The 2014 season has seen a plethora of changes, and will inevitably bring some degree of confusion and controversy until all of the changes are streamlined. Red Bull is set to appeal the disqualification of Daniel Ricciardo from the Australian GP on April 14th. There is a lot of speculation on whether or not Red Bull will win the appeal. Christian Horner has said that Red Bull is very confident of their case.
Why exactly does Red Bull feel so confident? And what would it mean if they do win?
The approved FIA method for measuring fuel flow is by using an ultrasonic flow meter. Specifically this one made by Gill Sensors. An ultrasonic flow meter measures flow by sending an ultrasonic pulse (very short burst of sound) against the flow of liquid, then another with the flow of liquid. The difference in time it takes each pulse to travel from emitter to sensor is used to calculate the flow. This calculation happens many, many times per second.
Red Bull, specifically Christian Horner, has said this to be an “immature technology”. For the extreme performance standards of Formula One, he is quite accurate. This specific sensor does not use a smoothing algorithm (take a few measurements in a row and average the result for the display). It instead uses each individual measurement as a data point. Because of this, a microscopic impurity in the fuel, or arguably even a cluster of large hydrocarbons, could lead to a spike or dip in the perceived fuel flow.
The FIA uses the ultrasonic type of flow meter, because there is no physical restriction of any kind on the actual flow of fuel. Most other types of flow meters use a restriction to either measure pressure changes or velocity changes before and after the restriction. These types of flow measuring devices are much more accurate, and also provide for a “smooth linear” presentation of data as opposed to a point by point measurement of the data.
The argument that these types of flow meters cannot be used is a moot point. The restriction amounts and types would be negligible and easily compensated for by Formula One engineers. There are even more types of flow meters such as electromagnetic, calorimeter (heat change based), and even ones that measure sealed vibrations due to the coriolis effect; all of which do not obstruct fuel flow.
The technical regulations for the 2014 season clearly state that teams ARE allowed to use a measuring device of their own choosing, should there be discrepancies or malfunction of the FIA approved flow meter. Ricciardo was disqualified essentially because Red Bull did not gain approval to rely on their own method, and were warned multiple times to reduce fuel flow based on what Red Bull felt were inaccurate readings in the FIA meter. However, the FIA itself has said that technical directives issued by Charlie Whiting and his crew are not binding. This was a result of the 2013 “secret” Pirelli tire testing with Mercedes. Because of this, Red Bull feel as though they did not violate any rule, as their sensor (which has been independently calibrated and verified) showed they never exceeded the maximum fuel flow rate. With all of these factors, Red Bull does have a very strong argument for overturning Ricciardo’s disqualification.
If the FIA were to decide to uphold their decision as it stands, what ramifications would it have? This could lead to individual cars being at the mercy of possibly faulty sensors. If a car were to be performing perfectly, and a sensor decided to fail, showing a car using a much greater flow than it actually was, the car would be hamstringed the entirety of the race. This is not just a concern for fuel flow sensors. There are sensors that measure the turbo, the current flow in the ERS, tire pressure, braking, pit lane speed, DRS zones and activation, weight, etc., etc. Any one of these sensors failing could possibly lead to the disqualification of a driver, or an effective loss of competiveness.
However, if Red Bull is successful in their appeal, the opposite could be true. If teams had free reign to rely on their own sensor data, the limits of all of the sensors could be pushed beyond their maximum with little effective oversight. Cars could move through pit lane faster, use more fuel, activate DRS sooner and for longer, use a greater amount of ERS energy per lap, etc. Instead of teams and fans waiting to see if their car will be unfairly held back, they will be waiting to see which cars get an unfair advantage.
The decision by the FIA is not black and white. They have more options available to them, than to just rubber stamp the upholding or overturning of Ricciardo’s disqualification. It is much more likely that the FIA will make a decision that lies somewhere in the middle and possibly make some changes to the regulations or the enforcement of the regulations. The FIA have more than a few options available to them.
Ricciardo could be given a time or grid place penalty for Melbourne or a future race as a punishment that is not as severe as a total disqualification. The regulations might be amended to include clear wording about when teams are allowed or not allowed to use which sensors. Acceptable margins of error in measurements may be determined or modified. Or many other changes could be made.
The most likely technical regulation change to be made would be to eliminate the fuel flow rate restriction completely. This is by far one of the most difficult items to measure accurately and precisely in real time under race conditions. This would also not negate the FIA’s efficiency goals. A limit on fuel flow rate and maximum fuel used per race is redundant. Yes, if the fuel flow rate were to be eliminated, a car could use huge amounts of fuel in a burst and gain an incredible amount of horsepower. Teams would still need to be mindful of total fuel used and reliability. If a large amount of fuel was constantly used for each and every acceleration event, the car would not be able to complete the race on the allotted 100 Kg of fuel. This season is also filled with reliability issues. Just dumping an incredible amount of fuel into an engine would cause the engine to be exposed to even greater forces and heat than they already are.
Come April 14th, the FIA will most likely provide a series of changes and clarifications. Ricciardo will still be penalized in some measure for not following the direction of the technical delegates. Very clear wording will be used to clarify not only this issue, but other possible eventualities. And finally, there will be some modification to the technical regulations that makes it clear what can and cannot be used.