Which is more important, the driver or his machine? The fiercest debate in motor racing will reach fever pitch this season when traction control returns to F1. Is this the final nail in the coffin of the sports most thrilling skill? David Malsher fears it might be
It’s perhaps the most famous image of motor racing: 46-year-old Juan Manuel Fangio at one with the very epitome of front-engined GP cars, the Maserati 250F, at Rouen in 1957, showing the upstarts how 150mph opposite-lock slides should be done. Moss, Clark, Rindt, Peterson and Villeneuve have all since caused our hearts to leap. The moment a car snaps sideways is the moment. The moment it is caught, the way it is caught, the way it was caused, have always been the parameters by which pure driving talent is judged. As grip levels have increased, so four-wheel drifts and opposite lock have played less of a role, but they have always been there — just watch Schumacher make a car dance. It is still what stands the greats apart from the good.
People recall Ayrton Senna’s drive in Donington Park’s monsoon-hit European Grand Prix of 1993 with a misty-eyed fondness. His opening lap was a daredevil display of unchecked aggression; the remaining 75 bore the distinctive mark of his genius. He was brilliant.
But so, indubitably, was his car, traction control and all. I stood at the Old Hairpin and watched in awe as, rounding Craner Curve, a smudge of Day-Glo orange plunged through the torrent streaming across the track to drive around the outside of Karl Wendlinger’s Sauber and take third.
Behind Senna, the other McLaren MP4/8 of Michael Andretti stormed past Schumacher’s Benetton. The German has lit up Formula One with several startling wet-weather drives, yet in this instance appeared comparatively cack-handed, for his B193 had not yet gained traction control. On lap 23, trying too hard in a car not up to the task, he spun out. In contrast, team-mate Riccardo Patrese chose caution over valour and finished fifth — two laps behind Senna.
McLaren and Benetton were running similar-spec Ford HB engines in 1993, so this instance shows the difference traction control can make between the haves and have-nots. No amount of skill in the cockpit could have put Schumacher in the same league as the leading McLaren that day. Rain, once the great leveller, had thrown up a huge anomaly. Outlawed at the end of 1993, along with ABS and active suspension — a move hammered through by FIA President Max Mosley against the will of the teams — traction control has had its official FIA sanction returned, and will be de rigueurin Fl from the fourth round of this year’s title-chase. If this seems an unfathomable decision, the reasoning behind it is distressingly sound. You see, there are rumours it never went away and, in 2000, the whispers became more audible, more persistent. If the FIA wanted to stop F l’s dirty linen from being washed in public, it needed to act quickly.
Mosley: “There are two problems with the current regulation. First, it is difficult to be certain exactly what is going on within the electronic systems on each car. Second, even if we knew exactly what was going on, there might be systems which some would consider traction control but others would argue were merely means to make the engine more driveable. Faced with these difficulties, and the fact that allowing traction control will make little noticeable difference to the racing, it seems on balance better to allow it.”
His logic is undeniable, but to play down how much effect it will have on racing is misleading, surely? An Fl car equipped with traction control in the wet is akin to hitting fast forward on your VCR. A driver’s bravery and confidence becomes paramount, finesse borders on the optional. He can nail the throttle at the apex, run over the kerbs, and still the car will describe a constant radius.
Riccardo Patrese, when a Williams driver, was one of the first to try traction control: “I think I first tried it in September 1991, and I was amazed. The traditional way into a corner was to brake, wait a little bit, and then control the throttle with the foot, balancing between power and traction out of the comer. But with traction control you could brake and then immediately put your foot down and wait because the electronics were doing everything. You didn’t have to care how to manage the power. “In 1991, with the FW14, I had a little bit of an advantage over Nigel [Mansell, his team-mate] in the slow corners, because I was handling the throttle better on the exit In the quick corners, we were similar.
But in 1992, my advantage out of slow corners had gone because the FW14B had traction control.” It boasted active-ride suspension too, which kept it at a constant pitch through a comer, creating huge amounts of downforce. “The quick corners became so heavy on the steering,” says Riccardo ruefully, “and Nigel had more power in his arms.” The majority of the racing greats dislike the way Fl is going. The debate about electronic driver aids has rumbled for years, and will continue to do so, but Stirling Moss does not hesitate to nail his colours: “I’m dead against all things that lessen driver input Formula One is the leading edge of motoring technology, therefore these developments are inevitable, I sup pose, but anything that reduces one driver’s skill over another is not a good thing for motor racing. I would pre fer motor racing to have no wings, no downforce, no ground effect, no nothing. Then the FIA could say, ‘Build your best car within those regulations and get the best driver you can in it.’ “I would do away with downforce, not only because it would have huge benefits as to whether cars could pass one another, but also because it would be one of the easiest things to police.
By contrast, I don’t see how one can police traction control, so I understand why the FIA has allowed it. Grand prix racing contains fantastic cheaters who can do incredible things.” John Surtees, another who excelled in the wet, shares Stirling’s view and his regrets. “You must only have reg ulations that can be controlled. And with technology as it is, there are too many questions over whether traction control has been used recently. That’s a major problem. But the danger is that it reduces the difference between the brave but inexperienced driver, and the very experienced driver with all the subtleties of throttle control, as demonstrated by Schumacher and Senna in recent years. “Every time you bring in a driver aid, you’re widening the area of abilities which can take part and perform. Okay, they won’t have the innate skills of the top drivers, yet they’ll be able to go as quickly.”
