Why the FIA has got tough on F1 car inspections
At the Bahrain GP the FIA's technical department introduced a new weapon in its ongoing fight to police the increasingly complex Formula 1 technical regulations.
After every race this season, the FIA will select a finishing car at random and subject it to a deeper level of checks and analysis than is usually the case, focusing on particular areas.
Teams are trusted to show up with cars that are fully legal, and indeed the F1 sporting regulations note that "competitors must ensure that their cars comply with the conditions of eligibility and safety throughout each practice session and the race," and that "the presentation of a car for initial scrutineering will be deemed an implicit statement of conformity."
Cars are not examined in detail every weekend. For example, after the race in Bahrain all finishing cars were weighed, and all underwent a series of tests of parameters related to how their power units were operated during the race.
However, only the Red Bull of Sergio Perez and the AlphaTauri of Yuki Tsunoda were subject to extensive checks of every possible dimension. In addition, nine cars were checked specifically for oil consumption, and oil samples were taken from the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Hamilton's car also donated a fuel sample.
What has not been seen until now in post-race scrutineering or at any other time during the weekend, is the FIA routinely taking a deep dive underneath the skin of a car and dismantling particular components for more detailed analysis.
The change of philosophy is so significant that it was revealed to the teams in a technical directive and then explained to the wider world via a note from the Bahrain GP stewards.
Ferrari mechanics in the garage with one of their cars
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
"The reason for this process is because obviously cars have become more and more complicated, and very difficult to dismantle," says the FIA's head of single-seater technical matters, Nikolas Tombazis.
"And also, in a race weekend, there's very few opportunities, or no opportunities, to actually go into enough detail.
"All teams are deeply suspicious of their competitors, and they think, well, maybe team X or Y is doing something. And I'm sure that maybe on occasion, some things may have happened below our radar.
"We don't have any suspicions or anything now, but we thought it's a good practice to start checking cars a bit more thoroughly."
To help with the process, the FIA has added three staff members.
One reason for the advanced warning was to ensure that the teams always have engineers on duty who can deal with any queries that emerge from the inspections.
"On Sunday after the race they need to have the necessary support back at base if necessary," says Tombazis. "We don't want them to tell us 'John is actually at a barbecue. Sorry we don't have the guy.' We want that guy to be available.
"Clearly we hope that we never find something wrong, because we don't want people to be cheating of course. But in the remote chance that there was somebody cheating we would like the team when we start the check to tell us the other car is the same, or not the same.
"If we have any suspicion about any car, we can still select any other car to do the same, it doesn't change our normal operation in any way or shape. But being random it means that it can theoretically hit every car anytime and therefore if somebody had something dodgy, they will think about it twice."
What the new checks are not designed to reveal is anything akin to last year's biggest technical scandal, the Racing Point brake duct copying case:
A mechanic works on the car of Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes-AMG F1
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
"The copying side, we do other checks for that. And we've done some already, for example, this year, and these are separate. These are more CAD and so on. They're not what we're doing Sunday night."
How will the process work?
Essentially, a car number is selected out of a hat. That car will undergo the usual scrutineering bay checks, and then be taken back to its garage.
"What would happen typically is that the car will be selected immediately after the chequered flag and communicated to all the teams," says Tombazis.
"That car will be fast-tracked through the platform and the weighing and the normal classic checks, so that it goes back to the team's garage as soon as possible.
"Two or three people from the FIA will be there to start with. Then the FIA people who finish the normal post-race [checks] will be joining them. It will start from two or three and it will end with five or six people there."
The actual job of taking the car to pieces will be done by the team's own mechanics.
"We don't have the knowledge," Tombazis concedes. "We have at least two people in our team who are senior mechanics, or past mechanics. And we've done that in order to have this higher level of familiarity with the cars.
"But the cars are fairly specialised nowadays and you can't just start going there and dismantling."
The FIA staff will know in advance which elements of the car they intend to address.
"We are going to be splitting the car in approximately 20 macro areas," Tombazis explains. "And we're going to be selecting two or three to check thoroughly each time. As we build a bit more confidence and we make sure the logistically we can handle it, we may increase that, hopefully."
Inevitably, there will be an element of time pressure. At flyaway races, cars and equipment have to be packed for freighting on Sunday evening, and in Europe there's always an urgency to get the cars into the transporters and away. Now teams will have to wait for the FIA guys to finish their work.
Mechanics push Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL35M, back into the garage
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
"There's no limit as to the time. So if we find there are some deeply troubling aspects, then the worst scenario is that we would say to the team, 'Sorry, you need to stay on here until we finish.'
"Clearly, we will try to be reasonable. And we don't want to be upsetting the whole world by making them lose their flight in the freight. And we do have the option if something is too complicated to put it in a box and seal it and then to check it afterwards.
"We haven't put a maximum amount of time, but we will try to be reasonable, and not to screw everybody's schedule."
An intriguing aspect of the checks is that while they are primarily about technical compliance, they will also give the FIA valuable information related to the policing of the cost cap.
"We would be doing this work anyway, unrelated to the cost cap," Tombazis explains. "However what we are doing more thoroughly during this process is recording parts of the car.
"The teams have to declare in their cost cap the inventory they use. Clearly a car has maybe 15,000 pieces on it. We can't check 15,000 pieces. But if a team says these are the 15,000 pieces that are on my car we can check 50 random components and check they're on their list, and basically keep them honest in that way."
The car chosen after the race in Bahrain was the Mercedes of third-place finisher Valtteri Bottas, and the focus was on its suspension.
A Mercedes could still be chosen randomly for checks at the next race, or the one after. The FIA also has the right to select a second car if it has a specific reason to do so.
"We will be doing this every race," says Tombazis. "I can't tell you that there won't be a race or two when maybe there's some other big drama going on, and maybe we will be distracted or something like that. It's not like we have to do it from a regulation point of view, but we want to do it.
"Occasionally, when we are a bit more used to it, we may choose two cars if necessary. Or if through the random process we've had a car that hasn't been selected for 15 races or something, we may decide to add it and do some extra checks, potentially. Or if we have suspicions, we may still decide to do it.
"But we want to have this random aspect so that any car can be checked at any time. So theoretically, the same car could happen five times."
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