Nigel Mansell, Williams, Imola, 1992

Why F1 rejected proposal to legalise active suspension in 2021

2021 F1 season

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A proposal to bring back computer-controlled active suspension systems in 2021 was rejected because it could have had a negative effect on the racing.

Active suspension allowed teams to optimise the configuration of their ride height and other variables from corner to corner. It was last seen in Formula 1 in 1993, before being banned.

In recent years teams have sought to recreate some of the benefits of active suspension using passive, hydraulic systems. These will be more tightly restricted in 2021, but the FIA’s head of single-seater matters Nikolas Tombazis confirmed they had investigated whether to legalise active systems.

“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,” he explained.

However a decision was eventually taken that reintroducing active suspension would undermine efforts to improve the quality of racing by allowing cars to follow each other closely.

“We felt that if teams were able to develop cars in a very specific, optimised situation like ride height or whatever then the aerodynamic characteristics would naturally be peakier. Which means that when a following car would be there it would be much more sensitive to these small change changes of [air] flow feed and therefore suffer bigger losses.

“So 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.”

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42 comments on “Why F1 rejected proposal to legalise active suspension in 2021”

  1. John Toad (@)
    19th July 2019, 8:25

    Couldn’t active suspension have a mode to be optimised as a ‘following’ car allowing it to more effectively cope with the wake from the leading car?

    1. @ceevee I’m not an expert, but it would seem that with active suspension you can optimize your ground-effect downforce, which is less affected by turbulence. However, I don’t like active suspension because it’s potentially dangerous.

      1. How is it potentially dangerous? It optimizes the mechanical grip going into corners, and keeps the car level, which is one of the biggest disruptors to current aero designs.

        And please don’t confuse modern ground-effects with 1980’s ground effects that required skirts. Think venturi tunnels a la IndyCar and F2.

    2. Active suspension is essentially computer controlled suspension where the computer tries to optimize the ride height and tire loads for cornering, speed and downforce. If such car follows other car then the active suspension would and should automatically adjust for it because following other car takes away downforce which means your ride height goes up little bit and the active suspension’s job is to avoid that.

      I don’t think active suspension is any more dangerous than driving on air filled cylinders made of couple of millimeter thick rubber or using fuel as source energy which can ignite explosively just from sun light.

      1. Jose Lopes da Silva
        19th July 2019, 9:56

        F1infigures is probably thinking about Berger’s crash in Estoril/93.

        1. Asides from Berger’s accident in Estoril, there was also Alex Zanardi being concussed due to a heavy accident during the practise sessions of the Belgian Grand Prix in 1993. That accident was also linked to a failure of the active suspension system on his car, and in that case he was forced to sit out for the rest of the season due to his injuries.

      2. The only issues really with Active Suspension back in the day were the high pressure hydraulic lines to make it work. 2,500psi if I remember correctly. Nobody likes dealing with things that can easily slice off body parts if they leak. The bigger issue was having the system “fail safe”. Lotus’ system used to like to raise all four wheels off the ground!

        Until you can come up with a system that is safe to implement, safe to maintain and fails safe for the driver then it’s not worth it. The sad part is, it’s likely this tech already exists and it was originally invented by Bose.

        1. Bose “invented” only their own version.

          Other manufacturers have their versions of active suspensions, which have been in use for years on normal road-cars. Pretty safe and reliable. No severed body parts.

          1. name 1 car on the road today with an active suspension.

            We’re not talking about the normal deal where the car has comfort/spart/race settings.

          2. @lancer033, I believe that Mercedes’s “Active Body Control” does meet the technical definition of an active system, in that it can apply a direct physical force to the suspension system so as to control its movement.

          3. @lancer033 Buses have active suspension. Okay, a bus isn’t a car, but it is a vehicle that uses the public highway.

        2. Modern f1 cars already have similar danger with high voltages of the electric systems onboard. High pressure hydraulics are dangerous for sure but not that dangerous.

          1. Tesla Model S has 4-corner speed based ride-height control to reduce drag.
            For another, Audi Allroad and while not what you would call “active”, most of the Mercedes wagons since the 80s have some form of hydraulic rear ride height stabilizing system.

