Looking for clues

Electronic wizardy sparks FIA technical investigation into Ferrari's unique energy recovery system

There had been murmurings about Ferrari’s ers system all year, but in Baku the FIA had resolved to have a serious look at it after repeated urgings to do so from Mercedes. Uniquely, the Ferrari uses a twin-battery arrangement, two smaller in-line batteries within a casing, and what Mercedes – in the guise of Niki Lauda – was asking was whether this architecture could subvert the FIA sensor measuring whether the permitted maximum of 120kW per lap of electrical energy deployment was being exceeded.

With two outputs (one for each battery) to the MGU-k, and a chip modulating the resistance between them, would it not be possible for just one of the outputs to be routed through the FIA sensor in such a way as to leave the other free to route its energy through the first battery only most of the time – but occasionally, in a particular engine mode, supply an additional burst of unregistered energy direct to the ‘k’ without going through the first battery and its associated sensor? That’s what Mercedes suspected Ferrari was doing – and this query came in the wake Maranello’s former engine chief Lorenzo Sassi joining the Brixworth-based Mercedes HPP engine factory late last year, after parting company with the Italian team mid-season.

Ferrari insisted it was doing no such thing and had been co-operating with the FIA since Baku in demonstrating as much, but it was a complex system and it was taking the FIA inspectors some time fully to understand its workings. The twin-battery arrangement had been used by Ferrari since the start of the hybrid formula in 2014. All that had changed this year, the team insisted, was this accusation from a rival team. As well as looking at the workings of the system, the FIA was trawling through the speed data of the first few races to see if there was any evidence of this sudden burst of extra power.

It had all come to a head by the start of the Monaco weekend, with Lauda publicly demanding that the FIA make a ruling on whether Ferrari’s system was legal, so that other teams could be free to pursue the same. On Friday of that weekend the FIA confirmed it could find no evidence that Ferrari had been gaining an illegal advantage. “We had some concerns in Baku that were difficult to explain and we worked through it with them,” said the FIA’s Charlie Whiting. “There is something in the regulations, Article 2.6, that says it is the duty of the competitor to satisfy the FIA that their car complies at all times and they were having difficult satisfying us. Here, we are now satisfied.

“If we had a hard case we would have gone to see the stewards but, because it is such a more complex matter, it was difficult to understand. It is no different to anything else we do, except it was more complex. It became a bit of an issue after Baku because word got around, but for us it was just a case of scrutineering and checking things – like we do with bodywork and wings. It was no different to those things, as far as we were concerned. It is different in that it took a little longer to get to the bottom of it. In the past we have had issues with floors and it can take two or three races to chip away at it. With Ferrari, it is a far more complex system than anybody else’s. We saw some things in the data we could not quite explain.” In essence, the unique twin battery system was configured in a way that would have made an unscrupulous operation of it theoretically possible, but there was no evidence of it ever having been used in the way that its rivals suspected. This has certain parallels with the infamous ‘Option 13’ on the 1994 Benetton, which theoretically made possible the activation of the banned launch control.

Subsequently, the FIA insisted, the Ferrari must run with some hardware and software that, to the FIA’s satisfaction, would make it impossible for the system to be operated in an unscrupulous way. This couldn’t be rigged up in full for the Monaco sessions, but would be operational by Canada two weeks later. Was Lauda now satisfied? “I am satisfied that it has been made clear and that things are in place to ensure fairness from now. We do not discuss the past, which I find a little strange, but OK, we deal with it.”

It was a little ironic that this was all coming to a head on the least power-sensitive track on the calendar. The streets of Monaco were, however, proving perfect for the traits of the Red Bull RB14, with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen vying with each other to be fastest through the Thursday practices and into Saturday. Ricciardo had headed both Thursday sessions, but towards the end of Saturday morning Verstappen was setting the track alight when he repeated his accident from 2016 here, breaking the front-right track rod against the barrier on the inside of the right-hander exiting the swimming pool section, giving himself no way of steering around the following left. The ensuing impact ripped both right-hand corners off the car and the mechanics were working feverishly to ready it in time for qualifying. It looked like they’d achieved their task as the session was about to begin, but upon start-up escaping oil revealed a tiny crack in the gearbox casing. Verstappen would take no part in qualifying. So one Red Bull would start from pole – after Ricciardo duly delivered a lap 0.2sec clear of the field – and the other from the back.

Sebastian Vettel had qualified the heavily monitored Ferrari on the front row and spent the early laps of the race in Ricciardo’s slipstream, but before too much longer his front-right hyper-soft (the new softest compound in the Pirelli range being given its debut here) began to grain heavily, forcing him to back off – just as Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes behind was doing, for exactly the same reason. Being much shorter in wheelbase than either of its rivals, the Red Bull was placing less stress on the outer shoulders of the delicate front tyres as they were steered. But on lap 28, with 50 still to go, Ricciardo felt a sickening sudden reduction in power. The MGU-k had failed and he was suddenly minus the full 120Kw (about 160bhp) that it provides. But he was astonished to find that Vettel didn’t simply devour him and, after a couple of laps, the realisation dawned that the Ferrari had problems of its own and wasn’t in a position to pounce. So, improvising a new rhythm, Ricciardo drove to victory in his hobbled car, finally putting right the win stolen from him here two years earlier. “He could have been in Apollo 13, the problems he was dealing with today,” said an admiring Christian Horner.

VETTEL BACK IN FRONT

Montréal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the fairytale first win for the man in honour of whom the track is named. Its layout would reveal far better than Monaco if Ferrari’s wings had been clipped by the FIA’s rulings regarding its ers system.

Vettel answered that question in resounding fashion with a dominant victory from pole for the Scuderia. He was chased at a distance by the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, who used up a lot of his fuel allocation while trying in vain to put the Ferrari under pressure – so much so that he was forced into extreme fuel-saving measures in the closing laps and was almost caught on the line by Verstappen’s Red Bull.

The only thing that had disturbed Vettel’s rhythm, as he drove himself back into the lead of the championship with his 50th career victory, was a little routine he was being asked to perform by the team part-way through the race. “I was having to turn this/switch that and at one point I was saying, ‘When am I going to be allowed to just drive?’ The team was just managing something in the background.” Was there a problem with the car, something akin to Ricciardo’s at Monaco, perhaps? “No,” answered Ferrari, “it was just something we needed to do to satisfy the FIA.”

A data download showing battery energy deployment perhaps? Big brother may be watching, but Ferrari seems to be prevailing despite the doubts and suspicions. But just what would Gilles Villeneuve have made of it all?