Spam in the can?

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David Tremayne

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Or pie in the Sky? Of late the racing car has become an even higher percentage factor in determining the competitiveness of a team’s overall package. But has the recent intensive application of technology now created a situation where it has outstripped the drivers’ contribution to an unacceptable level? And what should be done for the future?

Some things are new in motor racing. After he had toyed with and beaten Jacky Ickx’s Ferrari in the 1970 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, driving his cuneal Lotus 72, Jochen Rindt remarked: “A monkey could have won in that car.” It was an extreme, but commendably modest remark. What’s new nowadays is that when drivers win technical advantage is usually the last thing that’s mentioned. Nigel Mansell, for example, as these words were written the only man to have been victorious in a 1992 F1 contest, has been notable not only for his speed on track but also his absolute resolve to play down the technical superiority he currently enjoys in the Williams Renault. Rindt knew that he had driven well that day in 1970, but was comfortable enough with himself to acknowledge the contribution made by Cohn Chapman’s dramatic contender.

Motor racing has always been about building a better car, but the intensity with which the leading teams have embraced technology in recent years, and the manner in which their research has enabled them far to outstrip their less well-heeled rivals, has also bred simmering discontent among the drivers. It’s okay to have an advantage in horsepower – as Senna so often has enjoyed with Honda – or even with fuel – Mansell has no qualms about congratulating the progress of either Renault or Elf – but gain an advantage from the chassis or the suspension, heaven forbid, and suddenly lips are sealed.

Back in the real ground effect days of sliding skirts, finesse went out the window and the bravest came to the fore if they had the right equipment. Only the true greats, of Villeneuve stature, could still make bad cars do what the driver wished, rather than what the car and the laws of physics prescribed.

The ‘villains’ today are no longer skirts, but more esoteric-sounding systems such as active ride and traction control. Mansell, frequently to be seen screaming at Patrick Head in 1988 when Williams’ first active system persisted in malfunctioning and, not surprisingly, frightening even him, took a long time to accept the system second time around. His initial reaction when told of the new traction control designed by Williams for the 1992 season was far from positive. Instead of a technological device that could be of value to his championship quest he argued that it was merely a means of helping Patrese to match his own established prowess at starting… Admitting that he had employed it while winning the Spanish GP he remarked: “I hardly remembered that it existed because most of the time I was aquaplaning,” yet it was noticeable how positive the Williams was in the dreadful conditions.

F1, if you believe some drivers, is on the verge of the sort of hysteria that swept through flying circles in the early Sixties as the Americans planned Project Mercury, their first manned space probe. It took a little while for the notion to gain a full hold at such bastions of the test pilot’s art as Edwards Air Force Base, but it grew relentlessly: The difference between a pilot and an Astronaut was that a pilot actually flew his craft. Under Project Mercury it was originally planned by Werner von Braun and his equally unsmiling cohorts that everything would be fully automated. It was not deemed necessary to have the man inside actually flying the vehicle. No! He would not take off, nor land it. Nor would he even exercise any control over it during its flight. As Jackie Stewart would say, “he would simply be a passenger”.

Why, it was not even planned originally that he would be able to see out! There would be no screen, no hatch, through which this orbital adventurer would be able visually to chart his voyage of discovery. Worse still, the first to test the system would not be human, but apish primate. As Chuck Yeager delighted in pointing out, a monkey would go there first. The astronauts were going to be mere passengers with no influence on the ride. Unable, even, to release themselves after their undignified freefall splashdown to earth. Spam in the can

Today’s F1 superstars aren’t exactly about to be emasculated in quite the same manner, nor to be turned into chauffeurs who just hold the wheel for old times’ sake, but many of them harbour deep misgivings about the way things are going.

FISA, some would say predictably, takes an opposing view, embracing technology and all that it represents. The high-tech image of F1 is one of the governing body’s trump cards when it comes to promoting it, something that marks it out in comparison, it would argue, with lndycars. Max Mosley believes that unity of worldwide senior single seater racing regulations must come, yet it is clear he is thinking more along the lines of lndycars coming into line with Europe, than vice versa.

“Technology must have its head,” he said in Barcelona,” and no doubt several drivers shuddered when they read those words.

In Brazil, Senna had expressed his views of recent technological trends, in particular McLaren’s fly-by-wire throttle system. “Electronics create a different manner in which you must drive,” he said cautiously, although it was already known that he did not like the new system because it interfered with his distinctive throttle-blipping style of balancing a car through a corner. “With the assistance of very modern technology you can fix a car much quicker. It provides the ability to concentrate on one area of the car specifically, as it takes care of another area that you might otherwise need to look at. It changes the strategy you adopt in your driving.

