During the Grand Prix weekend in Baku the FIA had made it clear to the teams that it does not allow them to preheat their hydraulic components of their chassis. Five teams are directly involved with such preheating activities, even when the cars are parked in the Parc Fermé. The Germans of Auto, motor und sport are reporting the next saga in the hydraulic suspension series.
According to AMUS Ferrari suspects Mercedes to have solved their tire troubles on an illegal way. Of course the engineers of the German team react differently. So how much of it is true? Well, there is the fact that the hydraulic suspension, as we knew it in 2016, has been forbidden earlier this year. But are there legal ways around these prohibited regulations?
The answer to that question seems to come from Mercedes. If you make a new system you just have to make it so complicated that the FIA stewards can not asses it in its totality. But Mercedes is only one of five teams who are under suspect. The other four are Red Bull Racing, Toro Rosso, Force India and McLaren. So how did they do it?
All of these five teams have one thing in common. All of them said goodbye to the classic shock absorbers and rear stabilizers. Instead they all went for a hydraulic actuators approach, with which they can control the ride height, the rolling behavior and any up or down movement the car makes. And, in order to hide them from the outside world, these actuators are placed inside the gearbox housing.
Samples have shown that all five of them used preheated oil in those actuators. They preheated them even when the cars where under strict Parc Fermé rules. By heating up the oil the teams are changing the characteristics of said oil, and with it the characteristics of the car. For instance, the teams were able to give their cars the ideal ground clearance before the start of the race.
Force India is one team that had preheated their hydraulic elements with hot air, in the garage. All this in order to get the oil at the temperatures it would eventually get while driving. Technician Andy Green doesn’t deny this: “Our goal was to keep the temperature of the hydraulic oil and therefore the ground clearance constant. With cold oil, the vehicle is lower than when it is hot. Because the oil warms up during driving, you have to calculate precisely how you can adjust the ground clearance while stationary, so that the desired ground clearance is achieved later, during the race.”
Under the Parc Fermé rules, between qualifying and the race, the car can not be technically altered, unless it involves repairs for safety reasons. And this can only be done after getting clearance by the FIA. The FIA has explained in Baku to all concerned teams that external preheating of chassis components is prohibited. By “external” they mean heating systems, which are connected to chassis components. As this would violate the Parce fermé rules. It is seen as a deliberate intervention in the chassis setup, like installing other dampers or stabilizers. After the Grand Prix the technicians were, once again, warned that preheating is no longer tolerated. Green groaned: “Without preheating, the drivers have to drive extremely fast during the laps to the starting grid so that the hydraulic oil heats up quickly. Only then can they feel if the balance of the car is where they want it.”
So has this put an end to all the trickery? Not quite…
There are loopholes at the moment that can not be forbidden. Mercedes has been suspected to have placed the hydraulic actuators so cleverly in their gearbox housing that they heat up almost “randomly”. It is assumed that oil ducts, containing oil from the gearbox, pass close besides or through the actuators. And thus would the heat radiation influence the viscosity of the hydraulic oil. Preheating would be easy that way because each team can make the gearbox shift as often and as long as they want, while the car sits in the garage. Hereby would the transmission oil and the surrounding environment be heated.
A FIA steward confirmed to AMUS that such a practice would not be punishable: “We can not prescribe anyone where he builds his suspension components and what is in their environment. Theoretically, one could also alienate an exhaust manifold for heating. We can only intervene when the warm-up happens in an unnatural way.”
Mercedes’ rivals became suspicious when the German team got their tire problems under control, and after Monte Carlo spoke of “new tools”, which should help with the handling of the tire rims. Since then the fluctuations between training and race and the individual tire types are far less than they were the races before. Anyone who can change the characteristics of the hydraulic dampers and stabilizers between training and racing in a clever way would always get the tires to work perfectly.
In the end there is only one way to close these loopholes: to outlaw hydraulic suspensions. But to get that kind of rule change, for 2018, there has to be a total unanimity. And we know how F1 teams are…