Formula 1 Insight

Dr Mario's Mistake

I really need a day off. But I have to take issue with Dr Mario Theissen over his statements regarding the double diffuser and BMW's protest against it in Malaysia.

Nick Heidfeld
Nick Heidfeld battling with Lewis Hamilton in the rain

Dr Mario is usually one of the most sensible people in F1 but I think his objection to the trick diffuser is based on erroneous reasoning and annoyance that he did not think of it first. Here is what he said:

Once again, the dominance of the teams using the two-level diffuser was there for all to see in Malaysia. As early as qualifying it was difficult to break this trio's stranglehold.

The FIA must take urgent action to clarify the situation, to rule out different interpretations of the regulations. This kind of thing is not good for the sport. Sport is only interesting if everyone plays to the same rules. The diffuser issue is the equivalent of a 100m race, in which some runners start 10m in front of the rest of the field. The result would be ludicrous.

With this in mind, we lodged a protest after qualifying in Malaysia. It is purely a formal matter. It is intended to ensure that the result in Malaysia is also taken into consideration in the judge's decision in the appeal proceedings on 14th April.

We have, of course, been forced to start developing a similar solution. The teams without the so-called double diffuser must retrofit their cars in order to be competitive, and this cannot be done in one fell swoop. The trio already racing with this solution will also continue to develop. We must assume that there is still potential for plenty of improvements in this sensitive area.

It goes without saying that this torpedoes the cost reductions we were striving towards. Another aspect is safety. The aim of the new aerodynamic regulations was to reduce cornering speeds. The double diffuser means that these speeds are even higher than they were last year.

For a start, Dr Mario is incorrect when he says that different interpretations of the rules should not be allowed. Max Mosley, Charlie Whiting and the stewards have already said that the diffusers do not contravene the letter of the law. That means that they are legal and all appeals to the "spirit" of the law are irrelevant. If Dr Mario did not heed Ross Brawn's warning a year ago that the loopholes existed, then he has only himself to blame for BMW's failure to agree to a tightening of the rules or to develop a double diffuser himself.

The fact is that everyone is playing by the same rules - some missed a trick in their understanding of them, that is all. Far from "not being good for the sport", this is the very essence of the engineering competition that is F1. Every major advance in the design of the cars has been made by an engineer who saw what was possible within the law, while others remained stuck in the accepted status quo. If Dr Mario's statements were correct, John Cooper would have been stopped when he put the engine in the back and F1 cars would still be front-engined, Lotus would not have been allowed to introduce the monocoque chassis, Chapman would have been told he could not utilize ground effect, Renault's introduction of the turbo would have been banned immediately - the list is endless.

I know Dr Mario understands this; it was not that long ago that he designed a BMW rear wing that flexed at high speed. That was actually beyond the letter of the law and was rightly outlawed, but it shows that the good doctor understands the principle of being cleverer than the others.

The really sad fact is that the protesting teams are claiming the performance advantage of the trick diffuser teams as a reason for banning the device. In wanting to include the Malaysia results in his protest, Dr Mario shows that he agrees that this is a good reason to have the diffusers outlawed. Are we then to assume that any team that gains an advantage over the rest is doing something wrong?

Performance advantage is what engineering is all about - there would be no point in designing a car if you did not intend it to be better than the rest. And, in all the examples of new interpretations of the rules that I have mentioned, the innovation gave the team introducing it a decisive advantage over the rest. That was the idea, after all.

The matter of safety and cornering speeds is a canard. What has made the big difference in speeds this year is the return of the slick tire and the diffusers have made very little difference in that area. Take a look at Red Bull lap times and this becomes obvious.

My readers will know that I am a fan of both Dr Theissen and his team. It was a disappointment for me to read of BMW's protest, therefore, and I do not enjoy having to point out the doctor's muddled thinking on the issue. I realize that it must be very frustrating to have his plans for BMW's success this year thwarted by other engineers who out-thought him, but the correct reaction is to accept that he lost this battle and then knuckle down to the work of designing a double diffuser for his own cars. At least he has had the sense to have begun that work.

And, if it's the money that is worrying him, I suggest that he throw the silly KERS device away now, before it wastes any more cash and potential points.


