Formula 1’s champion squad, Red Bull, and the sport’s regulatory body, the FIA, will square off tomorrow in Paris as the reigning world champion team’s appeal against Daniel Ricciardo’s exclusion from the Australian Grand Prix takes place in Paris.
Ricciardo was controversially disqualified from the season-opening race in Australia after a brilliant drive to second in front of his home fans. His Red Bull RB10 was found to have consistently exceeded the permitted rate of fuel flow to the engine.
Here we take a look at what exactly happened, what Red Bull’s argument is and what the case could mean for the sport as a whole.
This year, Formula 1 has seen the introduction of radical new rules intended to boost the sport’s green credentials and make it more efficient. As part of this focus on efficiency, the rules limit the rate of fuel flowing to the engine at 100 kg/hour.
To ensure compliance with the limit the fuel flow is measured by a homologated sensor provided to the teams by the FIA.
It is this homologated FIA fuel flow sensor and the accuracy of its readings that is at the heart of the Red Bull controversy.
Red Bull had issues with the sensor throughout the Australian Grand Prix weekend and felt that the readings it was recording – which showed the rate of fuel being pumped into its engine to be higher than what was recorded by their own internal fuel flow measurement model – were inaccurate.
The higher the rate at which fuel is pumped into the engine, the greater the performance. So as not to be disadvantaged (as they saw it), the team opted to go by its own readings.
The FIA accepted that there were issues with the sensor and that it wasn’t 100 percent reliable and so gave the team an offset they could apply to the readings measured by the sensor, an offset that Red Bull were not satisfied with.
As a result, the team chose to continue using their own internal model as a measure of fuel flow and therefore as far as the FIA — going by the readings from its sensor – were concerned Red Bull were exceeding the permitted fuel flow rate even after applying the offset.
Noticing that Red Bull were consistently exceeding the permitted fuel flow limit, the FIA repeatedly told the team during the race to dial it back. However, Red Bull chose to ignore this directive, which was a major factor in Ricciardo’s exclusion.
Also, the decision to use their own system as a measure of fuel flow was not Red Bull’s to make as, in what is called a ‘technical directive’, the sport’s regulators ahead of the season clarified that a team may switch to a back-up system to measure fuel-flow only with the permission of the FIA. This will form the crux of the FIA’s argument.
RED BULL’S CASE
Now, the rules say that a car cannot exceed the fuel-flow limit of 100kg/hour and Red Bull’s argument rests on the fact that, going by their own readings, they did not overshoot the limit. The FIA sensor might have shown them to be in breach of the limit but the team’s stand is that since the sensor is inaccurate, its readings cannot be trusted.
“Did we break the rules or not? It’s as simple as that,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the Australian Grand Prix.
“Do you believe a sensor that’s faulty or do you believe a fuel rail that’s calibrated and accurate? It’s a very simple argument.”
Furthermore, the team stress that the requirement to have the FIA’s permission before switching to a back-up system of fuel flow measurement was laid down in a technical directive which Red Bull argues is merely an opinion and has no regulatory value.
“Technical directives are not rules,” Horner said.
“The confusing element here and what’s being confused is that technical directives are opinions, they are not regulations.
“And that’s what the confusion is with this. I think that people are not understanding that the rules within the technical regulations are explicitly clear. We did not break those.”
In a briefing to clarify the fuel-flow sensor rules over the Malaysian Grand Prix weekend, the head of the sport’s technical department Charlie Whiting conceded that the technical directives were not rules as such.
“Fundamentally, the technical directives are opinions,” Whiting said. “They always have been, given by the technical department to teams and normally they’re happy to follow that but it’s always been very, very clear they can be contested in front of the stewards.”
Now, depending on whose side the appeals court comes out on, the verdict could have a ripple effect throughout the sport. As a result, the hearing will lay down a blueprint for and be a key test of how the sport’s new efficiency rules are policed.
Red Bull, as they themselves state, were not the only team who had issues with the sensors. Teams up and down the grid reported discrepancies between the readings measured by the FIA sensor and their own data.
However, the others were all happy to go along with the FIA and several who found themselves in a similar situation to Red Bull (where the FIA sensor showed a higher fuel flow rate than their own system) chose to dial back their fuel flow despite the performance disadvantage they would incur as a result.
Yes, the technical directives are not regulatory in nature but the FIA’s Charlie Whiting pointed out in Malaysia that teams, for about twenty years now, have largely been happy to comply with them.
McLaren sporting director Eric Boullier also said that for him, despite any discrepancy in the readings, there was no debate about which measurement model to use: “If you have two systems to measure your fuel flow, there will be always a discrepancy between them.
“If you find an interest to run system A because you find more performance I understand you may choose this way. But if in a regulated championship you are told to use B, end of question, end of debate.”
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic and Red Bull/Getty Images.