Tech Draft: Formula 1 should bring active suspension back

Tech Draft: Formula 1 should bring active suspension back

With ‘porpoising’ being the main talking point of Formula 1 in 2022, this edition of Tech Draft will argue why Active Suspension should be re-introduced as a solution.

One of the more interesting technical observations of the first pre-season test of the 2022 season, the very first time that the new technical era designs have been seen together on the circuit, is the ground effect induced ‘porpoising’ oscillations in ride height that most, if not every car has experienced.

It is an issue that is very difficult to predict and to replicate in the wind tunnel and CFD, but this does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to resolve.

One of the more popularly discussed solutions is the lifting of the prohibition of active suspension in the sport, and it is a very relevant solution.

In this article I will discuss what active suspension is, why it was banned from the sport, how it is a solution to the ‘porpoising’ phenomenon, what the impact of its reintroduction might be on a modern F1 car, and what the options in introducing it might be.

What is active suspension and what is its background in F1?

Active suspension in an F1 car is a system, generally hydraulic or electronic, that controls the attitudinal behavior (pitch, roll and yaw) of the vehicles at any given moment. Rather than relying on the passive actuation of dampers and springs as the wheels move over the track surface, a passive control system will provide force to maintain optimum attitude.

Active suspension first began to be developed for use in F1 in the early 1980’s by Peter Wright at Lotus, who, ironically enough, was in search of a resolution to the ‘porpoising’ the Lotus 80 was experiencing due to the huge amounts of downforce its ground effect tunnels were generating.

Active continued to be developed and used in F1 in various forms through the 1980’s, primarily through both Lotus, and Williams, who gradually took the concept somewhat further and into a far more advanced and complex system to that of Lotus.

As Williams, under the leadership of Frank Dernie and Paddy Lowe, developed the system further and into the early 1990’s, its ability to maintain the aerodynamic platform attitude in optimal position became active’s raison majeure.

When and why was active banned?

By 1993 it had become necessary for F1 teams to research and develop driver aids such as active suspension, semi-automatic gearboxes, electronic braking assistance, traction control, and launch control if they were to have any chance of being competitive.

F1 was at such a technological zenith that it was decided the technical regulations needed to be reined in for the 1994 season onwards as a measure to contain the spiraling costs required to remain competitive in the sport, and to put the spotlight back on to drivers’ skills.

Such was the anti-driver aid sentiment at the time that I to this day still remember the infamous “Drover’s Dog” editorial letter published by Autosport that year, implying that even a trained dog could get podium results in that year’s active Williams FW15C.

It was a point in the sport’s history that probably hasn’t been exceeded since.

Was the reintroduction of active considered during the development of the 2022 regs?

We are all aware that the primary objective of the new 2022 technical framework for F1 is to make it easier to follow the car in front each when at closer proximities with the hope that it will promote more overtaking, and more exciting races.

Development of the 2022 technical regulations has been a long process, and lead by a team of well known F1 engineering identities comprising of Ross Brawn, Pat Symonds, Nicolas Tombazis, and Rob Smedley.

The primary method used in this pursuance is the minimization of the turbulent wake thrown rearwards by the cars by means of the use of ground effect as the primary downforce generator, simplification of front and rear wing devices, and the abolition of complicated vortex generating barge board assemblies.

The current issue of ‘porpoising’ aside, interestingly the consideration of overturning the prohibition of active suspension was considered as the new framework was developed.

Curiously, in 2019 when asked directly whether active was considered Tombazis’s response was: “It was evaluated because compared to the very complicated hydraulic suspension that currently get used an active system, even electronic, would be potentially cheaper than what the current very complicated hydraulic system is.

“We felt that having the front car optimised in a very clean and very clinical condition would mean that the result would be more sensitive and hence worse for the following car. That’s why we rejected active suspension,” Tombazis explained.

I must admit to finding the rationale behind Tombazis’s confusion, because if the very intent of the new aero regulations is to promote more laminar flow and less turbulence rearwards, then to me the inclusion of active would only help promote more favorable performance conditions for both the car in front, and behind.

My feelings seem to be supported by Ross Brawn’s own thinking, who when asked in 2017 how active suspension might impact F1’s ability to follow one another answered: “The problem with following a car is that the balance changes and that would be prevented with active suspension.”

What is the impact of active suspension on a modern F1 car?

Over the years and prior to their banning from 2022 onwards, F1 teams had developed highly complex additional suspension control elements and ‘inerters’, be they hydraulic, mass, or electronic to aid in the attitudinal control of the car’s aerodynamic platform, and the inclusion of an active system would provide means with which to control the attitude in their absence.

With the inclusion of an active suspension system behaviors such as ‘porpoising’ would not exist, or at least be mitigated to such an extent that its effect was negligible.

As discussed above, I do not agree that the inclusion of active would be prohibitive to a car following another closely, nor to overtaking.

However, the inclusion of active would have an impact on weight, and we already know that weight is an issue for 2022, or at least for now.

Another of the more common arguments against the inclusion of active is the argument of cost.

There is no doubt that it is a very relevant argument, however, only so if the responsibility was on the teams to research and develop their own bespoke systems, which is the way things used to be done in F1, but not so now.

Nevertheless, surely the development and operational costs of an active system in the modern day would be comparatively less than what it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

There are options for reintroducing active

It is perfectly acceptable in this modern era for F1 teams to use controlled supply system hardware and software, hence it would be perfectly fine in modern F1 to approach the market to tender for the supply of a specified active suspension system (hardware and software). This method would control the purchase costs and amortise its development costs.

Removing or at least significantly reducing the costs associated with researching and developing suspension systems might be a worthy consideration given the FIA operation cost cap.


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