The opening round of the 2012 F1 season could yet be marred by a technical row as rival teams ponder whether to protest the Mercedes W03 on the grounds that it contravenes the regulations.
The Brackley-based team has emerged as a potential frontrunner this season, with both Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg setting competitive times, but there are those among the opposition who believe that it could be gaining an unfair advantage from its front and rear wing design, which are believed to offer enhancements to the Drag Reduction System via a version of the now-outlawed F-duct idea.
With blown rear diffusers also banned, and attempts to replicate their effect hampered by enforced repositioning of the exhausts, teams are looking to other areas in an attempt to regain lost performance. The Mercedes system is thought to use the car's existing DRS system, specifically the movable section of the rear wing, to uncover a hole on the inside of the endplate, which then channels air to another section of the wing in search of extra speed.
FIA technical delegate Charlie Whiting initially claimed that he saw nothing illegal with the innovation, but rival teams believe that, with the driver dictating when the DRS system is employed, it contravenes rules concerning movable aerodynamic devices. Sources in the Melbourne paddock suggest that, following further unproductive meetings with Whiting, several teams, led by Lotus and Red Bull, could be considering an official protest. Even if the move fails to have the Mercedes device banned, the process may reveal vital clues as to its operation which would make it easier for the opposition to copy. Interestingly, McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh told Sky Sports that he believes the Mercedes system to be legal within the current wording of the regulations.
The original F-duct idea was outlawed ahead of the 2011 season, after teams began copying McLaren's initial system, leading to concerns that, in some cases, having drivers remove their hands from the steering wheel to initiate the rear wing stalling, it was adding to the danger factor.
Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, meanwhile, was coy when asked about the concept during the second of the weekend's official press conferences, but admitted that, in his opinion, technical innovation should not always be squashed by ever-tightening regulations.
"Innovation is the lifeblood of F1 racing, I've oversold that point already," he claimed, "Obviously, I'm not going to go into detail of what people are calling the F-duct. In fact, I'm surprised they are calling it that, because I don't quite know what that means. We have an interesting system on the car and it's not complicated at all, so I'm sure other teams are looking at it and they need to decide if it's worthwhile or not. But it's not in the same magnitude as the diffuser concept that we had [as Brawn in 2009] or even the exhaust concepts the cars ran the last few years. It's obviously helpful, that's why we're doing it, but it's not a massive performance gain."
With the W03 also understood to be running a front wing stalling device that has evolved from an innovation first seen at the tail-end of 2011, Brawn and Mercedes are proving to be among the most innovative outfits on the grid.
"It's great for F1 because, for me, the magic of F1 is not just the drivers, it's the technology, the engineering, the innovation, the stories that fill the web pages and the media," the Briton explained, "It's something that I think is a great thing for F1. When I hear these people talking about how we need to have standard cars and just let the drivers… they miss the whole point of F1, which is the magic of everything that happens in F1.
"You know, we've got drivers out there, world champions, who are perhaps not in the best car at the moment and that's a story. That's a great aspect of F1. We have world champions in much better cars and the teams without the better cars have got to fix that and improve. So it's great people are talking about different things. Today it's us, tomorrow it will be somebody else. That's why F1 is so fascinating, why it's so appealing to our fans and enthusiasts."