Only five races into the new season, FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) has agreed to ban F-ducts for 2011. McLaren introduced the F-duct technology at the beginning of this season. It’s been something of a boon for the MP4-25, which struggles a bit for downforce. The F-duct, which stalls airflow over the rear wing on straightaways, drastically reduces downforce and drag. This allows McLaren to run a higher downforce setup without compromising straightaway speed.
As with Brawn’s use of double diffusers last year, the F-duct has caught the other teams off guard. Even though the Red Bulls are currently the class of the field, the McLarens enjoy a 6 mph advantage on long straights over most of the other cars. This is an advantage the other teams are keen to eliminate.
There has been some question over the safety of the technology. For example, if the rear wing became stalled on a turn instead of on a straight portion of track, either through a mechanical failure or a driver error, the result could be disastrous. Moreover, as has been seen from in-car shots of the Ferraris (the Maranello team has developed their own version of the device), some drivers are forced to drive one-handed to activate the duct.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner recently told Autosport, “It is a clever piece of engineering and hats off to the guys who invented it, but some of the solutions this weekend look a bit marginal when you see drivers driving with finger tips and no hands. So I think there is a safety issue and a cost issue to take into account.”
Even with the other teams playing catch-up, McLaren still has the advantage of having designed their F-duct system as an integral part of the chassis. As chassis are now homologated at the beginning of the season, the other teams aren’t able to make any radical modifications that alter the basic monocoque. They must find methods of employing ducting to the rear wing using their chassis in their current forms.
But rather than mounting an effort to make F-ducts universal in 2011, FOTA has voted a majority decision to exclude the devices from their designs next year. What’s interesting about this procedure is that it circumvents the intervention of the FIA. The FIA rendered a decision earlier this year that F-ducts were legal within the parameters of the sport’s technical regulations, and they have done nothing to revise either their deicion or the technical regs.
This decision is coming exclusively from the user end, i.e. the teams. It’s essentially a gentlemen’s agreement which the FIA has no power to enforce. Nevertheless, FOTA seems to be much more nimble at rendering these types of decisions than the FIA has been in the past. And since FOTA teams all have an equal voice, the ultimate effect is democratic rather than dictatorial, the latter being an adjective that was frequently aimed at the FIA during the Max Mosley regime.
It should be noted that last year’s KERS technology, which was regarded by many as an expensive failure (and an elaborate PR ploy of Mosley’s, to make Formula 1 seem a bit greener), was never banned by the FIA. Rather, FOTA agreed that KERS would be outlawed for 2010. Interestingly, Jean Todt is now leading an effort to reinstate KERS, as it seems to be a technology that makes Formula 1 more relevant to road car technology. Current FIA regs allow for KERS technology, but don’t mandate it. Naturally, that could be changed. It had been Mosley’s idea to make KERS mandataory, and that was the way the regs had been initially written.
Mercedes GP CEO Nick Fry has indicated that he’s all for eliminating F-ducts, as it’s a technology that’s irrelevant to road cars, while he supports a return of KERS, for the opposite reason. “I personally think that it is sensible to nip in the bud technologies that, on the face of it, don’t really have a relevance for use outside of F1,” he said. “What we should be encouraging is stuff that we can be using elsewhere, and I am personally a big proponent of KERS because of that.”
Meanwhile, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh has expressed his regret at the FOTA vote. “Relating to the f-duct, we are very proud of our guys who thought of it, and compared to some other things, it’s a very low-cost technology to apply, and there are a number of reasons why something like that is good for the sport,” he said in a Vodafone teleconference. “It doesn’t have a high cost, it just needs a bit of ingenuity. Personally I’m a bit sad about it, but we will continue to develop in that area. Already this year a lot of teams are working hard in that area in any case.”
Nevertheless, Whitmarsh applauded the decision process, noting that prior to the emergence of FOTA, in 2008, teams voted on certain technical changes under the aegis of the FIA. A technical change could be vetoed by a single vote. Now, under FOTA procedures, the majority rules.
“Historically Formula 1 had veto rights that could block virtually any change, in essence, one team could singularly veto a technical change,” Whitmarsh said. “That was very useful when you were defending your own technology, but it made it very difficult for the sport to evolve and manage in the face of those challenges we had. Now though, if you are happy to accept a voting majority on issues, then you have to be prepared to be bound by those decisions. From time to time there will be decisions you’re less happy with, but overall FOTA’s decisions are the right ones.”