If you have been following Motorsport Media, you should recall what happened during the Australian GP weekend. After disastrous testing where the new RB10 was not only unreliable but also off pace, Red Bull managed to strike back. Ricciardo qualified second, only behind Hamilton and his dominant Mercedes, and he crossed the checkered flag in the same position, this time behind Rosberg and his dominant Mercedes. Hamilton and Vettel both had to park their cars after engine problems.
It could have been a huge success for the Austrian team. Not only did they finish with one car, but the new Red Bull driver Ricciardo drove to the podium at his home GP. The fans went nuts, and people like me hoped that he would not become a second Mark Webber in terms of being stuck behind Vettel and having bad mechanical luck.
Five hours later Red Bull had zero points. The RB10 was found to have used too much fuel for the whole race and therefore was disqualified. Arguing started surrounding the device that measures fuel flow, the Fuel Flow Meter, and on April 14th, the FIA and Red Bull will go to court in Paris.
We need to understand what happened in Melbourne, so here is a full explanation and interpretation that can also help you look like a smart ass should someone ever start a discussion about this topic.
I. The Fuel Flow Meter and how it's used
The main point of the whole arguing is a Sensor developed by Gill Sensors in accordance with the FIA. Measuring the actual fuel flow from the gas tank has always been unreliable and required big machinery. When the rule makers decided to give racing a green touch, they needed to limit fuel and to limit it constantly. That's why the device was developed, and it proved to be challenging make it record data without too much variance. As of now, it lays under 1% according to the manufacturer.
Not only will the sensor will be used in F1, the LMP1 works teams of Toyota, Audi and Porsche will have 3 Fuel Flow Meters on board when they race in WEC. So you can imagine that a properly functioning sensor is of great importance.
Back to F1: Every team buys their sensors from Gill Sensors, has them calibrated at a company called Calibra and then verified by the FIA. More fuel equals more power, so understandably the rule makers did everything to stop teams from modifying the devices in their favor. After all these steps, the teams are free to install the sensors.
Because of the vagueness of measurements the teams are given a correction factor that equals it out. It usually is between 1.5 and -1.5%. For example, say the McLaren data records a fuel consumption for 100 liters but the sensor says 101, then the FIA will recalculate the limit of fuel usage by one percent after examining the data and assuring it all is correct. This all happens in advance and before Qualifying.
II. The occurrences of Melbourne
So far, so good. With the theory in place, let's take a look at what happened in Melbourne, the first race with the brand new technology.
During Free practice, all of the teams reported inaccurate measurements, but they all were laying in a tolerance zone of 3 grams more fuel per lap. All of the teams? No, Mercedes was slightly above that with 4 grams and Red Bull with even more.
The silver arrows reacted and lowered the consumption a bit and were all set for a dominant win. Toto Wolf, MercedesGP Boss, said after the race that it cost them a few tenths, but they did go the save way. Also Rosberg didn't show all the speed that lays in the W05 which certainly helped with not maxing out the range.
As for the reigning world champions: They reported both RB10s to have broken Fuel Flow Meters and changed them. So far, nothing special or outrageous, expect for the amount of Fuel Flow Meters the team brought along: 4. Four. For two cars with terribly unreliable engines. Other teams had loaded their suitcases with as many as 12 sensors to be on the save side. At this point I start to wonder why a team that spends close to 300 Million Euros a year can't buy enough crucial parts/spares when teams that barely make it to the grid can.
Also, in total 3 of the 4 Red Bull owned sensors broke. That seems like a bit much. In all fairness, many teams have had problems of their own. Not only F1 teams. Even Porsche had issues when testing the 919 Hybrid according to Neel Jani. It is a fact that the sensor doesn't react well to heat, vibration or varying fuel pressure. The first of these 2 are typical Red Bull problems caused by Neweys complete focus on aerodynamics.
Lotus installed a damper on the main fuel line to allow for a smoother environment, and Ferrari modified their fuel pumps for more consistent data recording. Red Bull didn't. Again, I wonder why a team with vast resources didn't manage to find a quick fix for this issue when other Renault teams did.
Anyways, fast forward to race day. Vettel in P13 after the disastrous qualifying in an undriveable car, Ricciardo in the front row. Vettel and Hamilton both retired by lap 5, now the focus was on Rosberg and Ricciardo. On the same lap, Ricciardos crew received a warning by the FIA to lower the fuel consumption immediately as it was significantly higher. It was even noticeable after they raised the measuring frequency to rule out temporarily high fuel flow. If you are looking for numbers, the RB10 #3 was over the limit by 25 grams a lap. Every lap. 3 would be acceptable. The team simply ignored the warning and proceeded, relying on their own "measurements". Quotation marks are there for a reason: they don't measure per se, they calculate consumption by factoring in fuel flow, pressure and temperature. I wouldn't want to bet on the neutrality and reliability of a calculation done by the same people that run the car.
