A matter of interpretation

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As the 1994 Grand Prix season approaches there’s still a worrying degree of vagueness in the rules

As these words are written, there are only 70 days before the start of the 1994 FIA Formula One World Championship. Teams say that they think they understand the spirit of the new regulations, but few are willing to admit that they really know the regulations themselves. Ron Dennis, speaking in December at the launch of McLaren’s Land Speed Record challenger, said: “I think I know more about the rules governing record attempts than I do about the 1994 F1 regulations.”

Dennis is a great champion of the fly-by-wire electronic throttle, and at that same lunch defended the use of that great enemy of exciting motor racing, traction control. He sees the new regulations changing the fundamental balance of Formula One.

“I think the way the regulations are now hands the World Championship to high-performance engines. It’s basically a formula of high wing angles, and semi-sophisticated suspension systems. I believe that Formula One has to be the technological pinnacle of motorsport, and I think it still will. But it’s going to be much more difficult to demonstrate that fact.”

Eddie Jordan concurs, but from a different viewpoint. As one of the less well-funded team owners, he was a vociferous opponent of hi-tech F1, but agrees: “Without pushing back the boundaries of technology continually, Formula One will not be what it should be.”

The benefits of traction control first really became apparent to outside observers at Magny-Cours back in 1992, when with slick Goodyears in the rain Jean Alesi was at one stage lapping as quickly as Nigel Mansell was on wets. A lot of that was down to Alesi’s own brilliant car control, but the man himself was totally unimpressed. ‘Great race!’ I ventured later on. He shrugged and scowled. ‘Nothing to do with me . . .’ It was evident even then that the real racers derive little satisfaction from driver aids.

Dennis avers that a ban on such systems is undesirable, and unworkable, and his defence of them is down to simple pragmatism. “I don’t think that you should ban something you can’t police. I know that if I instructed anyone in our group to build something in contravention of the regulations, that they would refuse to do it. There would be no point in my asking or instructing them. They simply wouldn’t do it. That’s the culture here.” McLaren’s culture is something he mentions very frequently, while suggesting that some other manufacturers aren’t so scrupulous. “That culture doesn’t exist everywhere. In some organisations it’s quite normal to follow strategies that are based on: ‘You demonstrate that my car is illegal’,” he claims.

That’s the problem with traction control. How do you tell if it’s fitted, and working?

In the old days, of course, you just listened for the flatulent note as cylinders cut out, like a rev limiter in overdrive, but the new systems that some teams are currently testing no longer rely on visibly detectable wheel sensors. One has purportedly tried one which uses hidden g sensors, and simply eases the throttle settings electronically when it detects a change of loading consistent with loss of traction. You don’t need to be a genius to see how carefully programmed such a system would need to be, to avoid the electronics suddenly deciding that the slide generated by the approaching limit of adhesion flat out in a sixth gear corner was, in its mind, wheelspin . . .

“We all have the ability to produce complex software in the engine management system, which would have an effect comparable with traction control systems we’ve seen recently,” continues Dennis, suggesting perhaps that TAG Electronics has already moved on a stage. “And that would be totally and utterly undetectable. Anyone competent in electronics knows that to be the case. So if you’ve got something undetectable, and you know it to be so, the onus is on you to be honest. And I think that not everyone has the same perspective on that. So that’s why I don’t believe traction control should be banned. It can’t be policed. You need a source code to get into the software, and even if you’re Albert Einstein, without that source code you won’t do it, no way.”

Enter the spectre of the FIA. You may disagree with the manner in which it sought to impose its immediate will on the face of F1, with all that nonsense last year in Canada, but some limitation on technology was essential if the category wasn’t to price itself out of business – and render the drivers almost optional. President Max Mosley is now living down his volte face – having condoned, nay encouraged, technology the previous year, but the indications are that while active suspension and anti-lock brakes have successfully been heaved into the skip, traction control may remain a major loophole. Recently he has reiterated the remarks he made at the Japanese GP last year, sensing that the odd veiled – and not so veiled – threat might not go amiss in deciding the path each team elects to follow.

