen fuels. We keep dreaming of the perfect battery but they've been working on it for over thirty years and it's nowhere near what is required. But a hydrogen engine is an internal combustion engine - existing engines can be modified very easily to run on hydrogen rather than petrol/gasoline. When the day comes that we accept this and make the change, I won't complain. But, in the meantime all this talk of "energy reclamation" is just pie in the sky - it's easy to talk of reclaiming heat from the brakes but almost impossible to do it in practice. The whole thing is a smokescreen put up by Max and Burkhard to keep our eyes off what they're really doing - changing F1 into a test facility.