Hours after an enthralling Australian Grand Prix, the popular podium achieved by Daniel Ricciardo was thrown out and he was stripped of his second-placed finish.
The Red Bull Racing Renault driver was disqualified for a fuel flow irregularity, with the scrutineers representing the sport’s governing body, the FIA, ruling that the #3 Renault-powered car had exceeded the maximum allowable fuel flow rate of 100kg/hour required under the current regulations.
In their ruling, the FIA stewards ruled that Ricciardo’s car had “consistently exceeded” the allowable fuel flow rate and after a mammoth hearing, a ruling was made some six hours after the finish that his podium finish was null and void.
Red Bull Racing immediately announced its intention to appeal – citing a fault in the fuel sensor itself (which the FIA acknowledged) – but its case looks weak. A high fuel feed rate would have given Ricciardo a competitive advantage, and despite the brilliance of his drive on Sunday, the rules are the rules.
The details of the ruling made for interesting reading. Ricciardo’s initial practice Friday runs showed inconsistencies in his fuel feed numbers, as detected by the sensor (a design authorized by the FIA) on the car. The team elected to fit a replacement sensor to Ricciardo’s car overnight, and on Saturday afternoon, he qualified on the front row, much to his surprise and the delight of his home fans.
The fuel feed readings on this new sensor were still not satisfactory, and so the FIA instructed the team to swap it out and revert to the original sensor used on Friday, while clearly instructing them to use an ‘offset’ to the fuel flow such that it would be legal. Red Bull Racing, believing that this original (replacement) sensor was unreliable, ignored the directive and applied their own fuel feed calculation instead.
During the race, the sensor again detected abnormally high fuel feed readings – identical to the levels seen in Friday’s second practice session – and so the FIA’s technical delegate sent a request to the team, giving them the opportunity to readjust their fuel feed back within the limits it was prescribing.
“By making an adjustment as instructed, the team could have run within the allowable fuel flow,” the stewards ruling read.
“Regardless of the team’s assertion that the sensor was fault, it is not within their discretion to run a different fuel flow measurement method without the permission of the FIA … [We] gave the team the opportunity to be within compliance. The team chose not to make this correction.”
While the eventual ruling was not a surprise given the evidence laid out against the team, the reason for the initial summons certainly was. The main question we in the media were all asking was: How could a fuel flow rate of 100kg/hour be exceeded when the driver only has 100kg of fuel as his total allowance in a race that lasted over 90 minutes?
Looking at it overall, Ricciardo could not have exceeded that fuel flow limit.
That logic applies if you take a literal interpretation of the wording of the regulations. Article 5.1.4 of the Technical Regulations is a single sentence: “Fuel mass flow must not exceed 100kg/h.”
That’s quite a vague statement, and the FIA scrutineers have clearly taken a more detailed interpretation, undoubtedly pro-rating the calculation down to a smaller time period – probably minutes or seconds.
That’s all well and good, but the regulation isn’t written to indicate this interpretation is acceptable. This will probably be one angle that Red Bull Racing will apply when it lays out its argument in the FIA International Court of Appeal, which will rule on the Stewards’ interpretation of the regulations and issue a final decision on the race result.
The team’s other argument will centre around its claims that both fuel feed sensors were faulty – that being the only justification under which the disqualification can be reversed – but it would appear that the FIA ruling has this angle covered.
“[There] is variation in the sensors. However, the sensors fall within a known range, and are individually calibrated. They then become the standard which the teams must use for their fuel flow.
“The team stated that based on the difference observed between the two readings in P1, they considered the fuel flow sensor to be unreliable. Therefore, for the start of the race they chose to use their internal fuel flow model, rather than the values provided by the sensor, with the required offset [as we instructed].
“[Even if] the sensor showed a difference in readings between runs, it remains the homologated and required sensor against which the team is obliged to measure their fuel flow, unless given permission by the FIA to do otherwise.”
The appeal will be heard by the FIA’s International Tribunal in Paris on a (as yet) to be determined date in Paris.