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Formula 1's Kinetic Energy Recovery System

Collects Energy Under Braking and Releases it in Bursts of Power

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KERS Kinetic Energy Recovery System

A warning sign tells mechanics that the KERS system is disactivated and the car is safe to touch without rubber gloves.

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Max Mosley and the International Automobile Federation decided 18 months before the 2009 season that all teams must develop a Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or KERS, for use in the 2009 season. It was part of the effort to make Formula 1 more environmentally clean and relevant. It was also intended to make the sport of more use to the car manufacturers that owned teams, as a way for them to use F1 as a laboratory to develop technology for their road cars. And also to sell those road cars by showing off the technology.

KERS Ceases to be Compulsory

At first some of the teams were not happy about the expense required to develop the technology. But then several teams began to develop KERS and decided it was worth the effort. However, when the economic downturn hit the sport in the winter of 2008/2009, the FIA decided that KERS would no longer be compulsory. It cost so much to research and create that teams were given a break in order to reduce costs. But the unforeseen consequence of that hit immediately in the first races of the season: The teams that had spent more time developing KERS than the aerodynamics of the car, ended up paying. KERS cars were slower than the so-called double diffuser cars, that had a special rear airflow design. So in the first races, no KERS cars won.

The KERS Idea and its Drawbacks

KERS was intended not only to help the environmental image of the sport, but also to help in overtaking and therefore to create a better, more exciting racing spectacle.

Under braking the KERS system takes in and stores the dissipated energy either in batteries or in a flywheel and the driver re-injects the energy into the drivetrain by pressing a button on his steering wheel. The rules stipulate that cars may have a maximum of 80 extra horsepower — about 10 percent more than that produced by the engine — for 6.5 seconds per lap. Drivers may use a single power burst, or multiple short bursts. The batteries are lithium ion. Only the Williams team uses the flywheel system.

But because KERS was not made compulsory for all cars, it raised unforeseen problems. Teams that chose to use KERS ultimately had slower cars than those that did not use it. The main problem is that the devices weigh 45 to 65 pounds and a car must weigh a minimum of 605 kilograms, including driver. Because use of ballast helps in the car’s racing setup, lighter drivers have an advantage, and some heavier ones are running overweight. At BMW Sauber Robert Kubica, for instance, was unable to use ballast at all to make his car easier to drive, while his much shorter and lighter teammate, Nick Heidfeld, could use ballast placed in strategic parts of the car to help the set up and have a car that was easier to drive. So Heidfeld began the season with much better results. But it also meant the KERS cars were slower cars in general up and down the grid when compared to their non-KERS equipped opponents. But KERS did help some drivers overtake and did help with more interesting race as a result. Moreover, it also helped give its drivers a great advantage at race starts - to the tune of a full one or two spots on the grid by the time the cars arrived at the first corner.

The Danger of KERS

The other problem with the system is that it stores electricity and has been known to give shocks to mechanics and other people who touch the car. And as it was in an early stage of development as the season began, it was also unreliable for many teams. The Ferrari team suffered KERS breakdowns on race weekends in what became its worst season start in decades when it failed to score any points in the first three races.

KERS Not so Environmentally Friendly

In the end, the environmental effectiveness of the devices was not that great either, however. On a single lap it would only save about 0.021 liters of fuel, or about 1.47 liters over the race distance. And when that is compared to the amount of fuel burned in a whole Formula 1 race season, it is very little. In fact, as it turns out there is less fuel burned over a whole F1 season than in a single flight of an airliner flying from Paris to New York....

Even so, Formula 1 is indeed a great laboratory for quick development, and it is expected that if the KERS cars had no advantage in the early part of the first season of their introduction, they should have one by the end of the season. And within a few years, Mosley and some of the teams expect KERS will have developed systems of use to the car manufactuers that would never have developed so fast otherwise.

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