Changing the technical specification of F1 cars mid season is never desirable, but there are clear signs that the FIA is planning to ban the linked suspension systems known as FRIC at the end of the year and may bring it forward to the next race if the teams aren’t in agreement.
FRIC stands for “Front and Rear-Interconnected” system, which links the front and rear suspension using hydraulics with the aim of improving ride stability; it helps F1 cars to maintain a better balance as the car goes through changes of pitch and roll angle. Essentially the engineers are trying to maintain a static ride height as the car pitches and rolls through corners.
This helps to give the driver confidence in the car and the real boost is that it helps make the tyres to work better. Spreading the load evenly on all four corners is very important with the Pirelli tyres.
This would require some re-engineering for most of the F1 teams, but as with Exhaust Blown diffusers, there are some teams that would suffer more than others from the change. However the impact of the loss of FRIC would be far less significant than the loss of the Blown Diffuser.
The first thing F1 fans will want to know is; will it shake up the order and what impact will it have on the racing?
The answer, from discussing the situation with a few F1 engineers, is that the lap time difference from banning FRIC suspension will be around three to four tenths of a second, depending on how well the system is working on individual cars. Lotus was one of the first teams to use it but Mercedes was onto it quickly and it has certainly contributed to their competitiveness. However it is unlikely to make any real difference to the pecking order in F1. Silverstone showed that Mercedes still enjoys a significant performance advantage over the rest.
The reason why it was not so dominant in Austria, relative to Silverstone, is believed to be related to the altitude and the performance of the turbo, also to some prudence over cooling after the technical failures in Montreal.
How will it’s loss impact the cars and the racing? The main impact will be that it will lead to the cars taking more out of the tyres, which might push them into making an extra pit stop at some events. This year with the more durable Pirelli tyres we have seen several races become a one stop, such as Silverstone last weekend. Arguably it will be more difficult to do the 300km race distance on two sets of tyres at some venues, as the wear will not be as evenly distributed across all four corners of the car.
With the Pirellis, one of the key things to get right is to match the temperatures of the front and rear tyres. Again FRIC helps with that.
So why does the FIA want to ban FRIC suspensions now?
Because Charlie Whiting, who heads the FIA department which is responsible for policing the technical aspects of the F1 cars, as well as the operation of the race weekends themselves, believes that they have evolved to the point where they contravene the catch all technical regulation about “moveable aerodynamic devices”.
“Having now seen and studied nearly every current design of front to rear linked suspension system we, the FIA, are formally of the view that the legality of all such systems could be called into question,” he wrote to teams this week.
Whiting suggests that the way the suspension systems help control pitch and roll could be in breach of article 3.15 of F1′s technical regulations.
Speaking on Wednesday, McLaren team boss Eric Boullier said the FIA had acted now because, “I think some teams might have been extreme, which is maybe why the FIA is questioning the legality of this system.”
What happens next? In a classic piece of FIA positioning, setting the teams against each other, Whiting has suggested to the teams that it will be banned only from the end of the year, provided that all teams agree to that. If they cannot agree (which they rarely do on such matters) then it will be up to them to consider whether they risk using it at the next race in Hockenheim next week, as the FIA scrutineers and stewards may uphold any protests made against it.
How does FRIC work and will it be easy to take off?
According to JA on F1 technical adviser Mark Gillan, when a car goes through a corner it goes through a number of movements; it pitches under braking, it rolls on turn-in to the corner and on corner exit. There are a lot of changes in terms of stability and ride height and a significant amount of downforce is lost as a result.
If you could make the car more stable through those changing dynamics and fix the ride height through those manoeuvres, you would make life a lot more easy. So a lot of innovations like this one are designed to produce a stable ride height through a manoeuvre, optimise aerodynamics and maintain downforce.
This has been the focus of aerodynamic development in F1 since the late 2000s, as wind tunnels have got more sophisticated. The challenge for the aerodynamicist is to assess the trade-off between downforce and smoothing out the ride and much of the work that goes on at F1 tracks in the build up to a race is focussed on getting a good compromise for the race weekend.
The FRIC suspension works by transferring hydraulic fluid from front to rear and it does so passively, which is why it’s legal – it’s not something the driver actively controls, it happens as the car moves.
This generation of F1 cars is very sensitive to roll, so anything that can minimise the roll angle is definitely a big positive. It’s very hard to say exactly what the gain is in lap time, but it makes the driver feel more confident and that is worth something as is the other major benefit in terms of the tyres. By making the car more stable and consistent, you will make it easier on the tyres. You have more load where you want it, so the wear is more even.
There would be a fair bit of re-engineering needed and the chassis will have been designed around FRIC in many cases, as it has been in circulation since 2013. Many of the wind tunnel development programmes currently under study will need to be revised to factor in the loss of the optimised ride height.