Renault may have been gaining a “big advantage” during the Japanese Grand Prix due to an alleged automated brake system, says Grand Prix winner and Sky F1 expert Ralf Schumacher.
Renault managed just its fourth double points finish of the season in Suzuka on Sunday, with Daniel Ricciardo vaulting to sixth from 16th on the grid ahead of teammate Nico Hulkenberg, who came home 10th.
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After the race, rivals Racing Point lodged a protest against the French team, with the steering wheels and F1-supplied standard electronic control units (ECUs) from both Renaults impounded by the FIA after the race.
A preliminary investigation was undertaken at the track before the components were impounded for further testing.
Such a brake system — essentially a driver aid — would be in breach of F1’s technical regulations. Aside from the rear break-by-wire, F1 regulations prevent any “powered device” add-ons to the brake systems.
Article 27.1 of the sport’s Sporting Regulations states drivers must “drive the car alone and unaided”.
It’s not the first time this season that Renault has hit technical trouble, with Ricciardo excluded from qualifying in Singapore after the Motor Generator Unit — Kinetic (MGU-K) on his R.S.19’s power unit encountered a sudden power spike on his second-fastest lap in Q1.
In Singapore, Renault elected not to appeal the decision, but argued the spike “offered no measurable benefit” to his eventual P8 result, and claimed the advantage had been just 0.000001s.
In the wake of the latest drama, Renault says it will “prepare an equally detailed case to rigorously defend its position”.
However, Schumacher believes the factory squad is in a “questionable” position and penalties would force a dramatic “rethink”, with Ricciardo and Hulkenberg to have had a significant advantage should the accusations be proven.
“The driver is normally responsible for adjusting the brake balance, so if it is happening automatically you could brake later and take more speed into each corner,” Schumacher said.
“It would be a big advantage … an automatic system controlled electronically could do it much better and faster than the driver can manually.”
According to Schumacher, Renault could be facing severe penalties along the lines of McLaren’s role in the 2007 Spygate scandal, which saw the Woking squad fined US$100 million and disqualified from that year’s constructors’ championship.
However, while believing a negative outcome would be a “catastrophe” for Renault, Schumacher added that Racing Point must surely have considerable grounds to accuse their rivals of using such a system in a sport which requires rigorous scrutineering.
“The suspicion must be reasonable, because it’s an unwritten rule that you don’t accuse another team of something like that unless you’re 100 per cent sure,” Schumacher said.
“If they’re right, it’s a catastrophe for Renault.
“The FIA already seems overwhelmed with the simplest decisions, and this is definitely a mammoth task.
“They need to be completely sure, because it would be a huge setback for Renault.”
After the race, even Ricciardo was shocked by the performance of his car as he raced from P16 to P7 by race’s end, before being elevated to sixth following time penalties for Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
“I knew we’d have a bit more pace in the race but to come up to seventh, we didn’t really expect to get that far up,” the Australian said.
“I’m really happy to finally get back in the points and have a race which was trouble-free for us.
“I thought we were going too long on the medium because I was starting to lose a lot of temperature in the front, I felt like my last few laps were a bit too slow.
“But the team said we were still on target. I listened to them basically and then we had a good chance to attack at the end.”