What is Active Suspension in F1?
Active suspension, in the context of Formula 1, is a technology that aims to enhance the performance and handling of race cars by actively controlling the suspension system. Unlike conventional passive suspension systems, which rely on fixed components like springs and dampers, the active suspension uses sensors and computer-controlled actuators to continuously adjust the car’s ride height and damping rates in real-time.
History of Active Suspension
Active suspension was developed independently by two different teams.
Lotus was the first team to venture into active suspension, renowned for pioneering ground effect downforce. Back in 1983, they were the trailblazers in experimenting with an early active system on the track.
Their primary goal was to gain precise control over the car’s ride height. By doing so, they aimed to optimize and manage the downforce generated by the ground effect. However, Lotus didn’t use this active suspension consistently, and it eventually fell out of use by 1987.
Around the same time, Williams worked hard to develop their own active suspension system. Unlike Lotus, Williams’ focus wasn’t solely on maintaining a constant ride height. Instead, they had their sights set on enhancing the overall aerodynamic efficiency of their car.
Williams started their journey by experimenting with a reactive hydraulic suspension system in the late 1980s. Later, in the early 1990s, they took a leap forward by introducing a fully active system.
The culmination of their efforts was the 1993 Williams FW15C, which was equipped with an advanced active suspension system. This system allowed each wheel to be independently controlled electronically, enabling the car to adapt to various dynamic forces. Moreover, it could be customized for each circuit.
- In 1987, Lotus pioneered active suspension technology in Formula 1.
- In 1992, Williams harnessed active suspension technology to secure victories in both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships.
- In 1993, Williams enjoyed a dominant season, clinching 10 out of 16 races due to their advanced active suspension system.
The Benefits of Active Suspension in F1
Improved Grip and Traction
- Active suspension could adapt to changing track conditions, providing optimal grip and traction at all times.
- It reduced wheel-hop and improved tire contact with the road, enhancing cornering speeds.
- Active suspension countered pitch and roll motions, keeping the car stable during acceleration, braking, and cornering.
- This allowed drivers to push their cars to the limits without fear of losing control.
Enhanced Ride Comfort
- Active suspension improved performance and made the cars more comfortable for the drivers, reducing fatigue during races.
The Downside of Active Suspension in F1
While active suspension promised numerous advantages, it faced criticism and concerns, ultimately leading to its ban.
Cost and Complexity
- Developing and maintaining active suspension systems was expensive, making it a technology accessible primarily to the wealthier teams.
- The complexity of the systems required highly skilled engineers and significant research and development resources.
- Teams with more significant financial resources gained a distinct advantage, as they could afford to invest more in active suspension technology.
- This created a potential imbalance in the competitiveness of the sport.
Lack of Mechanical Challenge
- Some purists argued that active suspension eliminated the mechanical challenge that had been a fundamental aspect of Formula 1.
- Traditional engineering aspects like tuning passive suspensions and aerodynamics were overshadowed by electronic wizardry.
The Ban on F1 Active Suspension
In 1994, after just three years of active suspension use in Formula 1, it was banned by the FIA. The ban resulted from concerns over the increasing costs and the perceived loss of the human element in racing.
Smaller teams found it increasingly difficult to compete with the financial might of the, larger teams that could invest more heavily in active suspension technology. FIA sought to level the playing field by eliminating this technology.
A Return to Mechanical Skill
The ban on active suspension was seen as a way to restore the focus on the drivers’ skill and expertise and the cars’ mechanical aspects. The sport wanted to maintain its identity as a test of human and engineering prowess.
The rapid development of active suspension systems raised safety concerns, as accidents resulting from system failures could be catastrophic. The FIA wanted to reduce the risk of potentially dangerous failures.
Can Active Suspension Fix Porpoising?
Porpoising is when the rear of an F1 car bounces up and down, especially on straights. It happens because of the way the car’s floor is designed to create downforce.
When the car gets too close to the track, airflow under it stalls and the car jumps up. Once it rises, the airflow starts again, and the car gets pulled down, creating this bouncing effect. It’s tough on the car and really uncomfortable for the drivers.
This issue occurred several times, most recently with the 2022 technical regulations, and most drivers advocated for it.
I guess if active suspension was there, it could be solved with a click of your fingers. And the cars would naturally be a hell of a lot faster if we had that.
Active suspension could fix it as it would keep the car at a constant height above the track, preventing that bouncing effect. But it’s not all good news. Active suspension would add weight to the cars, which are already pretty heavy. Since 2009, F1 cars have been getting heavier, and adding more weight isn’t ideal.