Formula 1 teams are struggling to implement hybrid power-train technology following several development accidents in past weeks, revealing the challenge of harnessing a new technology at the cutting edge.
Following a freeze on engine development, Formula 1 teams are going hybrid from 2009 – additional power output can only be delivered by recovering kinetic energy under braking and releasing at again under acceleration. Whilst hybrid technology is widely proven in road cars, there are challenges in implementing a system that can fulfil the ultra competitive demands of Formula 1, with teams looking to build systems capable of delivering an additional 60 horsepower whilst weighing less than 35 kilograms.
These challenges were aptly demonstrated recently after the Red Bull Formula 1 team factory was evacuated for 2 hours as fire crews dealt with a lithium battery explosion. Following this incident, a BMW team mechanic was hospitalised having received an electric shock from the body of a BMW hybrid Formula 1 car on its return to the pits following a test run.
BMW lead driver Robert Kubica this weekend admitted that he will avoid testing the new KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) until the system has been proven by other drivers – the significant amounts of energy which will be stored either in lithium batteries, or in high speed flywheels could be problematic in the event of an accident, highlighting new safety issues for mechanics and track marshals. Several other drivers have also expressed concerns.
So far only a handful of teams have managed to test KERS systems on the track, and some teams are doubtful of their ability to develop and package systems that are light enough to avoid negating the power advantage they provide. Other teams have been critical of the need to develop new systems due to the ever increasing costs of competing in Formula 1 where top teams are spending close to $500 per year to field two cars.
The Future Of Road Car Technology?
However, other commentators have dismissed safety concerns, one senior engineer remarking that the energy stored is insignificant in contrast to the energy stored in the fuel tank. Others have pointed to the massive benefits that race developed technology has already brought to the road, suggesting that Formula 1 may now do the same for hybrids.
In particular, FIA president Max Mosley believes the rapid pace of technological development that will take place as teams invest in out competing each other may revolutionise the auto industry.
“To me, the crucial thing about KERS is that its inconceivable that in 50 years time, when you put the brakes on in your car, the energy will just burn off in heat. That won’t happen.”
“We’ve seen it so often in areas, and those devices will be crucial for the roads because if a KERS system is really light and can absorb all the energy, with super capacitors or flywheels, whatever its going to be, that’s really for the road, and if we advance it by several years, then that’s extremely useful and that alone can justify Formula One, because it will make such a huge contribution to the motor industry. “
“If you imagine you could have a super-efficient KERS system, five to 10 years sooner than you would otherwise get it, then multiply it by the number of cars in the world, then Formula One (costs) will be a drop in the ocean.”
Importantly, fans of Formula 1 will also benefit. Energy stored in the KERS system can be released on demand by the driver using a ‘boost’ button on the steering wheel. This promises to make overtaking more frequent by giving a following driver a sudden power advantage, thus greatly improving the show.
In a sport where innovation is constant, it is unlikely that the introduction of KERS will present insurmountable challenges to teams, and, crucially, the development of such technology ensures that Formula 1 continues to stay relevant in an increasingly environmentally conscious age.