I agree with you, Clive.
I normally rate Dr. Mario Thiessen highly, but in this case he is wrong.
There is also the question about how much advantage it really gives. Red Bull without the trick diffuser are very close and when Rubens diffuser was destroyed in Melburne, he was still fast.

The long time Honda/BrawnGP spent on development just made a better car in all areas. It is not just the diffuser.

I disagree with you about KERS, it is one of the few things where I instead agree with Max.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Good points, Hezla. The Brawn has proved itself to be the best design even without the double diffuser. I suspect that the Toyota, Williams and Red Bull are not far behind. BMW's car would probably be amongst that group if they added a trick diffuser but it won't get them ahead of Brawn.

As regards KERS, only time will tell. If I am wrong, it will be your turn to say, "I told you so!"
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Mr Soap
"Rubens diffuser was destroyed in Melburne, he was still fast."

From my understanding, one of the advantages the double diffuser brings is an increase in the maximum height of the diffuser, and therefore a greater volume in the diffuser area. Even if the bottom tier was removed, the space afforded by the diffuser would still have a greater volume, and therefore still have the an advantage over a regular diffuser, it just wouldn't be as efficient as it was before.

Date Added: 07/04/2009

Mr. Soap: Maybe, on Danish television in the weekend Tom Kristensen tried to explain the viewers how Brawn GP diffuser work.
As I understand it, there is "channels" leading the airflow to the V hole in the middle and then create a bigger vacuum in the areas around the V. If this V is destroyed then the vacuum will get a lot more air and as a result and less vacuum even though the volume might be bigger.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Green Flag
Excellent piece, Clive. Only one misstep, right at the end. KERS is not silly. And it’s one of the few mechanical systems in F1 where anything goes and where clever, innovative engineering can produce a real advantage. Within 18 months, and likely before the end of this season, a non-KERS equipped car will not be able to lead a race.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Mr Soap: The double diffuser teams cannot just remove the lower element of the diffuser - it would then exceed the maximum allowed height. If the WMSC decides it is not legal, the upper element would have to be removed and the lower be shaped as in the other diffusers.

As I understand it, the upper element is legal at present because it cannot be seen if viewed from directly underneath the car; the height of the diffuser is measured from the ground to the lower element. Remove the lower element and the measurement becomes ground to upper element - and is greater than allowed.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Green Flag: Thank you. As regards KERS, we shall see. And, if I'm wrong, you can say "I told you so" with Hezla! ;)
Date Added: 07/04/2009

What makes KERS silly to me is not the technology of KERS, it is the fact KERS is 'optional' at the moment.

That IS silly.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Green Flag
Clive, KERS is an engineering problem and all engineering problems can be solved, and made reliable, with time, effort and money. All three are assiduously being spent on KERS by all the major teams and by certain non-F1 KERS developers. Be assured that lighter weight, more powerful systems are on the way. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

It was intelligent of the FIA not to make KERS compulsory. They were aware of the complexity and difficulty of developing KERS and didn’t want to burden smaller teams in the early stages of the technology. However, not having KERS will soon be big disadvantage, particularly when the power and usage duration limits are raised in 2011.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Green Flag
Clive, your piece was about engineers extracting performance advantages within a given set of rules, in this case the new diffuser rules. But when it comes to KERS you somehow believe that engineers will not be able to gain advantages over their less innovative opponents. Admit it, you’re against KERS because it was Max's idea. Or maybe you can't accept technological changes; I can almost see great grandpa Clive assuring his friends that "those flying machines will never work... if I am wrong, it will be your turn to say, 'I told you so!'"
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Steven Roy
I am sure Mario is just using the protest as a way to justify the comparitively poor performance of BMW to the share holders. BMW have set a series of targets which they have met. This year the taget was to challenge for the title. He has two options. He can say we failed or he can say other teams had an unfair advantage to justify not doing that.

I am with Clive on KERS. First I think it is insane that anyone thinks the place to recovery energy from in a vehicle with an internal combustion engine is the brakes. Why do radiators and water cooling exist? To vent excees energy from the engine to atmosphere. Max says he can't believe in ten years that there will be a car on the road that does not recover braking energy. So he sees a situation where millions of cars travel the motorways of the world with the drivers barely touching there brakes and at the same time venting heat to atmosphere from the engine. Additionally millions of cars will be travelling through towns and cities at speeds too low to generate any significant braking energy while venting........

