The big news that followed the British Grand Prix was that the FIA is looking to ban the FRIC suspension system from next week’s German Grand Prix, having found that the system breached Article 3.15 of the Technical Regulations.
In this three-part article, we explain the FRIC suspension system, argue the sporting fairness of this mid-season ban and analyse the possible consequences of the same.
FRIC suspension and the row over banning of this system
The FRIC(Front and Rear InterConnected) suspension system helps in maintaining constant ride height of the car for aerodynamic gain and improved tyre life(explained later). But unlike the Active Suspension which Williams pioneered in early 1990s, teams now use hydraulics to maintain constant ride height. It is believed that most of the teams use this system - whether an advanced version or a primitive one.
Teams have been using FRIC suspension for years without coming into any trouble from the FIA. However, the sport's governing body now believes it breaches Article 3.15 of the Technical Regulations which outlaws any moveable aerodynamic part.
While the ban hasn’t been instated as of now with FIA race director Charlie Whiting asking teams whether they wish to postpone it until 2015. However, that seems unlikely as it would require a unanimous approval by all 11 teams. The non-strategy group teams are particularly unhappy with top guns for failing to approve the cost cap and if any of them doesn’t use this system or have an inferior version - they will vote in favour of banning this system from the next race.
Hence, it is fair to assume that the ban shall be in place by the time the F1 paddock arrives at Hockenheim for 10th round of the season. Either way, according to German magazine Auto Motor und Sport, Red Bull and Mercedes have decided not to use this system at the next race, but they will be seeking further clarification regarding the legality of the same.
How fair is this mid-season ban for the teams who've invested in this system?
Last year, F1’s sole tyre supplier Pirelli was forced to revert to 2012 tyre structures on safety grounds. This resulted in a major shake up of the pecking order with Red Bull securing a clean sweep in the second half of the season, Ferrari going downhill having won two races in the early part of the season, and a reversal of fortunes between midfield runners Force India and Sauber in latter’s favour.
While it is expected that the ban on FRIC suspension won’t shake the order that much, it is still unfair for teams who’ve invested their resources on this system for years. After all, they’ll lose crucial tenths from a system that they supposed was legal. In fact, in Eric Boullier’s word, this comes as a major surprise for the teams.
Another question that arises is that why did the FIA decide to bring this system under scrutiny now? Were they too busy bringing the double points rule for the final race?
Humour aside, any mid-season change that could possible change the pecking order should be carefully analysed. Double diffusers, F-Ducts, blown diffusers and a host of other clever technologies and aero parts were all declared illegal for the upcoming season(instead of mid-season), giving teams plenty of time to design their car without such parts. Surely, it would make sense to go the same route with FRIC suspension.
Marussia, a team which has been struggling for survival since its inception has even invested in this technology. How fair is it for the Banbury based outfit who is already disadvantaged when it comes to distribution of prize money?
How this ban could change the pecking order?
The word in the paddock is that Mercedes have exploited the FRIC suspension more than any other team, just as Red Bull made most of double diffusers three years ago. Consequently, it is expected that the ban will hurt the German manufacturer the most, with veteran F1 journalist James Allen suggesting that they will lose as much as three to four tenths of a second per lap. To Mercedes relief, their one second advantage prior to the ban will ensure they still cross the chequered flag at Hockenheim in first and second positions - unless their drivers run into each other or encounter a mechanical problem.
Red Bull and Ferrari - both believed to use this system - don’t enjoy the same luxury over their rivals with Force India and Williams not far behind in terms of raw pace. Further, Force India have confirmed to Sky Sports F1 that they don’t use this system at all while Williams insist that they would hardly be affected by the ban.
Even if Red Bull and Ferrari lose out initially because of the ban, the former should be able to regain the performance lost in the next few months. As far as Ferrari is concerned, Alonso has already complained about lengthy procedures(on track, not necessarily back at the factory) hurting the outfit. And in such a position, they need a quick plan to regain lost performance.
Further down the pecking order, Lotus and McLaren both use the FRIC suspension system. In fact, Lotus was the first team to bring this technology to Formula 1 when they were owned by French car manufacturer. However, it is unclear as to how much this ban will affect their performance vis-a-vis their rivals. McLaren insist they are ‘’relaxed” about the upcoming ban, suggesting they are making little gains out of it. There has been no official word from Lotus regarding the ban.
Marussia, which scored their first points at last month’s Monaco Grand Prix are believed to have a sophisticated version of this system. Hence, it provides a great opportunity for Caterham to play catch up, just like they did last season.
Since the FRIC suspension helps in spreading load over all four tyres, absence of it might result in excessive tyre wear. Hence, Force India which is the lightest on tyres - even without the FRIC suspension - might be the biggest winner.
In the end, we may conclude that the ban of FRIC suspension won’t change the pecking order as much as the change of tyre compounds did in 2013. Mercedes might still walk away with the championship but expect a few changes further down the grid.