        3. @franton, the system that Bose are proposing there is just one iteration of what might be termed “active suspension”, and it is not even close to being the first fully active system. Toyota had already developed semi-automatic systems in the early 1980s, and I believe that Citroen did move to fully active systems in the 1990s.

          Colin Chapman is generally credited with developing one of the first fully active systems back in the early 1980s – Lotus did use an early form of fully active suspension on the Lotus 92 for the 1983 Long Beach Grand Prix, but eventually abandoned the idea in favour of developing their first turbocharged cars, whilst the system they did use in later years was a simplified version of what they used in the 92.

          As an aside, it is worth noting that, whilst the article is illustrated with an image of the FW14B, it’s worth noting that the system that was used on that car was more of a semi-active system at best. Williams themselves mainly used the term “reactive suspension”. Now, part of that was because Lotus technically had the right to the term “active suspension”, but Dernie has also pointed out that it is actually a more accurate description of how it worked – it mainly just reacted to forces applied to the suspension system and then levelled it out, and it was purely for aerodynamic benefits (Dernie has said that he himself thinks that the idea of “mechanical grip” that was often touted around the system was a myth and that the term itself has very little meaning in reality).

          The system that Williams used was actually mostly mechanically operated, and the onboard electronics actually had no real control over the system and couldn’t apply any force to the suspension system. It was really closer to a modified version of the “hydrolink” system that Citroen had invented back in the 1950s for the DS, which used pressurised gas to self-level the car – the main electronically controlled components were the pumps used to pressurise the gas system.

          In fact, it has to be said that most systems on road cars that are termed “active suspension” are really only semi-active or adaptive systems, in that they alter the damping coefficient of the suspension elements, but they do not apply a force to the suspension components directly. That said, Mercedes and their “Active Body Control” system is one example of a true active suspension system on commercial sale, since that can actually apply a force directly to the suspension elements.

          1. Frank Dernie would massively disagree with you, and he designed the Williams system. A “3 legged stool” system that kept the car corner weights in balance isn’t like a hydrolink system at all.

          2. @franton, the description that I’m providing was published by Motorsport Magazine following an interview with Frank Dernie in 2001.

            To quote form the article: “In fact, the AP system was so simple that it barely merited the term ‘active’. Although it relied on powered hydraulics, there was no computer control and no means by which force could be applied arbitrarily to any wheel. Williams would refer to the system as reactive, in response to Lotus insistence that ‘active ride’ was its terminology, and really this was a more accurate description since movement at one wheel was communicated across the car by a system of hydraulic connections.

            […]It comprises three Citroen-like gas spring/damper units, four actuators, three control valves and the pump, tank and accumulator of the pressurised hydraulic supply. Two of the hydraulic actuators are double-acting devices, in which the piston can be forced in either direction; the other two are single-acting types in which the piston can only be forced downwards. The control valves are mechanical, operated via a rod from the suspension arm, and incorporate a mass/spring/damper arrangement that acts as a mechanical low-pass filter. This prevents it reacting to high frequency bump movements but allows it to respond to lower frequency inputs caused by the car body bouncing, pitching and rolling.

            It was an exact copy of this system that Dernie fitted to his FW10 development mule, bar one important change. Whereas in the AP system the double-acting hydraulic struts were fitted to the rear of the car and the single-acting struts to the front, in the Williams system this disposition was reversed.”

            The article itself was drawing an analogy with the Citroen hydrolink system, particularly the use of pressurised gas reservoirs to provide a self-levelling mechanism – that was why I was referring to it in that manner, and it is based on information that was provided directly by Dernie himself.

      3. I think the danger part is a ‘scapegoat’ that they came up with not to implement active suspension for some unknown reason. Current active or semi-active suspension is perfectly capable to account for any number of situations the car is involved in. The statement is a bit awkward from the FIA because it looks that they are talking from 93 active suspension with 93 computer control, when they should know what the current capabilities or systems are.

