Many F1 fans were pleased when the news broke two weeks ago that traction control was being kicked out of the sport.
But this is not the first time that traction control has been banned – last time it happened all kinds of problems arose, not least of which safety, policing and politics.
Can a ban be made to work this time?
A popular anecdote about the latter stages of Ayrton Senna’s career concerns the Christmas card he sent to Max Mosley in 1992, in which he implored the FIA President to ban driver aids.
Of course, Senna was not acting out of any high moral purpose to preserve the integrity of motor racing – although it is likely that he believed his own talents would be compromised by electronics that allowed the less skilful to elicit traction from a car as well as he did.
Senna wanted traction aids and the likes of active suspension and forthcoming innovations such as anti-lock brakes banning because rivals Williams had perfected them, and his team McLaren had not.
Nevertheless they were eventually banned, one year later, by which time Senna was on his way to Williams. The impact the banning of traction control had was complicated, and not at all as straightforward as simply ‘improving the racing’ as many expected.
Indeed, many believe it played a role on that fateful day in Imola when Senna was killed. The Benetton of Michael Schumacher which had beaten Senna in the first two rounds contained a traction control function that had not been purged from its systems and instead lay, conspiratorially enough, behind a blank menu labelled ‘option 13’.
Benetton were not the only ones to face accusations of cheating. When Nicola Larini substituted for Jean Alesi early in the season the press went into a frenzy after he made a remark about switching off the car’s traction control system.
The controversies were shortly eclipsed by tragedies that overwhelmed the 1994 season. But concerns the governing body were unable to police the ban, and questions about whether the absence of traction control had made the cars more dangerous, remained.
As the millennium passed the terms of the debate changed. Mosley shocked the F1 world when he insisted that at least one team had flouted the traction control ban – but refused to name them. What he did do, however, was re-legalise traction control from the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix, on the grounds that the FIA could no longer police it.
This was a doubly unsatisfactory move. Not only did it compromise any claim F1 had to being a true test of driver skill, it also undermined confidence in the policing power of the governing body.
Since 1994, a new political force had made its presence felt in Formula 1. Major car manufacturers including Mercedes, BMW, Ford (until 2004), Renault, Honda and Toyota now had a stake in the sport’s decision making process, and defended traction controls on the grounds that it was an example of an F1 technology with relevance for ordinary drivers.
What’s more, an effective ban on traction control would require the consent of the manufacturers to employ a standard electronic control unit for their engines – something else that was met with stiff opposition.
Public pressure does seem to have played some part in the reinstatement of the traction control ban. In the FIA’s 2006 survey of F1 fans, 64% demanded a greater emphasis on driver skill over electronic aids – not an emphatic endorsement, but it might have received a stronger response had the issue focussed on traction control.
For – and this is the crucial point about the traction control ban – it is not simply about what it is done, but about what is seen to be done.
Like it or not, for the average fan the closest point of reference to driving an F1 car is driving their own cars. And they know that, on their own cars, traction control is something that saves drivers in the event that they make mistakes. Traction control in F1 does much the same, and so it follows that if F1 is to be seen as a test of driver skill, traction control simply has to go.
The FIA got the teams to agree to the bans by offering them concessions – namely, by allowing them to make more technical developments on their engines than was previously allowed under the terms of the engine freeze.
But what, if any, impact will the traction control ban have next year?
Can it be adequately policed now that standardised ECUs have been imposed? Will it improve the quality of racing or, as many expect, do we need to see a wholesale reduction in aerodynamic downforce to achieve that?
And will the whole issue be undermined if the manufacturers are allowed to employ one of their most prized new technologies – stability control – to once again reduce the challenge of piloting an F1 car?