In F1 KERS is not an anything goes technolgy. There are limits on what can be recovered, stored and used and further limits on how it can be used. Next year there are even discussions of standard KERS which goes entirely against the reasons for justifying it in the first place.

I also hate the idea of push to pass. That has no place in motor racing. Overtaking should come from one driver doing a better job than another not by pressing a button at just the right second.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Green Flag
Steven Roy: (1) Your response shows that you are not an engineer, nor do you have any concept of engineering. KERS is totally unrelated to the vehicle’s friction brakes. The idea behind KERS is to extract the most energy from a gallon of fuel by recovering or regenerating a vehicle’s kinetic energy that otherwise would be dissipated as heat via the friction brakes. In other words, the kinetic energy is diverted before it gets to the brakes to power an electric generator that converts the kinetic energy to electric energy and stores it a battery and/or supercapacitor. Alternatively, as some teams prefer, the kinetic energy spins a flywheel which acts as the energy storage device. Since energy is either work or heat (basic Physics 101), the brakes are used less, since passing the energy through the recovery system (the generator or flywheel) slows the vehicle. The stored energy is then used, again via the generator (now acting as an electric motor) or the flywheel, to propel the vehicle at the driver’s discretion.

(2) KERS is an anything goes technology. The rules only constrain the technology by permitting no more than 60kW power (about 82 hp) and 400 kJ per lap, which works out to about 6.6 seconds power usage per lap. So engineers can use any technology they like to design their KERS: electric, flywheels, pneumatic, hydraulic or even spring based. The only constraints are the power output and its duration, which in future years the FIA will increase to extract even more performance.

(3) KERS has huge potential in road vehicle. FYI, an F1 car weighing 1350 lb decelerating from 200 mph to 40 mph generates the same kinetic energy as does a 35,000 lb city bus decelerating from 25 mph to a stop. The only difference is that the F1 car does it in 2.5 seconds, the bus in 12 seconds. Reusing that electric energy to accelerate the bus from a stop can save around 30% diesel consumption and about 40% exhaust emissions because low speed acceleration is the diesel’s least efficient area in its power profile.

And lastly, right now all cars have a push-to-pass button; it’s called an accelerator pedal. Having another one on the steering yoke/wheel that accesses additional power is a wonderful idea for a racing car. You obviously have never raced.
Date Added: 07/04/2009

Number 38
Hey! Clive, you'd better find your stripped referee shirt, Steve Roy and Green Flag are going at it! ha ha

My view on KERS .... maybe it will work someday but it hasn't shown any real advantage yet. Isn't it odd that Brawn and Toyota running without it lap better than any that do have it. Alonso doesn't like his, Massa DOES like his but it hasn't done a thing for him in competition.

And to argue the diffuser is a better advantage than the KERS doesn't hold water either, explain Red Bulls performance without either. Whether KERS is improved in the future is of little consequence to me, consider the cost for such limited return in performance.
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Steven Roy
Green Flag,

I do actually have some qualifications in physics and I have actually raced.

Regardless how the energy is recovered, converted and re-used there is still a lot more energy being wasted from the engine than the brakes in the majority of road cars.

To me an anything goes technology is something that has no artificial limits on it. Turbos were not introduced with a maximum boost limit and ground effect was not introduced with limits on the shape of the venturi tunnels or any other aspect. The reasons those technologies developed so quickly is because there was a lot to be gained. Limiting the return from KERS means that instead of the teams putting the effort Max wanted them to put into it they will still concentrate on aero because they can gain real performance there. They will still try to reduce weight etc but the teams with KERS are already recovering the maximum energy allowed so why develop it if we are having standard KERS next year? Put the budget into aero development and take the short and long term rewards.

