Formula One Suspension Turmoil Could Upset Season Opener

Pitchers and catchers have reported for Spring Training. That can only mean one thing — the start of Formula One winter testing its just around the corner. And that means the jockeying and in-fighting between the teams has already begun. This year the brouhaha revolves around Formula One suspension regulations. Ferrari is said to have developed a new suspension system that mimics some of the aspects of an active suspension system, an idea that was banned in 1994.

Formula One suspension

For the past three seasons, Mercedes AMG has dominated the sport. Part of that is because the teams agreed in 2013 to a new hybrid engine formula they thought wouod make the series more “relevant” to road car technology. Somehow the other teams didn’t know that Mercedes had actually been testing such a powertrain for as many as three years before the new rules went into effect.

From the very first race under the rules, the Mercedes Silver Arrows sailed serenely into the distance while the other teams floundered. No one has been able to reel in the speedy Mercs ever since, save for a few isolated race weekends. Mercedes’ dominance caused untold bickering up and down the pit lane as the other teams struggled to understand what made the German cars so fast.

Formula One is to normal vehicle transportation what interplanetary space travel is to conventional airplanes. The cars are the most insanely complex racing machines ever devised by the mind of man. What makes them go is important, but what makes them stop and turn corners is just as sophisticated. Most of the engineers in the paddock believe not only does Mercedes have the best powertrain, it also has the most advanced suspension, one which comes very, very close to the FRIC systems some teams used a few years ago before they too were banned.

FRIC was basically a complex interconnection of hydraulics that allowed what was happening at the front suspension to prepare the rear suspension for what was coming. Despite all the hoopla and trickery, a Formula One car depends on the interface between tire and asphalt, just like every other wheeled vehicle. That area where the rubber meets the road is called the contact patch. The goal is to have the wheels and tires perpendicular to the track surface at all times.

Of course, when a race car turns, accelerates or brakes, that upsets the alignment of the wheels and tires with the track. Racing engineers have been trying to deal with that issue since the dawn of the automobile. More than 20 years ago, Formula One allowed the cars to use active suspension– computer controlled systems that optimizing the contact patch at all times.

Those cars were ungodly fast but the FIA decided that letting computers take control of the suspension was contrary to the spirit of competition and banned the technology. Racing engineers have been trying to claw back some of that performance advantage ever since.

Before Christmas, Ferrari wrote a letter to the FIA questioning the legality of the Mercedes suspension system. Red Bull has developed something very similar. In essence, the systems adds a third component called a heave that is inserted between the primary suspension components at the front and rear of the car to control vertical displacement of the suspension.

The FIA looked things over and decided the Mercedes and Red Bull systems are legal but declared a more advanced system proposed by Ferrari is not. If you want to run the risk of your eyes glazing over, you can read more about the technical issues presented in the Ferrari letter in this comprehensive report by

Ferrari was not pleased with the result. Now there are rumblings of protests being filed at the first race of the season in Melbourne at the end of March. Some question whether Ferrari will run with its new suspension configuration during winter testing that begins shortly. If it uses the system during testing but is barred from using it during races, that could put Ferrari at a serious disadvantage when the 2017 racing season starts.

The controversy has resulted in a suggestion that the sport go back to allowing active suspensions again. After all, electronic suspension components are now common on many production vehicles. If the sport wants to be “relevant” to production vehicles, that idea would maker perfect sense.

For the past three years, Formula One racing has been about as exciting as watching paint dry. I have a good friend who has been a Formula One fan and passionate Ferrari supporter for decades. He actually has competed in kart races against several F1 drivers. I asked him recently whether he was going to the US Grand Prix in Austin later this year. He tolds me he has pretty much lost interest in the sport and doubts he will make the trip.

That should scare the bejezus out of the solons who run the sport. With all the bickering about arcane rules but very little action on track, Formula One itself is in danger of becoming irrelevant. While the teams fight and argue about obscure technical rules, the fans are tuning out and turning their attention to other things.

Liberty Media has big plans to market the sport in new ways. It wants 22 to 25 races a year, every one of them with the hype and hoopla of a Super Bowl. But first it has to offer people a product they want. Right now, the sport is in free fall with no one who understands what’s going on at the controls. A crash landing is in the offing, one nobody will walk away from unscathed.

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Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.