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Jury still out on F1's new KERS system
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One teams are racing against time to perfect the new KERS technology that will give world champion Lewis Hamilton and his rivals a burst of extra power at the push of a button.
Whether they even use the controversial kinetic energy recovery systems once the grand prix action starts in Australia on March 29 remains very much in the balance, however.
With testing prohibited during the season, the teams have only a few track sessions left to satisfy themselves that their systems are reliable and safe. If in doubt, they could leave them out.
Most are reserving judgement, with even those considered furthest down the road on development still facing plenty of hurdles.
"We definitely haven't decided (whether to use KERS)," Williams technical director Sam Michael told Reuters. "The jury is still out on whether we start with it or not, not so much from a performance point of view, but more about reliability.
"It's about making sure we get the reliability worked on. That's the big challenge."
Formula One is divided between those, such as BMW-Sauber, who welcome KERS as a ground-breaking challenge and others who spit out the four-letter word with some resentment.
Renault team boss Flavio Briatore is in the latter camp, detecting potential danger and a gross waste of money at a time when the focus is on cutting costs in the face of global recession.
"I think it is a terrible mistake," the Italian said at the launch of his team's new car in Portugal last week.
Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, at loggerheads with the governing body on a number of issues, agreed. "I have always been against KERS," he said recently. "It costs a lot of money when we are trying to save it."
Presented as a way for the sport to change its gas-guzzling image and contribute to road car development, as well as improving the show with more overtaking, KERS recovers and stores as electrical power the energy generated and otherwise lost when a car brakes.
The principle is similar to that in road-going hybrid vehicles with the typical system consisting of an electric motor, a control unit, an energy storage unit and boost button on the steering wheel.
The driver can release the energy at a time of his choosing to gain an additional 80 horsepower for a maximum of 6.7 seconds. That could be enough of a kick to stave off a chasing car or to get the edge on a rival in front.
BMW-Sauber's research has focussed on lithium-ion batteries while Williams have developed a flywheel system.
No team is obliged to fit KERS this year but equally no team wants to go without it and then see rivals gain an advantage.
The solution is likely to be a standard system for 2010, with the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) agreed to that. Force India are already taking the KERS developed by McLaren-Mercedes along with the engine and gearbox.
Briatore said that made it even more galling to have to spend heavily on development this year.
"We know already for 2010 there is the option of the standard KERS so whatever money we spend this year is for one year only and in this kind of environment, I think it is completely unnecessary," he said.
Toyota motorsport president John Howett, who is also vice-chairman of FOTA, said his success-starved team would be weighing up the pros and cons. Without KERS, the cars would be lighter and able to use more ballast.
"I think we have to think very hard and see whether the benefit of KERS is really there. Based on the facts we have during this five- or six-week test period, we will make the decision at the end of the winter test season," he told Reuters.
BMW-Sauber boss Mario Theissen, whose title-chasing team have been testing KERS for six months, remained optimistic.
"I don't know if we will be ready for Melbourne but that's the nature of innovation. You take some risks, you don't know when it pays off," he said. "I'm pretty sure it will pay off at some point in the season and then it might become the crucial factor."
Theissen said the work had already helped the Munich company's road car engineers to make progress in battery technology, the motor and electronics.
"Our position in the discussions has been that KERS is important for Formula One because it will put (the sport) into the role of a true technology pioneer," he added.
An incident at the Jerez circuit last year, when a BMW mechanic suffered an electric shock from touching the car, highlighted the dangers. Even when turned off, the high-voltage circuit remains live for around a second.
The risk of exploding batteries has also been raised.
"I think we need to develop a system that is safe enough for mechanics, drivers and good enough to finish the race with no problems. We cannot have any retirement from KERS," said Renault's double world champion Fernando Alonso.
"If the KERS is still not working in the last test before the season, it is better if you remove KERS and don't race with it the rest of the championship," added the Spaniard, who nonetheless welcomes the new challenge.
"It's more work for the drivers so hopefully they don't cut our salaries because we need to press so many buttons now on the steering wheel."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)
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