Formula for success – Kers and DRS

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Formula for success: Kers and DRS

Formula 1 has always been a breeding ground for automotive innovation and the gadgets currently on show are Kers and DRS.

The kinetic energy recovery system (Kers) captures energy when the car is braking and stores it in a battery for the driver to use later on the lap.

The DRS - drag reduction system - flips open the top flap of the rear wing to increase the car's straight-line speed.

But in a sport that moves as fast as F1 any new tool must prove its worth if it is to avoid being erased from the rulebook.

The case for Kers

Kers made its F1 debut in 2009 as a driver aid designed to help both overtaking and defending position. At the push of a button, they can access a burst of 80 horsepower for 6.7 seconds a lap, releasing it in one go or at different points around the circuit.

The benefit to F1's racers is a 10% increase in power which is worth 0.4 seconds extra lap time.

But Kers had another, arguably more important, role to play in F1, showcasing 'green' technology in a sport keen to improve its environmental credentials.

Fitting Kers to F1's speed machines also makes them hybrids - vehicles that use two power sources - and helps the sport retain links with hybrid road car technology.

"Fuel efficiency is the biggest driving factor in the way road cars are being mapped out," comments James Allison, technical director of the Lotus F1 team. "It's something F1 needs to be part of."

When it was first introduced, Kers provoked a mixed response from F1's main players with Ferrari and engine supplier Mercedes opposed to its introduction.

Kers - which cost between $25-40m - was an extra expense at a time when the sport was trying to cut costs amid a global economic crisis.

The equipment also added around 30kg of extra weight to the car and taller drivers, such as former BMW and Renault racer Robert Kubica, embarked on drastic diets so they would not be compromised.

After a testing trial season which saw many teams opt not to use Kers at all, it was abandoned in 2010 - only to return the following year.

"In F1 it is never the cost alone but the ratio between cost and benefit that is considered," explains Gianluca Pisanello.

"When it was re-introduced, the weight limit of the car had increased [to 640kg] so there was no weight penalty, and, as Kers did bring extra power, this is why slowly almost everybody has come back to Kers."

The future of Kers in F1 seems safe for now as new regulations for 2014, which plan to introduce new energy efficient, turbo-charged engines, also intend to double the power of the Kers unit.

The case for DRS

DRS was introduced in 2011 to increase overtaking and in turn make F1 more exciting for its fans.

"The idea of DRS was to break the deadlock where it was almost impossible to overtake a car in front," explains Allison.

"A bit like in sailing, the car in front steals the good air from the car behind, compromising its aerodynamics.

"DRS was a way of levelling the playing field allowing the rear car, if it can get close enough, to have a shot at overtaking."

Drivers activate DRS by pressing a button on the steering wheel causing the top flap of the rear wing to open.

The wing loses downforce but it also sheds a lot of drag increasing the car's straight-line speed by 15-16kph, enough to make a move on the car in front.

During the race DRS can only be activated if a driver is less than one second behind the car in front and within a designated DRS zone, which is usually positioned on the longest straight.

The use of DRS is unlimited during practice and qualifying, when it can be key to increasing lap time - and it is this contrast that has irked some drivers.

"They don't like the rule because it presents them with dilemmas," explains Allison, whose Lotus cars are piloted by Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.

"There are certain corners on the track where it is possible to go round with the DRS flap open but it's only just possible and they only find out by pressing the button and seeing what happens.

"They don't like that experiment. They would prefer that DRS was used just on the main straight in qualifying and the race and that may well be something that happens."

The device has also split opinion in F1 about the need for driver aids; after all shouldn't F1's star racers be able to overtake on pure skill alone?

"It's artificial overtaking and I'm not a big fan of it," comments Gary Anderson, a former F1 car designer at Jordan, Stewart and Jaguar. "We could do away with DRS and you wouldn't really see it because the racing itself is really good at the moment."

But, Pisanello counters: "I think it is pure racing. It is part of the bag of tricks that all the drivers have, so it is just a tool in their hands."

What next?

Innovation is the lifeblood of F1. The sport proudly pioneered the monocoque chassis (Lotus 1962), aerofoil wings (Lotus 1968) and the carbon fibre chassis (McLaren 1981), for example.

There have also been some brilliant outliers of invention, such as Brabham's 1978 fan car, which effectively sucked the car to the track, and Tyrrell's six-wheeled 1976 car.

"Formula 1 doesn't like to innovate - it has to innovate," sums up Pisanello. "If for any reason a team has to stop development for one or two weeks you fall behind.

"F1 is continuously innovating because of a need to try and beat the others."

And that is why asking for any clues on what the next F1 invention might be is met with a poker face.

"It's not the sort of thing you would share I'm afraid," said Allison. "It stays tightly under wraps until you're ready to unveil it."

Reporting by Sarah Holt

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