        1. I agree with you. It wouldn’t surprise me if the racing tractor units have active suspension in them, in fact I’d be surprised if they didn’t. If they do then that just makes a mockery of this decision. If a 5.3 tonne racing truck is allowed to have an active suspension system then why can’t a nearly 1 tonne racing car that pulls 5 G’s at 350 km/h? I think the FIA consulted Luddites before making their decision.
          I was under the impression drivers could adjust the characteristics of their “non-active suspension” from the steering wheel, if so, that again just makes a mockery of this decision. As far as I know this doesn’t bar the use of electronic damping being used either. The only thing being banned here is anything cheap, simple, and effective.
          Franton (@franton) said one system used hydraulic pressures of 2500 psi, which I think is way over the top. I think an air pressure system would be much better, but it is easy enough to put limits on the air and hyrdaulic pressures used, e.g. 20 bars.

          1. I think you are overstating the danger of a pressurized hydraulic system. Aircraft are now using 5000 psi systems and we aren’t seeing mechanics with their hands cut off. As for pressurized air, I think it’s much more dangerous than a pressurized fluid system as there is an enormous amount of stored energy in the pressurized gas. At least with a hydraulic system, once there is a leak the pressure rapidly falls and there is not the stored energy to be dissipated. This is why scuba tanks are tested by filling the tank with water before pressurization; if the tank fails nothing much happens as there is not much stored energy. Knock the valve off a 2000 psi nitrogen bottle and watch what happens as it’s launched through a concrete wall.

    3. Yes it could, but the front car in clean air with active suspension will have a large advantage over the car behind also with active suspension. They are saying that without active suspension the lead car will not have such a big advantage over the following car.

  2. They could have used a semi-active suspension which would probably be cheaper than the current solution and not be custom-made to every track. Also would be road-car relevant. But oh well FIA knows best (LOL).

    1. And might have saved Bianchi’s life.

      And should make aero development substantially cheaper.

      And would eliminate Red Bull’s advantages in the aero department.

  3. Im quite curious about this.

    Would a semi active system been a better comprise? Like a more active version of FRIC?

    1. @jaymenon10 not sure what FRIC is, a semi-active system does not control the actual damper position, but varies the damping rate according to the situation, meaning you can harden or soften the damper according to the situation. How you do this then all depends on software.

      1. @eljueta – FRIC is front-rear interconnected suspension, it was used recently by teams to manage the rake of the car (IIRC) and to manage pitching of the car.

  4. The real reason is probably car weight. Active suspension does come with small weight penalty (say 10kg) and its hydraulics or electronics require energy to work which has to come from the engine.

    1. @socksolid Well the energy needed to power the pumps and servos could easily be siphoned off from the ERS/MGU-H and it’s unlimited energy transfer potential.

  5. How is this better than teams developing active hydraulic suspension that they have now? Will that be banned? There have been several attempts to ban this, but overall all attempts have failed, cars drive as if they had active suspension.

    1. The complex hydraulic suspension setups are to be banned if I recall correctly.

  6. I agree with others here that the FIA reasons don’t make much sense as a modern computer controlled active suspension would surely help close following not hinder it.

    1. Yes, but they’re using the catch-all of stating it will be to the detriment of racing.

      By the end of ’93, Williams effectively had a mental push-to-pass system – effectively DRS on demand – so they banned it. They know full well that the modern teams would be doubling the diffuser volume with dynamic rake if given half the chance.

    2. Obviously not, based on their research. They don’t want the racing to be a game of chasing aero. As they are saying, if the lead car can optimize itself aerodynamically via active suspension, then the trailing car has to compensate, and we’re then heading back towards clean air dependence destroying the concept of closer racing. I’m glad to hear that rather, they want aero to be much more mundane and much less the factor that it is now and would be with active suspension. Yet more encouraging news for the next gen of cars.

    3. I suspect that they were wary of how well they could get a standard, or clearly limited (w. no workarounds) system defined,since it could be a very powerful issue, with lots of software audits required, ie. a mess.

    4. I don’t think it’s about the active suspension not being able to compensate. It’s that the active suspension gives a very controllable car attitude. This allows the cars to have aero surfaces designed to a very narrow window of operating conditions for maximum performance. Anything to upset those conditions such as turbulence takes it outside it’s peak performance window, losing lots of downforce. Adrian Newey’s Autobiography explains it well particularly around the 94 Williams section.

