Technofile - Koni adjustable damper

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To ensure F1 cars stick to the track in 1999, they bolt on a bigger wing. It wasn’t always that easy. Keith Howard recalls an innovative suspension invention.

Remember the Not The Nine O’Clock News sketch where trades union leaders were challenged to speak for 30 seconds without using the word “aspirations”? They all failed, of course, just as most racing drivers of the modem era would if asked to speak for the same time without uttering “set-up”. We are so used today to the concept of the adjustable race car – adjustable for different circuits and different driver preferences – it’s easy to forget that they weren’t always so compliant. The minutely adjustable race car had to be conceived, engineered and refined: it wasn’t a given.

In the years before aerodynamics came to dominate the top formulae, set-up meant tweaking the suspension geometry, spring rates and damper rates. Adjustments to these are still made today, of course, but the old art of suspension tuning – of making the car supple enough to keep its tyres in consistent contact with the track surface, but not so soft as to compromise body control – has been overwhelmed by the need to resist the huge aerodynamic forces generated by wings and ground effect. Grip is gifted by downforce these days; if you don’t have enough of it, then no amount of suspension fettling can make you competitive.

It was in the very different, pre-wing era of the late 1950s that, as part of the gradual incorporation of fully adjustable suspension in F1 cars, Dutch damper manufacturer Koni introduced its 8211 – the first telescopic racing damper to be externally and, just as importantly, completely independently adjustable in both bump and rebound.

In 1959 Koni began its long relationship with Ferrari in F1, the 8211 competing in its first Grand Prix at Monza that year with Belgian driver Olivier Gendebien at the wheel of the Dino 246. A twin-tube design, the 8211 had a steel body heavier than ideal for F1, but a reflection of Koni’s concerns over manufacturing difficulties using aluminium. Once the 8211 had thoroughly proved itself, though, the obvious development was to make the switch to the lighter body material. This Koni duly did in 1967, giving birth to the 8212 – the first example of which, No 1003, was manufactured for a Ford GT40 Mk1 on 3 January that year. It’s worth being specific about the date because, although nobody knew it then, a Formula One phenomenon had just been created: a damper that would go on to win a bewildering 12 championships in a row. Not that such heady success came immediately.

First Koni had to establish itself as the damper supplier of choice for more teams, and expand the back-up organisation that was to be as important a part of its eventual success as the 8212 itself. In Tune To Win, the second of his hugely successful series of books on motor racing technology first published in 1978, straight-talking Carroll Smith wrote: “It is interesting to note that most of the Formula One teams use Konis – a couple Armstiongs, and none – to my knowledge – use gas-filled shocks. There must be a clue there. Part of the answer is the constant attendance at Formula One meetings of the Koni technicians who are ready, willing and able to build shocks with whatever characteristics anyone desires – on the spot. Part of it must also be the superb quality and almost total external adjusta bility of the Koni.” On these three foundations, Koni built itself into the sans pareil of F1 damper suppliers.

Carroll was to go even further in his later Engineer To Win, published in 1984: “For 20 years or so I have felt that racing shock absorbers are manufactured by Koni and by no one else. Nothing has recently happened to make me change my mind. I am convinced that before any driver can reach his full potential he is going to have to learn to use Koni’s double adjustable shocks to their best advantage.” He then published, literatim, Koni’s own guide to adjusting bump and rebound settings to best effect.

First championship success for the 8212 came in 1971 with Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell-Ford 003, after which its place at the top table became a yearly ritual throughout the 1970s and into the early ’80s, Keke Rosberg and Williams delivering the 8212 its last championship a dozen seasons later in 1982. At the final Grand Prix that year, Las Vegas, Michele Alboreto won for Tyrrell-Ford, appropriately giving the 8212 its last Grand Prix victory with the team that had supplied its first championship. By then Koni had racked up a staggering 186 wins, most of them delivered by the dominant 8212.

The following season the 8212 was retired, its long, pre-eminent career in the top racing formula finally curtailed by the relentless increase in aerodynamic downforce. When the 8212 was first used in F1, Grand Prix cars had ride frequencies only a little higher than road cars – typically 1.7 to 1.8Hz – with spring rates of perhaps 170lb/in. A gradual increase in wheel rates occurred during the late ’60s and early 70s as wings arrived, but it was with the development of ground effect in the late 1970s that a sea change occurred. To resist the massive levels of downforce produced by ground effect and maintain the car’s critical pitch attitude, spring rates shot up to around 2000lb/in and suspension travel decreased to almost nothing. With damping forces needing to increase four-fold to match, it was inevitable that damper design would have to undergo major changes also.

Fortunately for Koni, the 8212 had been over sized and understressed from the outset, allowing it, at least initially, to cope with the increase in downforce that ground effect provided. But as the exploitation of underbody airflow advanced and downforce continued to burgeon, even the old master was found wanting. F1 designers began looking to pressurised monotube dampers instead of the twin tube, on the basis that their larger piston area would provide the hydraulic stiffness necessary to resist the high wheel loads and ensure accurately metered damping at the much lower wheel amplitudes and velocities now encountered. Koni developed its 3012 monotube damper and later the 2812 in response, and the 8212 was pensioned off while still at the top.

Koni finally stopped manufacturing the 8212 in the early ’90s but still makes the otherwise identical steel-bodied 8211. Thirty-two years after its launch, the most successful damper in the history of Formula One hasn’t quite quit the scene just yet.

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