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MAY 21, 2011

Analysis: F1 front-runners open to diffuser protest

The potential is there for the result of Sunday's Spanish GP to be thrown into confusion by a post-race protest against off-throttle exhaust blown diffusers, with all teams barring Virgin Racing and HRT running in a condition which the FIA believes to be illegal.

The situation exists due to a period before the FIA introduces a rule clarification, expected in time for Valencia.

Since the introduction of the latest concept low exhaust blown diffusers by Red Bull at the start of last season, teams have spent money and development time in keeping downforce levels more consistent by using various means in which to maintain the flow of exhaust gases through the diffuser when the driver is off-throttle. Such solutions are becoming more extreme, with the suggestion that there could be half a second or more per lap performance differentiation between teams.

The FIA investigated team data after a query, prompting the governing body to take action, but after discussion with engine manufacturers it became apparent that the need to rewrite engine maps and so forth means that a period of grace is sensible.

"Cold" and "hot" blown diffusers therefore became the buzz terms of the opening day in Barcelona, with the FIA's technical chief Charlie Whiting explaining: "Cold blowing is just cutting spark and fuel and keeping the throttle open; hot blowing, as I understand it, is introducing fuel, lighting the fuel but retarding the ignition."

Effective use of such systems has been mooted as a possible explanation for Red Bull's qualifying superiority, as aggressive use of the techniques are more relevant to qualifying than race.

There was much speculation about the team that prompted the enquiry, which the FIA was not about to disclose. Paddock gossip initially suggested that it was aimed at reducing Red Bull's advantage but it is now understood that it was Williams that asked the question because while they first adopted the system at Spa last year, the team's engine supplier, Cosworth, is reluctant to spend money further developing the technology to the same extent that manufacturer-backed teams are doing without a ruling on its legality.

Said Whiting: "It became apparent to us through examination of data that what we thought was a fairly benign feature was being used, in our opinion, illegally, simply because the exhaust system is there simply for the purpose of exhausting gases from the engine and when you're off throttle it's not doing that anymore, and therefore its being used to influence the aerodynamic characteristics of the car.

"We think it arguably infringes article 3:15 (which apertains to aerodynamic influence). We felt we could go back to a former percentage throttle opening that we enforced 10 years ago for the nominal idle position. We selected a figure which we thought was fair in order to allow an engine to idle, but it had some unintended consequences and that's why we thought it wasn't right to rush it through having discussed it with a number of engine manufacturers.

"We are now faced with the possibility of even more extreme systems coming along and think it is time to do something about it. Exhaust blowing has been around years but Red Bull took it to another plane with their low exhaust at the beginning of last year and then it became clearer and clearer through the engine mapping that it was time to do something about it."

The entire grid, with the exception of Virgin Racing and HRT is using the system in Spain. Virgin tried a new exhaust system in Turkey but has reverted to the old specification to protect itself from the possibility of any protest, with COO Graham Lowdon adding that it is not the team's intention to actually instigate a protest.

"A protest is always a possibility," Whiting added. "I've made that clear to the teams that it could happen and then we'd just take it to the stewards in the normal way. In all technical directives we make it clear that this is the opinion of a technical department and anyone is free to challenge it. It doesn't happen very often but it has happened in the past, for example with the brakes (McLaren's '98 fiddle brake).

"I've told teams that were pleased that we postponed the introduction that this could happen. I'd like to think that it probably wouldn't happen but it's not beyond the realms of possibility."

If either of the back of the grid Cosworth teams happened to be eliminated on the 107% rule, you could imagine that being considered reasonable grounds for a protest, given that the systems widen their deficit. And, given that it was Williams that prompted the FIA action, some have suggested that the team could even run legally and then lodge a protest. Team COO Adam Parr, however, said ahead of qualifying: "It is not our intention to protest."

The issue will be discussed on June 16 at the next meeting of the Technical Working Group and an introduction plan decided upon.