In theory the driver is now his own traction control system, which is precisely as it should be for the more sensitive and delicate will again be rewarded. Whether that will strictly be true remains to be seen, but the FIA’s most cunning ploy is to deem the drivers as guilty as the teams if the latter are caught cheating, for this puts another body on the side of the angels. No driver is going to be unaware that his car is limiting its own traction, in the way that he might blissfully be unaware, say, of any irregularity in its fuel. Thus he is as likely as anyone to argue against anything that puts his championship points at risk.

“The biggest problem is interpreting the rules,” Mosley stressed. “Parliament makes the laws of England, but doesn’t enforce them. That is up to the judges, and that’s the way it should be in Formula One. The judges should interpret the rules we introduce.

“I can promise that there will be very serious consequences for anyone who flouts the rules. We are talking about long-term bans for anyone – team and drivers – who offends.”

What the best systems of government have always needed is benign dictatorship. These are the rules, stick with them and you won’t have a problem. It gives people the necessary guidelines. That’s why, as we keep pointing out, NASCAR works so well. To his credit, Mosley has sought to impose strong government in F1, although you might not agree with some of his methods or perceived motivations. Now his latest comments are akin to the headmaster addressing assembly. And while it may be naïve of him to expect as mixed a group of people as the F1 team owners to act in harmony – after all, look how manifestly they failed to agree on anything last year – he is at least prepared to treat them like adults insofar as he is putting the onus on them to police themselves. Whether they do or not remains to be seen.

Some teams – notably those opposed to hi-tech – are taking the bans literally. Sasol Jordan’s new 194 challenger has been designed in full compliance with the rules, super-late though they were in being defined and released by the FIA. Steve Nichols, the team’s new Technical Director, says: “The rule changes have obliged everyone to adjust their priorities and rethink everything. Its up in the air; nobody knew what was what for a long time.

“Hopefully it will close things up this year if the bigger teams have fewer technological toys to play with, but then the new regulations will require more development and the bigger teams can then put their resources to better effect on that . .” In other words, don’t expect miracles. Back in the 1980s all we heard from the lesser teams was the chorus, ‘Wait until we swap to Michelins; then we’ll be competitive.’ Once on the French rubber, few moved any further up the grid . . The gaps may close up, but it’s hard to envisage anyone getting on terms with the Big Four.

The effect of the new regulations, Nichols suggests, is that “Priorities will be re-evaluated aerodynamically for the new breed of passive cars. There will be a major reshuffle. There is a limitation being placed on the engineers, which naturally we don’t like, but any time there are rule changes there will be more problems to solve and a lot more thinking. Hopefully it will make Formula One more attractive.” Others say that the longer a set of rules is extant, the closer competition will become. McLaren’s form in the last three races of 1993 suggests that is a valid argument.

Jordan’s Engineering Director Gary Anderson, who designed the 194, agrees with Nichols, and adds: “1994 will be all about optimising the tyres. Traction control could cope okay with the new narrower tyres last year, but now that it is banned it will be more important to look after the tyres this year.” Again, one hopes that artists will thus be rewarded.

But will active, though banned, really disappear? Already there are worrying indications – worrying to the purist, that is – that traction control will forever be part and parcel of topline motor racing, just like down force.

Says Anderson: “We know what the intentions of the rules are, but the bigger teams are trying to get them modified for what they require. It’s just a matter of waiting to see what the interpretations are.”

And therein lies the rub. I’m not alone in fearing that we may come back from Interlagos unclear who really won the opening race of the World Championship, after the ‘victor’ has been protested. One fervently hopes that pre-practice scrutineering is successful in weeding out any anomalies. The last thing F1 needs right now is a championship interrupted by another sordid – and public – bout of technological disagreement and uncertainty over the results. Ultimately, it’s going to be a battle between those teams that are honest, those that aren’t, FIA Technical Delegate Charlie Whiting and the FIA’s individual race stewards. Spot the professionals among that lot, and the weekend amateurs. If the pros handle things, there should be some semblance of common sense quite quickly; if the stewards have the final say, I’m not so sanguine. Remember Hockenheim last year? DJT

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