Despite the FIA having ruled that the Mercedes AMG Team’s innovative DRS system is legal, some teams are asking the FIA to reconsider their decision. The Mercedes DRS, when activated, exposes ducts on the rear wing which channel air the length of the car to stall the front wing, to give a greater speed boost than a standard DRS. The most vocal of the teams lobbying against the legality of this system seem to be Red Bull Racing and Lotus, who disagree with Mercedes’ and the FIAs interpretation of the rules and want to see this system banned. So what’s all the fuss about?
The Mercedes system is estimated by some to be worth around 0.5 seconds per lap in qualifying where use of the DRS system is unrestricted. Half a second doesn’t sound like much, but in the world of Formula 1, where the top 10 in qualifying might be covered by 1.5 seconds or so, 0.5 seconds is a considerable amount. Indeed, if you add 0.5 seconds to Michael Schumacher’s qualifying time in Malaysia, the lead Mercedes would have dropped from an impressive third, just a couple of hundredths of a second off second placed Jenson Button, and a tenth and a half off Lewis Hamilton in pole position, down to sixth. Add that same 0.5 seconds to Nico Rosberg’s time in Q2 and he would have come very close to elimination, scraping into the Q3 top 10 shootout by around a tenth of a second from Pastor Maldonado’s Williams. Given that Mercedes’ race pace is actually quite poor – both cars have dropped back quite quickly in the two races so far, and the team have only scored a single point (Schumacher’s 10th in Malaysia) – it’s easy to see why this DRS system is so valuable to Mercedes. Without it, they would not have track position at the start of the race and, given their poor race pace, scoring points would be even more unlikely. Given Mercedes’ poor race pace, though, why are the other teams so eager to see the system banned?
I believe that the answer to this last question can be found when looking at which teams are protesting most vociferously about the Mercedes DRS system: Red Bull Racing and Lotus. Looking at qualifying in Australia and Malaysia, it is these two teams that have been most affected by the extra 0.5 seconds that the Mercedes DRS system is said to provide. In Australia Schumacher out-qualified both RBR cars, but would not have done so with an extra 0.5 seconds added to his time, and came very close to out-qualifying third placed Romain Grosjean in the Lotus. In Sepang, Schumacher out-qualified, thanks to his extra 0.5 seconds boost, both Lotus cars and both RBR cars. If Nico Rosberg had been able to replicate his team-mate’s form, the position would have been even worse for RBR and Lotus. So, in my view, the Mercedes DRS is disadvantaging Red Bull and Lotus the most; it puts them in a false track position at the start of the race and means that they lose time trying to pass the Mercedes cars – Rosberg is a good starter, so usually makes up positions off the line – and fall away from the two McLaren’s. This is a particular problem for Red Bull, whose race pace is especially strong. So, should the Mercedes DRS system be banned?
It’s at this point that we get in to a discussion about the rules, which can often be pretty impenetrable, especially to those of us that are not technically minded – myself included. On this occasion, though, I think things are fairly clear cut and I find myself agreeing with the FIA’s opinion thus far: The Mercedes DRS system is legal. The relevant rules are articles 3.15 and 3.18 of the technical regulations. Article 3.15 states that, other than the DRS system (covered in article 3.18) “any car system, device or procedure which uses driver involvement as a means of altering the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is prohibited”. Article 3.18 outlines the DRS system and restricts the “driver adjustable bodywork” to the upper flap of the rear wing only. So, in simple terms any driver operated system than affects the aerodynamic characteristics of the car is banned, other than the DRS system. In order for the Mercedes enhanced DRS system to work, all the driver needs to do is operate the standard rear wing DRS that all the teams have. No other parts of the bodywork are moving or being adjusted by the driver. In my view, this means that the Mercedes system is totally legal. Will the FIA maintain its previous position on this system and continue to agree that the system is legal? And, if so, will RBR and Lotus decide to protest the results at the next race in China? Only time will tell, but the only constant in the world of Formula 1 seems to be controversy.