“Some aspects contribute to security – in others the costs are higher and higher. It may lead to a shift in the levels of all the drivers, as it cancels things out. But do you really want to control a skid or braking electronically? That should be part of a driver’s skill. If you miss a shift during a fight with another guy, he passes you. If you have a faultless gearbox, then nobody makes a mistake. Semi-automatic transmissions would make that the same for everyone.

“All this technology changes a lot; some aspects are good but others, I argue, take away some importance from the driver.”

Does it all make it less fun to drive, less satisfying? “Not necessarily. My only comment is that all this modern sophistication changes the parameters between drivers and has a certain influence on the final result. But the pleasure comes from competing, from dominating the machine, getting to know yourself. When you stimulate the limits and go over them, you get to know yourself in a big way. You look for the biggest possibility of speed, in accelerating and braking, trying to be the best in the world. I got pleasure from karts, from Formula Ford and from F3, and it is still there in F1.”

What about fly-by-wire, which in its original aerospace use meant a system in which the machine provided the command signals?

“It changes your style a little,” he allowed with complete understatement, disliking the manner in which the engine management system decides on the match of revs and gear synchronisation. “The control of the throttle and the engine response is done electronically. Its hard to explain how it works, and I am not good enough to explain it. And Ron wouldn’t agree to me disclosing the technical details anyway!”

At Team Lotus Peter Wright staunchly defends technology. Asked whether drivers Herbert and Hakkinen dislike the spy-in-the-cab telemetry whenever they make a mistake, he disagreed. “Well, actually ours do like it because it can help them to drive better, to identify where they’re losing time.” Drivers of the calibre of Rick Mears are also in favour of that, and big enough to admit when they make mistakes. Take away the understandable instinct to conceal errors that is prevalent in most of us, and the idea of knowing exactly where you are losing time has immense appeal, surely?

There is currently a school of thought in F1 that breakthroughs such as active ride should be banned on grounds of cost, but Wright is not alone in pointing out that vast sums are expended on obtaining high downforce by concentrating on the undercar diffusor, which is an avenue of aerodynamics that has nothing whatsoever to do with roadcar application. As an observer, it seens to me that at a time when conservationists are of the mentality to attack anything sporting which poses even the remotest threat to the environment — viz the nonsensical siege laid to powerboating’s annual Windermere Record Week — F1 must be seen to run a clean house.

“In an ideal world there would be less reliance on wings and more on reliable ground effect,” said Mosley in Spain, suggesting that he too has recently read former F1 and now Penske designer Nigel Bennett’s magazine feature comparing F1 and lndycars (which comes out more favourably for the latter). “I do believe that F1 research can have a beneficial effect. I was reading a research paper the other day about how Vauxhall developed the Calibra in a moving ground wind tunnel, and that it was the first roadcar manufacturer to use one. Of course with roadcars you are less concerned with downforce than you are with drag and I accept your point that most countries only allow drivers legally to proceed at 70mph or thereabouts, but I do think that roadcar manufacturers learn a lot from motor racing. I think a lot of things can be translated across, or so I’m told!”

That is as maybe. But even Germany, the last outpost of civilisation where the autobahns have no speed limits, has a situation now where drivers travelling at more than 80mph are automatically held at least partially to blame when they are involved in accidents. Thus it is not difficult to foresee a strong anti-racing lobby developing over the next 20 years. Now is as good a time as any to start harnessing the new technology to the benefit of roadcars and road drivers, to promote a new image. In the past motor racing has lived up to its image of ‘improving the breed’, but these days it gets progressively more difficult to justify that. What good are carbon fibre brake discs going to be to the man in the street with his Vauxhall Astra or Ford Orion?

Both active suspension and semi-automatic transmission arguably originated on the roadcar side, and while both will have definite potential benefit within the industry, they are the very things there is talk of banning!

The issue of exotic fuel brews is something that also needs to be tackled immediately. Let each manufacturer run its own fuel by all means, rather than attempting to impose a single supplier, but make them develop fuels with direct relevance to roadcars so that F1 can be seen to be of more direct benefit than simply developing techniques.

Technology cannot be disinvented, nor should it be, but FISA faces an interesting and thorny problem over the next few years. “I think we should let electronics rip,” says Mosley. What he and FISA do about controlling the application of such technology, however, could have more far-reaching effects than any of us imagines right now.

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