So long as road vehicles have internal combustion engines it makes far more sense to fit Stirling engines to recover waste engine heat than using KERS to recover braking energy when so many cars run round cities at 30 mph or as I do regularly complete 3 or 4 hour motorway journeys when the brakes are used a couple of times in all that time.
Date Added: 08/04/2009



the big difference is that Chapman, Cooper et al operated
in an environment when the limitations were primarily
the imagination of the engineer as to what was physically

BMW, Mclaren, Ferrari, Renault et al knew perfectly well
how to do what Brawn et al did. As was said by by
one of the three (I think williams) everyone used this
technique as a loophole in the old rules.

What has sadly happened is that the commendable imagination of what is physically possible has been substituted
by the less admirable imagination of what is legally possible as
within the framework of a set of rules that are designed to
artificially constrain by morons that don't realise that being
to specific and prescriptive always always always introduces loopholes.

Why not simply limit the downforce in a wind tunnel at
a given speed. That is what the rules tried badly to do.
The race between the teams would then revert to
i) minimising drag (and improving fuel consumption)
ii) the unintended consequence of minising downforce
at that one specific speed while maintaining downforce at other

Date Added: 08/04/2009

FIA announcement:

The FIA have extended their leadership and commitment in
the reduction of costs of participation in the Formula
One World Championship. We realise it is imperative to
place Formula one on a sustainable basis in the current
economic crisis, diversify the engagement of FIA
with industrial partners to include non-traditional
sponsors outside the ailing automotive sector.

Thus, we are pleased to announce the WMSC will
henceforth be known as the Hasbro-WMSC brought
to you in conjuction with the manufacturers
of the popular Monopoly board game.

The currency of operation of punitive fines imposed by the Hasbro-WMSC to participants in FIA motorsport championships will henceforth be applied in Monopoly money.

At our introductory event, Lewis Hamilton will be issued with a lifetime supply of get out of jail free card in
recognition of his candid admission of guilt and willingness to implicate Mclaren. Were he to accidentally drag Max Mosely’s nemesis Ron Dennis into
the mud he would be invited to “take a chance” with
Mr Ecclestone arranging a free transfer to the team of his naming.

In celebration of our new partnership motorsport will
now become a game of chance, with participants invited
to roll a steward dice at of the properties they visit
during their annual tour.

The unlucky parties will proceed directly to jail,
do not pass the finish line and be driven out of the game by demands for monopoly money.

Date Added: 08/04/2009

There is an interesting article on with the headline "KERS not to blame for teams' struggles" -

De la Rosa says the balance of the car is almost identical with or without KERS

It confirms what I have been thinking, its not KERS there is the performance problem for McLaren, Ferrari and Renault

Date Added: 08/04/2009

Aracer: The good thing about making KERS optional is that the teams can throw it away when they realise how big a disadvantage it is! :D
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Green Flag: I do not doubt that, in time, KERS can be made worth the time, money and effort put into it. Unfortunately, that won't be this year and after that it will all be wasted since Max will bring in a standardised KERS system. That will most likely be Williams' flywheel version - Max has already had second thoughts about the battery type in view of its dangers.

Don't be so sure that the engineers can quickly improve their systems to make them safe, reliable and worth the effort. In the sixties it became apparent that one day the world would run out of oil and intensive research began into electric cars. That required that new and better batteries be developed and we can buy some of the results over the counter now. But there is still no battery that meets the necessary criteria for practical use in production cars and the ones that get closest are expensive, dangerous and environment-unfriendly. Not all engineering problems can be solved overnight.

I have no doubt that Max will endeavour to cover up the stupidity of his KERS idea by increasing the power storage allowed next year until finally it becomes worth having it on the cars. But this year the teams would be better off ignoring the option like Ross Brawn has done. It is no accident that the BGP 001 is not slated to have KERS this season.

It is true that I dislike KERS because it is Max's idea - and I cannot think of a better reason to be against something, given his idiotic rule changes in the past. But I also consider it inappropriate for F1 in that it does nothing for racing. As so many are realising, once everyone has a system, any advantage that might accrue from it will disappear. It is merely an expensive add-on that brings nothing to the sport.

