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This new sensor is how F1 plans to stop teams cheating in 2020

A Ferrari Formula 1 car
Enlarge / Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari at the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix.

One of the big stories in F1 during the latter half of the 2019 season concerned exactly what Scuderia Ferrari was doing to get so much power out of its engine. Its cars were undoubtedly the fastest in a straight line for much of the year, although a “technical clarification” issued in November by the FIA—the sport’s governing body—coincided with a drop off in the Italian team’s speed.

Things got a little more interesting in February of this year, when the FIA announced that it had reached an agreement with Ferrari following an investigation into the matter. The announcement was more than a little cryptic, and part of the agreement with the team was a condition that while Ferrari wouldn’t do it again, exactly what “it” was will remain a secret. The 2020 F1 season is on hold thanks to the coronavirus, but if the cars do get back on track this year, they’ll do so with a new sensor that’s designed to prevent a possible repeat of last year’s shenanigans.

It’s only cheating if you get caught

When the F1 rule book changed in 2014, ushering in the current era of expensive, complicated, and overweight F1 cars, some of the regulations were meant to make the cars more fuel-efficient. One rule limits the cars to no more than 100kg of fuel during the race, and a second restricts the rate at which that fuel can be pumped into the engine, which can’t exceed 100kg/hr. (F1 measures fuel by weight, since the volume of the liquid can change depending on ambient temperature and air pressure.)

There were two main theories about what the Scuderia was up to. The less imaginative one involves the engine’s intercooler, which reduces the temperature of the air after it’s been compressed by the turbocharger. In Ferrari’s case, it’s an oil-to-air intercooler (as opposed to water-to-air). Perhaps, some thought, the intercooler was leaky, allowing some oil to escape into the combustion chamber along with the air. That oil would be burned during the combustion event, which would mean a more powerful “bang” pushing down on the pistons.

The other theory is far more ingenious. Perhaps Ferrari was somehow manipulating or interfering with the fuel flow sensor, an ultrasonic device that samples fuel flow at 2,200Hz. This theory was given some credence when in November, rival team Red Bull Racing asked the FIA, hypothetically, whether it would be allowed to use the fuel pump to vary the fuel rate, such that it was below the 100kg/hr limit during each sampling event but above it during the gaps in between. In F1, if you suspect another team is cheating, you often ask the FIA whether it would let you do whatever it is you think that other team is doing, hoping for a response in the form of a technical clarification that says “no, doing X is not allowed,” and in this case, the FIA did exactly that.

A couple bits of evidence pointed to this indeed being Ferrari’s advantage. For one, its cars definitely appeared to lose some straight line performance from this point in the season on. And for another, it would explain how one of its cars was found to be carrying too much fuel at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Not a lot—just 4.88kg—but enough to explain the roughly 5 percent power advantage that the Ferrari engine appeared to generate. (For an explanation on why you’d want to run with more fuel than you declare when that means a weight penalty, I recommend Mark Hughes’ explanation over at MotorSport.)

Now that should be impossible

Although we’ll probably never know exactly what the Italian team was doing in 2019, if it was manipulating the fuel flow sensor, that should be impossible from now on. The 2020 rules now require the cars to run not one but two fuel flow sensors (both supplied from Sentronics). The first sensor the fuel encounters on its way from the fuel tank to the engine is the same Sentronics unit as last year. This is connected to the car’s engine control unit, and the teams are able to see its data in their telemetry streams.

But instead of the fuel then going to the engine, it passes through a second Sentronics fuel sensor. This one uses anti-aliasing to randomize when the device samples the fuel flow, which should make it impossible to synchronize the fuel flow such that it exceedes the limit in-between sampling events. Additionally, the data from this fuel flow meter is encrypted and gets sent to the FIA secure data recorder that each car is required to carry. That data is inaccessible to the teams. Finally, these secondary fuel flow meters will be looked after by the FIA, which will tell each team which particular sensor to use in each car at the start of the race weekend and which will also collect the sensors at the end of each race weekend to prevent any tampering.

Sentronics

“This new variant of the FlowSonic fuel flow meter is not only one of the most technologically advanced currently available, but is an important step forward in improving the FIA’s policing of the maximum fuel flow regulations in F1. We’re proud to lead the market in solid-state fuel flow meters and to demonstrate our ability to develop world-class technology in rapid timeframes,” said Sentronics Managing Director Neville Meech.

When will we see it in action?

With any luck, we’ll get to see F1 return to action later this year, although FIA President Jean Todt addressed the global motorsport community on Monday, saying that “protecting people has to be the priority” and that “at this stage we have no clear visibility on when our life will be back to normal.”

If, like me, you’re a racing fan trying to stave off withdrawal, I recommend acquainting yourself with both YouTube and Twitch. Although racing esports have lagged behind games where you run around shooting people or casting spells at dragons, there are now a whole lot of professional racing drivers with time on their hands and sim racing setups at home, and after this past weekend’s successful events, esports organizers like Torque, Veloce, and Podium all plan many more events to keep us entertained. And if you have the skills, who knows—you could even line up on that virtual grid next to superstars like Max Verstappen.

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