I’ve been interested by the discussions about bringing back KERS this past week, following the FOTA meeting in Malaysia at which it was on the agenda.
KERS, for anyone not familiar with the term, is Kinetic Energy Recovery System, which harvests energy from braking, stores it as electrical energy and then reintroduces it to the system as a power boost. Under last year’s rules it was worth about 80hp for around 7 seconds per lap.
Last season it was used by only McLaren and Ferrari and then abandoned after one year in a vote by the FOTA teams. The idea has been to develop the new engine formula for 2013 around a hybrid system and that process is ongoing between FOTA and the FIA.
But now the teams are talking about bringing KERS back in 2011, because Ferrari and Renault are both pushing hard on hybrid on the road car side and because it has the potential to provide a quick fix for F1’s perennial overtaking problem. If it is to return it has to be on the basis that every car has it.
Perhaps if the power is increased then it could lead to more overtaking as drivers could use it intelligently to give them a competitive advantage. The problem now is that one car only has enough of a competitive advantage over another to pass, if its tyres are in significantly better condition, as with Massa on Button in Malaysia.
KERS became a bit of a political football last season; the idea of former FIA president Max Mosley, it was just another issue on which things became polarised in a tense power struggle. The problem was that Mosley’s vision for KERS was that teams should compete with each other to get the best system. It is a very expensive technology to get right on an F1 car, where every kilo counts and many teams didn’t bother to play the arms race. The top two teams last in last season’s championship, Brawn and Red Bull, didn’t use it.
Ferrari complained that it was an expensive flop. I remember team boss Stefano Domenicali saying at Silverstone,
“The reality is that the facts show that KERS in the way that it is now is not ready to be performing in this set of regulations. That is a fact. And, this is something that we need to learn from in the future.”
It added a lot of weight to the car, increased reliability concerns and was a big distraction for the engineers – in other words getting it to work effectively so that it would make a difference, the way it was introduced before, was very hard. McLaren and Mercedes spent €70 million and managed to get more gain than pain, but team boss Martin Whitmarsh admitted that in doing so, perhaps they failed to spot the key aerodynamic breakthoughs of 2009, like the double diffuser and outwash front wing.
Another problem with the way it was introduced last year was that it didn’t offer enough of a boost to make it attractive. It was useful at the starts and for passing cars which didn’t have it.
So the logical and simple answer is to bring it back with more power but in a standardised system, to keep the costs under control and so it’s the same for everyone. It gives F1 some much needed green credentials and gives the drivers a chance to use their system more cleverly than an opponent and make more overtaking moves.
The problem then comes that various teams will want to do their own system. Williams has a unique flywheel system, which it is also developing for commercial use on buses and trains, while Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes (who had the best system last year) will see it as an important laboratory for the ‘road to track’ story.
This reminds me of a similar debate a few years ago over introducing a standardised Electronic Control Unit, which was resisted by manufacturers like BMW, who felt this was a sacrosanct area of proprietary technology. But the sport desperately needed it to get rid of all suspicions about teams cheating on traction control. In the end a standard ECU was introduced and it and it works fine for everyone and you never hear any more about it.
As a short term solution, introducing a standard KERS system for 2011 now, so teams can design their 2011 cars around it, makes sense. And in parallel the teams and the FIA should work to base the 2013 engine rules around hybrid, and research the viability of allowing manufacturers to develop technology within a cost restriction framework, so it offers existing and new manufacturers something to get their teeth into, but doesn’t just end up being another arms race.