Computerised onboard data collection is standard fare these days in everything from Formula 1 to a bog-standard production spam-can saloon. Of course this hasn’t always been true.
In the 1970s, Prof Dr Robert Eberan von Eberhorst – former chief engineer of the Auto Union racing team 1938-40 – described to me how they had used a mechanical data logging system on board their 1938-39 Grand Prix cars, recording onto a clockwork-driven paper roll such parameters as throttle, steering and brake pedal inputs, fore-and-aft and lateral g-loadings, and suspension deflections. The engaging Viennese laughed as he recalled the system’s unreliability under the harsh conditions of a pre-war 600-horsepower single-seater being driven in anger, and its primitive nature compared to the computer age.
Numerous progenitors of modern ‘black box’ technology followed, including one which BRM ran on a car during testing at Snetterton in 1965. Their system featured accelerometers and transducers taped all over one of their little P261 monocoque V8 cars and wired into a bulky recorder case in which all the input data was burned onto a light-sensitive paper roll for subsequent analysis.
Both the team’s veteran number one driver Graham Hill and his new young team-mate Jackie Stewart tried the system, and engineer Tony Rudd subsequently advised Hill of the recorder’s findings, as he recalled in his biography, It was Fun: “I showed Graham that his technique of going deep into the corner, braking late; taking it fairly easy around the corner until he was clear, then giving it everything, was not the quickest way. Jackie braked earlier, but not so hard, his car was stable in the apex and able to hold a higher speed. He then fed in a little throttle earlier, gradually increasing the amount, so that he was some 0.4sec quicker. Jackie had been looking at the data and changed his methods and improved his time. Would he like to do the same? No, he would not,” Tony concluded.
In fact Hill replied he didn’t give a stuff about that corner because it wasn’t the critical one on the circuit, and in any case he was still quicker round a full lap than Jackie. He saved the best bit for last. “If your black box is so bloody clever,” he concluded, “see how quick it can go without me!”.