And don't get me started on its primary purpose, the push-to-pass button...
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Another clear-thinking review of the facts, Clive. I've always felt one of the big attractions of F1 is that it's the pinnacle of motorsport. What keeps it there? Creative engineering. Ross and his crew played by the rules and found a neat way to increase performance. Dr. Mario, as talented an engineer as he is, apparently was not as creative and is thus paying the price for it. Simple as that.
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Number 38: I was away when Green Flag and Steven Roy were discussing their views on KERS so could not referee. Things seem to have been resolved well enough in the end and it remains to be seen who is correct - time will tell.

I must mention that it is not constructive to use insult as argument, however. The matter of whether a commenter is an engineer or not has nothing to do with reasoned discussion - it is merely an attempt to claim greater insight on the part of the accuser. If one's arguments cannot persuade another through reasoned explanation, nothing is gained by resorting to irrelevant put-downs.
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Peter: I agree that regulation in F1 has become restrictive to the point where innovation is almost impossible. That is why the double diffuser is such a good thing - it may be the last time that the engineers manage to circumvent the rules sufficiently to give a performance advantage.

Aerodynamics has become the bad boy of the sport in that it makes passing almost impossible, so I agree that its influence must be limited by regulation. Fiddling with dimensions and weights is not the way to do this, however - a simple ban on wings would achieve the desired object without the possibility of loopholes being exploited. How could you slip a wing through the rules without it being noticed?
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Hezla: Pedro de la Rosa says one thing, other drivers another. It may be pertinent that he has not had to race with KERS fitted and he might feel differently were he called upon to do so. But remember, too, that he is talking of the McLaren MP4-24, a car that handles well enough but suffers from a lack of downforce. In such a situation, weight distribution is indeed less important and McLaren's main task is to increase downforce before worrying about small improvements possible with a decent amount of ballast.

Cars that are handling well feel the lack of ballast to a greater extent, however. Their basic characteristics are good but they need the flexibility of ballast to fine tune the car for each circuit. Those tiny increments are what separate the best cars and are the reason why the order at the front fluctuates slightly from race to race.

Take the Brawn BGP 001, for instance. It has probably the best chassis but was expected to do less well in Sepang than in Melbourne because the longer straights in Malaysia should have favoured the KERS cars. Yet Brawn's advantage remained - to the extent of a second a lap when Button really went for it. The reason for that is the adjustment possible with more ballast to play with; the Brawn can be dialled into a circuit better than a KERS car.
Date Added: 08/04/2009

Don: Thank you. We should also remember that the most inventive engineer is not necessarily the best. Colin Chapman may have introduced ground effect to F1 and, as a result, he had a year of domination while the others designed their own ground effect cars. But it was Patrick Head and Gordon Murray who proved to best at getting the most from ground effect and Lotus never returned to prominence in the era that Chapman had created.
Date Added: 08/04/2009

I strongly disagree that a 'push to pass' button is bad for racing. It may very well be technology driven, however, so are the performance advantages of different tire compounds.

In Champ Cars the last few years of that series, each car had 60 seconds of higher turbo boast to use at their disposal. It made the racing interesting strategically.

Would the drivers and teams use the extra boost with the soft tires, the hard tires, to make up positions at the start of the race, the gap the field before their second pit stop?

Strategy, technology, and racing go hand in hand.

Date Added: 08/04/2009

Oh no, Aracer, I'll not be drawn so easily!

Suffice to say you like it, I don't. :D
Date Added: 08/04/2009

I don't really understand why KERS is in F1 or even if it belongs there.

However, it has not taken away from driving skill any more then dozens of technology driven components over the years.

Examples: launch control, traction control, computer controlled suspensions, etc.

The list of technology driven enhancements which MAY eliminate driving skill from the equation is HUGE. Such is F1.
Date Added: 10/04/2009

Aracer: KERS is in F1 for one reason only - it was Max's idea and must be persevered with therefore.

The technological advances mentioned by you all had profound effects on the driving skill required. Remember how everyone thought Massa would have trouble when traction control was taken away? He struggled at first but overcame it in the end.

KERS, however, has little or no effect on driving skill as far as I can see. It is simply a matter of deciding when to press the button to get a boost of power and I think anyone could make the right decision on that. From a racing point of view, I see KERS as a hindrance at present and ultimately (when everyone has it) a completely pointless exercise.
Date Added: 11/04/2009

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