Isn’t that an outrage? “Well, there have always been differences in cars, either because it had works Cosworth engines or because it had Colin Chapman design it I used to rely on rain to make up for a deficiency in the car, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it if we’d all had traction control. I acknowledge it’s difficult for someone of my period to make an outright statement because I haven’t driven one of the current Fl cars. But people with no previous experience can get up to a good speed so quickly, which suggests reaching 90 per cent in an Fl car is not that difficult now.” 234
It’s not all about sheer pace, though, as Patrick Head will tell you: “Traction control meant a driver could be much more confident that he wasn’t going to have the back end step out unexpectedly. An even more significant aspect is that, over a period of running on a set of tyres, the rate at which they degrade is much reduced if you’re running traction control.”
A smooth driver, therefore, is going to lose a major weapon in his armoury. If compulsory pitstops have largely removed the need to nurse tyres over a considerable distance, so the reintroduction of traction control should eliminate that requirement altogether. Indeed, driver fallibility will be masked, and those little percentages that distinguish the great drivers from the merely excellent, will disappear.
Many pundits believe Senna would have won that European GP if none of the cars had traction control, or if all of them had it, and I would not argue. But if he made any infinitesimal mistakes that day, traction control prevented them from becoming a race-losing incident. Only a year earlier, at Barcelona, similarly torrential conditions allowed Jean Alesi, in the grim Ferrari F92A, to display his wetweather prowess and, towards the end, he was catching Senna hand over fist Ayrton — without traction control — dropped his MP4/7 three laps from home. Result? Schumacher second, Alesi third, Senna in a sandtrap.
Even the best make mistakes. As Patrese puts it: “On a dry track, in terms of lap time, it is difficult to see any advantage traction control has compared to driving a perfect lap without it. But over a grand prix distance, it helps because traction control is always perfect, whereas a human makes errors in 90 minutes of competition. The fact is, traction control limits the possibility of the driver to be the most important factor. With traction control, everyone can just put their foot down and come out of the corner at the same speed. The driver stays important, but traction control limits the ability to judge his talent.” So will the best drivers still come to the fore? Moss: “Whatever the circumstances, the best driver shows up. In poor weather conditions, when the limits of adhesion are variable, Schumacher will show up. He still has a considerable edge on everyone else.”
Surtees predicts the reigning world champion will remain the man to beat for another reason: “The intelligence, dedication, racecraft and attention to detail that Schumacher shows will always make him a more formidable opponent than the blasé ones who are talented but switch on for race meetings only.”
There is another point on which everyone concurs: Max Mosley’s decision to allow traction control is the fairest way of handling the situation.
Patrick Head endeavours always to make Williams cars the best on the grid, but he remains a true racing fan. “Precise throttle control is a very significant driver skill, and traction control reduces the impact of drivers with great sensitivity. But it’s better to have every driver on an even playing field: if you think the opposition is cheating, it diminishes the value of racing. The FIA have made a necessary step, but I don’t think it’s in the best interests of motor racing long term.”
Will the FIA carry on investigating ways to deal with computer cheats so that, in time, traction control can be outlawed again? Mosley hedges his bets: “Without massive resources, we cannot be certain what is happening. We could have a standard ECU to which only the FIA had access, and we considered this carefully, but the advantage of avoiding traction control was outweighed by disadvantages, principally making Fl too much like Formula 3000 and preventing major manufacturers working on engine electronics, which is a major part of modem engine development.” But it could be argued that F3000 offers a greater challenge. The cars are not as quick in a straight line, the races are 35 per cent shorter but, equipped with an identical car to his competitors, an F3000 driver has to use a manual gearbox, make his tyres last a whole race distance, and his traction control system is his right foot
Patrese, who started more GPs than anyone, agrees. “I have the impression things have been done in the last year to make it possible for more people to drive an F1 car. “Some years ago it was like climbing a mountain to reach F1. You had to be good — no, you had to be special — to be quick in a grand prix car.”
F1 was slow to get a grip
Formula One embraced traction control rather late much later than road cars, where it grew out of ABS. Although the two systems are fundamentally different in that ABS works by releasing brake pressure to prevent a wheel locking whereas traction control if it uses the brakes at all has to apply brake pressure to prevent a wheel spinning, their histories are intimately entwined because both rely on wheel sensors to gauge the speed of the car and the amount of slip at each wheel.
Bosch, pioneers in this area, introduced their first series production ABS system in 1978 and its first fraction control system for commercial vehicles in 1986. A passenger car version arrived in ’87. By the time some F1 teams began using fraction control in earnest in 1992, and were starting to look at anti-lock too, Bosch alone had already made 10 million ABS systems for the road.
Traction control comes in a number of flavours, b’ut cutting cylinders by disabling the spark was the favoured system in Fl because throttle control, even with drive-by-wire, simply wasn’t fast enough. But some engine makers, notably Cosworth, worried that the increased crankshaft torsional loads would threaten reliability. Altering ignition timing was a more subtle option but encouraged higher exhaust temperatures and cracked manifolds. The Williams system, often described as ‘sophisticated’, was actually very simple. Patrick Head recalls that Paddy Lowe’s software for it took just 15 minutes to write. Wheel speeds front and rear were compared to detect rear wheel slip and its rate of change, generating a ‘cut this percentage of power’ signal for the Renault engine management computer, which masked cylinders accordingly. Keith Howard