      A car with basic attitude control from traditional suspension components requires aero surfaces that are able to cope with a wide range of operating conditions. That should then increase its ability to handle turbulent air.

      Hopefully that’s not too convoluted and makes sense

  7. One troublesome aspect of active suspension is that it reduces friction to the point it can actually propel the car forward.
    In a passive suspension the shock absorbers dampen out excess wheel travel, generating friction, consuming power and rubbing off speed.
    An active suspension can actively lift a wheel at a bump or in fact every inclination and press down hard on the downslope. The bumpier the track is, the faster the cars would go. And when finally the computer says No they go off track spectacularly.

    1. Oh, interesting point Bart, I guess that means even more potential for complex cheating discussions, ie. not what F1 needs.

  8. Am I the only one reading this, seeing the quotes, and wondering who is being quoted? I didn’t see it being mentioned.

    1. @txizzle, in the article it says

      … but the FIA’s head of single-seater matters Nikolas Tombazis confirmed they had investigated whether to legalise active systems.

      so he is quite likely the man.
      However, I agree that it might have been linked more explicitly.

      1. Ah, yes, it was indeed somewhat slightly hidden-ish. Doesn’t state clearly though that rest of the quotes are his. Either way, not our fault. Thanks for the heads-up. :)

  9. Whilst there is some logic to their decision I’m actually a little disappointed that yet on other development avenue (and a road relevant one) has been kicked to the kerb.

    To me, this focus on “making it easier to follow” smacks of Indycar oval racing, which is not what F1 is all about.

    I’ve been following F1 for many years, and to be honest, for most of those, someone at the front has driven away clear and the rest of the pack has spread out as well. Even before all of the big aero development.

    In other words – there’s usually a team/driver combination that is better that others and that usually translates down the field as a gap.

    This complete focus on standardising a whole heap of development areas and making sure cars can follow may end up being detrimental to F1 because the car that gets it right (and has the best PU set up) day 1 will end up “doing a Mercedes” and the others may not have an opportunity to catch up given the development restrictions.

    I might be wrong but I can see a slippery slope developing here based on a bit of a false premise that the only thing wrong is that it’s too hard to follow when it seems the best of the drivers “can” actually follow and overtake (Max, Leclerc, Hamilton etc)

    Yes it needs to be tweaked but not to the detriment of all other avenues of development.

    The whole point of having a cost cap was to limit the amount of development not stop development and innovation completely.

  10. Lots of great discussion around “active systems” as they were 20+ years ago.
    The technological advances that have been made on the computer and interface side of the ledger since then are enormous. The FIA was forced to mandate standard ECUs not to save money, but to stop the cheating and clever teams from building in all manner of driver aids.
    Imagine an open format active suspension where the computer “handles” the car in such a way that it anticipates corners, bumps and other traffic, it drops the nose to a mm or two of the track surface when and where the engineers program it to. Yes a track and location specific system that knows where it is, what is coming and what to do about it.
    If I am not mistaken, there is a similar fight going on in Moto GP with the teams programming in clever bits of surreptitious software that runs on top of the standard ECU.
    While I may love the idea of active suspension systems, I loathe the expectation of an entire new book of rules for what the designers can and can not do, and do-it they would.

    1. The thing is though that the budget cap “should” control some of this in that if a team wants (for example) to pursue some sort of suspension development, then it shouldn’t have enough funds to pursue some other area.

      If the cap is at the right level, it should allow for a range of initiatives from various teams to the exclusion of their development in other areas.

      This complete over control in current (which appears to be even worse in the new ones) to me is one of the worst things I see in F1 today.

      Give them a set budget and let them develop I say. Sure restrict the complex wings and the horrid barge boards to stop the dirty air (although if you ask Adrian Newley which he’d opt for between more wing and ground effects he’d pick the latter anyway so allowing ground effects will get rid of the complex wings and barge boards) but for goodness sake let’s not ban everything.

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