Systems overdrive


Adrian Newey isn’t a fan of KERS, but why he would be? Yes, it provides an 80-horsepower boost for a few seconds a lap, but a genius like Adrian has subtler ways of going faster than employing a ‘push to pass’ button, and that’s what it amounts to. At a time when FIA president Max Mosley was insisting that Formula 1 needed drastically to cut its costs, so the governing body introduced KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System), the argument being that it was ‘green’ in concept and the beginning of a path down which F1 must proceed if it were to have any chance of long-term survival. And if it cost a massive amount of money to develop, well, too bad, start serving up cheaper Parmesan in the motorhomes…


For all its green credentials, KERS would never appeal to a man like Newey. For one thing, it is a component on an F1 car over which he has no control; for another, it necessarily screws up the purity of his designs. With or without KERS, the minimum weight limit of an F1 car is 640 kilos, so if you don’t run KERS – as with Red Bull at Melbourne – you run an equivalent weight of ballast, and that’s fine, because you can position ballast and use it to your car’s best advantage. Sebastian Vettel utterly dominated the Australian Grand Prix in a car of perfect balance – without KERS.


Melbourne, though, was a bit of a special case, for it lacks a straight of any consequence. Come Sepang, with two extremely long straights, and KERS simply had to come into the reckoning – even for Red Bull. Even though his team, concerned about a potential problem, requested that he not use it for a portion of the race, Vettel still won again. But Webber, whose system was inoperative from the start, was decidedly hampered. In the circumstances Mark’s fourth place was a great achievement, but on the long straights his lack of KERS invariably kept him from getting within the requisite one second of the car in front – which meant, of course, that he was unable to deploy his ‘moveable rear wing’, otherwise known as DRS (Drag Reduction System).

All initials and systems, contemporary F1, isn’t it? Fernando Alonso had the opposite problem: his KERS was working, but his DRS wasn’t…

Over time all manner of things have been considered to improve the quality of the racing – or, at least, to permit changes in the order. That’s why refuelling was originally brought back, for example, and why, at different times, there has been talk of weight penalties for successful cars (as in the Trophee Andros ice racing series), and more recently proposals of rallycross-style ‘short cuts’ on the circuits – and even sprinkler systems to create ‘rain’.

All these ideas have been a tacit acknowledgement of F1’s ‘lack of overtaking’ problem, and I confess that whenever anything like this comes up I find myself thinking, ‘What would Ayrton or Gilles have made of this?’ Or, come to that, Jenks? And it doesn’t take me long to arrive at an answer.


I really wasn’t surprised that Niki Lauda contemptuously dismissed the ‘moveable rear wing’: “Completely crazy – now the FIA decides where you can overtake…”

Some suggest that these systems are no different from adjustable boost in the turbo era, whereby you could temporarily award yourself some extra horsepower (at the same time knowing that it was eating into your restricted fuel allowance for the race). But that argument is hardly valid – if a following driver whopped up his boost to pass you, there was nothing to stop you doing the same to defend your position.

All cars were operating to the same rules at all times in the race, that’s my point, and surely that is fundamental to anything calling itself ‘Grand Prix racing’. DRS strikes me as akin to investing in the best running shoes for all competitors – and then putting stones in some of them.

By common consent, wet races are invariably far more exciting – hence the ‘sprinkler’ idea – but why is that the case? It’s not rocket science; it’s because there is less grip. No, we can’t un-invent downforce, but surely we can come up with a set of aerodynamic rules that permit cars closely to follow each other through fast corners, perhaps generating downforce from shaped underbody, rather than relying absolutely on external appendage.

“Ah, here’s the purist – the keeper of the flame…” Max would murmur when I arrived at one of his functions, and I couldn’t – and can’t – take issue. I’ve loved Grand Prix racing all my life, and I’ve never cared to see artifices introduced to turn the sport into ‘The Show’, particularly systems – like KERS and DRS – which involve no element of driving skill. Of course I want to see better racing as much as anyone – but it has to be real. Remember the Hanford Wing, which undoubtedly increased the amount of overtaking in CART events on superspeedways, but rendered the races farcical? ‘I pass you here each lap, and you pass me there…’


F1 has surely become way too convoluted and complicated. Some years ago I asked Patrick Head what he would do to improve F1. “Oh, ban wings,” he said immediately, somewhat to my surprise. Then he laughed. “But that would never happen – think of all that lost advertising space…”

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