Virgin Racing’s initiation to F1 took an embarrassing turn this weekend as it was forced to request a dispensation to homologate a new chassis to allow for a larger fuel tank. It appears that the one the car was designed around is not big enough to allow the car to finish a Grand Prix.
“It has become clear during pre-season testing and our debut race in Bahrain that our fuel tank capacity is marginal, ” said Virgin technical director Nick Wirth, ” And if not addressed there is the possibility that fuel pick-up could become an issue in certain circumstances,”
As a new team Virgin did not have any old data to work with and would rely on figures given to them by Cosworth. The penalty for making a tank which is a bit too big isn’t great in terms of lap time, but making one too small is a massive problem.
Virgin has been granted the dispensation by the FIA, but some teams are unhappy about the precedent it sets. It is likely to take the team until the start of the European season before the team can get a new chassis built. The new chassis is likely to be longer and the top bodywork will all need to be re-optimised for aerodynamics.
In the meantime, the team will have to run the engine lean to be sure of making it to the finish of the intervening races.
It is strange that this should have happened. The fuel cells are an outsourced component and are produced for the team by a company called Premier. Most F1 teams use cells from ATL. Teams request cells of different sizes depending on their fuel consumption figures, but Cosworth, which powers Virgin as well as three other teams, will have been very specific with all its customers about the fuel required by its engine.
The fuel cells cost around £15,000 each and a team will typically order four at the start of the season. That cost will be dwarfed by the cost of designing and building a new chassis. It is a huge amount of work, not only is it a monocoque but a new floor, bodywork, wiring looms, hydraulics. The error must be in the region of 20 litres to make it worth going to that effort.
Rival teams will be anxious to ensure that Virgin does not build in any development steps to the chassis.