KERS, safety and the battle for performance

The main issue in Formula 1 at the moment, beyond the obvious political fight between Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, and the need for a new Concorde Agreement, is the introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) in 2009. This is an optional extra for the teams next year, but it is clear that those with the system will have an advantage in races, if not in qualifying. KERS adds weight, but it also adds power and if this is applied in the right places on a lap, it can have a dramatic effect, not only on lap times, but also the ability of one car to overtake another.

Thus, all the teams seem to have concluded that they need a system. Those who have been working on the development want to go ahead, those who are behind, or have to buy a system, are complaining that such systems are not safe and need more time. Thus far there have been a couple of noteworthy incidents. A BMW mechanic received a significant electric shock when he touched the car when test driver Christian Klien arrived in the pits during the recent Jerez test. Both Red Bull and Toyota have had teething trouble with battery meltdowns at their factories.

There is little argument that F1 needs to move in this direction to maintain a relevance with the automotive industry and allow manufacturers to use F1 as a test bed, as they have done in the past. Klaus Draeger, the man in charge of the BMW F1 programme at board level, makes this point firmly.

"The BMW Group can transfer the knowledge gained within the BMW Sauber F1 Team directly into the development of standard production vehicles," he said recently. "This makes Formula 1 the ideal pre-development platform for innovative drive technologies. The new Formula 1 regulations give us the opportunity to use innovative hybrid technology under extreme conditions and in so doing to garner crucial expertise for series development as well. BMW customers stand to benefit as a result. The KERS unit designed for the BMW Sauber F1.09 is a highly effective variant of brake energy regeneration technology, and is similar in the way it works to the ActiveHybrid technology developed for BMW standard production vehicles."

The pioneering role that F1 will enjoy is one that it left behind 10 years ago when innovation was squeezed out of F1 because of the need to control the speeds of the cars.

BMW also believes that the development of environmentally-friendly technologies will greatly increase the public acceptance of the importance of F1, beyond its current status as entertainment. It is also interesting for engineers who have been starved on new technologies for years.

"We work 24 hours a day in the wind tunnel," said one team boss this week. "But we have hit a wall. We have only managed to find three percent more downforce this year. We just cannot find any more."

Renault's Flavio Briatore - who seems to be the man leading the anti-KERS faction - has made the point himself that engine power is now a key factor in the success and failure of a team in F1.

Raising safety issues is something that team bosses have done ad infinitum, in an effort to stop technologies which they are not ready to race them. It is a way of buying time. Obviously the BMW Sauber incident has given them ammunition, but the team itself admits that it needs to find the problem before it is raced. And, of course, they need to find out if there is an advantage.

"We have to see in the car what is the actual performance gain because there is this extra power from the KERS systems but there’s also more weight or less ballast on the car, so it will always be a trade-off," says BMW's Mario Theissen, "but the plan is to race this system."

Mike Gascoyne, a man with a reputation for straight-talking, says that "the safety issue is one that’s being stressed but it’s just an engineering problem and an engineering challenge. At the end of the day, we carry 70 kilos of fuel around at 200 mph and go round corners. It’s just a similar engineering safety issue to address."

The FIA remains resolute.

"There is opposition to it," admits Max Mosley, "but to me, the crucial thing about KERS is that it’s inconceivable that in 50 years’ time, when you put the brakes on in your car, the energy will just burn off in heat. That won't happen. But the first thing we need is a system that's capable of absorbing all the energy when you put the brakes on. The next generation of Formula 1 cars will be like that. F1 will make that very small and very light, and the things that will fit in next year, in 10 year's time, will look very primitive. If we advance it by several years, then that's extremely useful and that alone can justify Formula 1,

because it will make such a huge contribution to the motor industry."

The teams that are advanced in their development of the systems seem to be keen to push on. Those who are struggling or will have to buy a system (there is one available from Magneti-Marelli) are keen not to be left behind, but cannot afford to invest the same as the big manufacturer teams. Williams, one of the strongest supporters of KERS, believes that it has a system that will give it the advantage to become a top team again. And given the tightly-compacted nature of the grid at the moment a few extra tenths will make a big difference.

KERS will inevitably spread out the grid a little. That is always the way when changes are made in F1. Some will gain and some will lose and the feeling is that it is those who feel that they will lose who are making the most noise about safety.

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