Following all that, the FIA did the only right thing and took Ricciardo out of contention after the race finished.
III. The Epilogue
This weekend Bernie's circus will race in Malaysia. In 1999, the paddock was roaring with stories about Ferraris traction control system that helped Irvine to win the second to last race and get ahead in the overall standings against Mika Häkkinen. McLaren Mercedes decided not to protest and decide the title in court because it wasn't their style of racing.
Not so with Red Bull. They immediately announced objection against the FIAs decision and the final verdict will be spoken in Paris on April 14th.
I see no way for them to win the case - the facts show a clear violation. Should the FIA take back the disqualification, then they would create a precedent. A precedent that would be used to ignore the fuel flow limit and that would enable all teams to rely on their own equations.
Also, 2 races are scheduled between now and the court date, the GPs of Malaysia and Bahrain. How will Red Bull act this time? Will they proceed just like in Australia, risking no points from the first three races, or will they bow to Charlie Whiting and by doing so give more reason against their Melbourne tactic?
Apart from the pure racing related consequences, there is the political stuff. I will go as far as saying that no motorsport has got as much politics going on as F1.
Beloved sexist, homophobe and all-round prick Bernie Eclestone made a fortune with Formula One. Billions of fortune. His job is selling the product, and thanks to his monopole, he is able to charge prices as high as 20 Million Euros per race. Enough people are paying, and what they are paying for is the spectacle paired with glamour and media exposure.
Starting last year, Bernie started criticizing the new engine format. He complained about the noise. Then he complained about the lack of power, then about the noise again, then about drivers having to drive economically. And then he decided to point out the horrible noise the V6 turbo makes.
Sure, he probably used his criticism in the early stages of engine development to improve the final product, but why would he talk down the series he is promoting? He wasn't negative when Pirelli decided to supply tires made of butter that were said to destroy real racing but improve overtaking. Or did you ever witness a car salesman calling the new generation of vehicles not worthy? Strange to say the least. Problems with the engines and races being decided at court play in his hands.
Just after the Australian GP was over, the GPs promoter Ron Walker started his press run and evaluated suing the FIA for breaking his race contract. His reason? Lack of sound. Sounds surprisingly what Bernie would say, and what a coincidence, Walker and Bernie are super close friends.
Then there is Red Bull. They won everything between 2010 and 2013 with utter dominance. McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes couldn't catch them because all that was needs was clever aero. Suspension and engines were so far developed that it didn't matter that much, and development switched to wings and exhaust blowing. A paradise for RB and their armada of Newey directed engineers. They went as far as developing gearboxes and KERS with no regards for anything but aerodynamic effect and downforce.Understandably, the teams with automotive background weren't happy. In their words: We are building cars and not airplanes – it has to stop.
And that's what happened: it stopped. The mechanic side came out of the shadow and is much more important now. It is an area at least remotely connected to stock automotive development. To build a dominant car now, you need the engine, you need the braking, and you also need aero. That turns out to be a problem for Red Bull and not so much of a problem for other teams.
Sure enough, they also made sure to take every opportunity to show their pure hate for the change in F1. Seriously, Vettel at least said 100 times that the cars sound horrible and that batteries belong into a cellphone.
Mateschitz, the financier of the whole energy-drink-goes-F1 project, is not happy at all, and I could understand if he would try to ridicule the new regulations by simply ignoring them. He also threatened to pull the plug on F1. But would that really be his way of dealing with stuff? I don't think so.
What is really going on is a possible split. Bernie owns the right to GP1. Red Bull, a huge marketing machine, is ready to race somewhere else. Somewhere where there are Michelin tires that grip with no limit, where there are Cosworth V8 engines, where only the aerodynamics matter, where Vettel can burn fuel all day long. In a new Bernie series, even customer cars could be made possible (Torro Rosso!). And that's something Ferrari and RB would both totally love to have and lobby for for years.
It might sound strange, but all of that is everything Bernie could wish for. An opportunity to run his own thing again with two big players, and either wait until F1 joins his series or until F1 is run down and can be replaced with whatever he cooks up.
Much information on the topic came from two excellent articles by Michael Schmidt, F1 Reporter at Auto Motor and sport. Check out his articles here and here. Picture Credit: F1 Zone/Red Bull, The Telegraph