It may seem a strange moment to be praising Max Mosley for something (and I shall write in the next issue of the magazine of ‘recent developments’ in the life of the FIA president), but while I have by no means always been in agreement with his visions for our sport I long supported his wish to free Formula 1 of electronic driver aids. To my mind, anything that seeks to reduce the driver’s contribution to the car/driver equation is anathema to anything calling itself ‘Grand Prix racing’, and purporting to be the best motor sport series on earth. Call me a blinkered reactionary if you will, but that’s the way I feel. If I want to be impressed by software, I’ll go to a trade exhibition, rather than Monza or Monte Carlo.
Driver aids, or ‘gizmos’, arrived in force in the early ’90s – in 1993, we even had ABS braking in F1, for God’s sake, as well as launch control, traction control, and all the rest of it. At the end of that year, Mosley, then only a couple of years into his FIA presidency, succeeded in banning these devices, and his action was praised by the leading drivers of the day, notably Ayrton Senna. It was a supreme irony that when, the next year, Senna was killed at Imola, there were those idiotic voices in the tabloid press who sought to attribute Ayrton’s accident to the loss of driver aids.
Ultimately, under pressure from the major manufacturers, Mosley did a deal and allowed the gizmos back. But when the manufacturers welched on their side of the agreement, he determined to ban the devices once more, suggesting that the only way to do this would be to impose a standard ECU – impossible, he conceded, until 2008, when the current Concorde Agreement had ended.
Many, myself included, doubted that he would stick by his resolution, but indeed he did, and so, in ’08, the manufacturers and teams have been dragged screaming into the ‘standard ECU’ era. Launch control, traction control, and electronic engine braking have been outlawed (unless, or until, the engineers find a way to restore them, within the confines of a standard ECU), and to my mind our sport is much the better for it. Minimise a driver’s ability to make mistakes, after all, and you have a recipe for a mighty dull afternoon. In Melbourne we saw a couple of errors by Kimi Räikkönen, which would probably have been contained by last year’s electronics, and the same was true of Felipe Massa in Sepang, and Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain.
I should say now that I never expected the ‘driver aids ban’ to be a panacea for all things wrong in F1, never expected it to transform the quality of the racing. But I do think it important – symbolically, if nothing else – that a driver be responsible for getting his own car off the grid, and for solely determining its throttle openings thereafter. A combination of PR and PC has already served to dehumanise motor racing in recent years, and we really don’t need to have the process carried over into the cockpit.
Some are suggesting that the rule change has made little difference to the racing, but already it has improved the spectacle, of that there is no doubt. And if you think I over–emphasise the significance of driver aids, just wait until we have a wet day…