Banned! – Beryllium

Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona, start, 2000The banning of Renault’s mass dampers last year and the Michelin tyres in 2003 generated substantial press interest and controversy.

In contrast the banning of beryllium and its alloys from F1 cars and, in particular, their engines did not.

But that ban still rankled deeply within the team hit hardest by the rules change – McLaren.

The last two seasons of the 1990s were all about the battle between McLaren and Ferrari. A battle which was fought behind close doors over the minutiae of the rule book as much as it was on the track.

From McLaren’s trick rear brake uncovered at the start of 1998 to Ferrari’s dubious barge boards late in 1999, neither team every missed an opportunity to smack the other down with a volume of the FIA technical regulations.

As Ferrari’s car performance drew closer to McLaren’s, the differences in engine power between the two became starkly clear to Ross Brawn. He realised that McLaren’s Mercedes engine was able to rev as high as Ferrari’s, but with a longer piston stroke, ultimately delivering more power:

With a longer stroke, Merecedes reaches the same revs we do. God knows how they do it.

A substantial part of the explanation for how they were doing it lay in the elastic properties of beryllium – an exotic and carcinogenic material used to produce either the pistons or cylinder linings as an alloy with aluminium.

On October 6th, 1999 the FIA moved to ban beryllium, giving the teams until the end of the following season to remove it from their engines, though only Mercedes and Peugeot were using it.

Beryllium was banned entirely for 2001, and Adrian Newey gave an insight into the problems that caused McLaren following the season:

The power we had in 2001 was no more than the power we had in 1998. We obviously need to improve on that.

Central to the argument over beryllium were the issues of cost and safety. Not only expensive to procure, the material proved extremely difficult to work with.

Although it is poisonous and carcinogenic, Ron Dennis insisted that, once manufactured, it posed no danger.

Itallian Grand Prix, Monza, 2003, startThis came out during an infamous press conference at Monza on September 12th, 2003, when Dennis, Brawn plus Flavio Briatore and Frank Williams faced each other over the FIA’s controversial ban of Michelin’s tyres.

For Ron Dennis, the tyre ban brought back the injustices he perceived in the banning of beryllium:

There is a complete track record, one that goes back well beyond tyres, on teams who managed to obtain a completely correct and legal advantage only to find that advantage is removed. Beryllium is one of the examples, I won’t go into all the details of the beryllium story but I can tell you that to actually process pistons in such an exotic material is very technically challenging, it requires very careful control of the machining process because it is a carcinogenic material but once actually manufactured it has no danger whatsoever to anybody that is handling it or processing it or using it in a Grand Prix engine. And when we were using beryllium very successfully there was no reason why we should not have been able to continue using what was a very good technical advantage coming out of months and months of research and a great amount of funding.

Of course, the beryllium ban did not help control engine building costs – in fact, it may have worsened them. Seeking a similarly elastic material that did not contravene the regulations at least one team began using a mixture of boralyn and aluminium that proved even more expensive.

Over time the FIA must have grown weary with fussing over individual parts of the engine regulations to control costs and chosen to implement the regulations we know today – where engine specifications are frozen for a fixed number of years.

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6 comments on Banned! – Beryllium

  1. VAUGHN said on 10th February 2007, 2:08

    The real danger with beryllium is not cancer, it is a chronic, incurable, sometimes fatle disease called Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD) Do a Google search to educate yourself. Some peole are amazingly sensitive to beryllium, a very tiny amount of beryllium dust in your lungs could ruin them forever. The exhaust from an engine with beryllium-containing wear parts WILL have enough beryllium to be dangerous to a significant portion of the population.

    Working with, especially machining, beryllium is very dangerous. Even fully complying with OSHA regulations has proven to be not sufficient to stop all instances of CBD. My family has been touched by this terrible disease. We do not need beryllium, racing does not need beryllium.

    • The Dude said on 18th March 2009, 20:10

      Vaughn,

      WTH are you talking about??? Engine exhaust containing beryllium. Why would the exhaust gas contain beryllium. You’re off your rocker and reading your ignorant comments is a waste of everybody’s time. Berylliosis affects 2% of the population and exposure from F1 exhaust is impossible.

      • Mike said on 23rd June 2010, 9:56

        His argument seems very plausible, he clearly states how exhausts could contain it, from wearing engine parts. And personally unless you can explain why he’s wrong, I’ll be happy to read his idea’s as credible ones.

  2. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 10th February 2007, 10:08

    Thankyou for that enlightening contribution. I did a little look into CBD and found this:

    “Because we do not know of a definite “safe” level of exposure below which sensitization and disease do not occur, it is important to limit beryllium exposure to the lowest level possible. In the workplace, you should substitute another product for beryllium if at all possible, avoid dry sweeping of work areas, use proper exhaust ventilation and equipment, minimize the number of individuals who have access to areas where beryllium is used, ensure respirators fit properly and are used appropriately, change clothes before leaving the beryllium area and work facility, and ensure employees receive regular training on the proper handling of beryllium, as well as the hazards of beryllium exposure.”

    http://www.nationaljewish.org/disease-info/diseases/occ-med/beryllium/about/sensitization/about.aspx#chronic

    I think the “substitute another product for beryllium if at all possible” advice makes the point very clearly.

  3. Nacho said on 16th April 2008, 22:04

    Don’t bother with what you find on Google regarding beryllium. Most of what you read is tainted in some way by money. Lawyers, substitute competitors, or media/book peddlers for the most part.
    Beryllium is more common on earth than silver. If someone tells you they can save you from it by banning it, just chuckle, pat them on their little heads and get on with your day.
    No metal is safe to inhale in dust form.
    Not one.

    • Mike said on 23rd June 2010, 9:57

      True, but have someone throw and apple and a hammer at you.

      What you might notice is that although neither are safe, one is significantly worse than the other.

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