Banned! Traction control

Juan Pablo Montoya, Michael Schumacher, Interlagos, 2001Not many F1 fans were disappointed 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.

Michael Schumacher, Benetton-Ford, 1994, 2Indeed, many believe it played a role on that fateful day in Imola when Senna was killed. The Benetton-Ford of Michael Schumacher that 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 that 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.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Melbourne, 2007The 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?

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5 comments on Banned! Traction control

  1. It is amazing how quickly the new entente between the FIA and the manufacturers has begun to change F1. The standardised ECU makes the ban on traction control vaguely “policeable” but, even as this regulation goes into the book, I hear that the governing body and the manufacturers are discussing the introduction of stability control into the sport. It should be a non-starter and the FIA should have turned it down point blank.

    This myth that F1 should have some relevance to road cars is the root cause, of course. The fact is that racing has always had some influence in that it introduces new technology that occasionally filters through to production cars, but that has always been unintended and entirely serendipitous. By insisting that F1 must have some relevance for road car manufacture, the FIA has altered the sport from a competition to be fastest within a set of constraints into a testing ground for technology intended to cosset the lowest common denominator (in other words, the worst drivers who, apparently, must be saved from themselves).

    The justification for F1 is purely that we are creatures that like to compete for some sort of title – the fastest, the most skillful, the cleverest, the best. It has nothing to do with social responsibility, care for idiots, saving the planet (as if it needed saving) or making better production cars. If it is to survive as a sport, F1 needs to be blatantly honest, to ‘fess up to the fact that it is self-indulgent, irresponsible, hugely entertaining fun. The same is true of all sports (well, okay, I’m stretching the point with cricket and golf). To pretend that F1 has a social conscience is merely to warp it into a new creature entirely. Whether anyone will want to watch such a thing remains to be seen.

    Ooops, that was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it? Sorry, Keith.

  2. Journeyer said on 12th April 2007, 14:33

    And the social responsibility thing is the difficulty here, I think. If F1 does fess up to its self-indulgence, it better be really entertaining. Or else people will question, “Why are we letting this crap happen?”

    And if that question pops up, some fans may leave. Some manufacturers – whose accountants will say staying in the sport has no relevance, especially if they’re losing (remember, there’s 6 of them) – will leave. And worse, some sponsors may leave. And in this socially conscious, money-critical world we live in, F1, with its big budgets and big egos, may end up struggling to compete.

    And that’s what Max and Bernie are fearing, I think. Of course, their money would be part and parcel of that.

  3. I think that, as long as the regulations allow the drivers to compete, F1 will remain entertaining – it’s the human struggle that is so fascinating, although the cars add to the spectacle, it’s true. My fear is that, if the FIA lets in all these driver aids, we could legitimately ask where opportunity remains for the drivers to demonstrate any skill at all. That’s the point at which fans will start to leave.

    The manufacturers will leave sooner or later anyway – no advertising campaign lasts forever. We want to be sure that there is something left after they go and the way to do that is to prevent them turning F1 into a competition between technologists rather than between drivers.

    I am amazed that the sponsors have lasted as long as they have. It seems impossible to me that they recoup in increased sales the amount of money they sink into F1 every year. If the accountants sit down and work it all out, it is quite likely that they will squeal at the amount of money being wasted and insist that their company get out. But F1 existed before sponsorship and there is no reason why it should not continue after it.

    So the teams have less to spend on the hectic pace of development? That might be a good thing, in fact. So Bernie and Max don’t line their pockets as richly as in the past? Now that definitely would be a good thing. Nothing like a good dose of reality to make you sit up and take notice.

    As for social responsibility, there have always been those who whinge about the waste of resources in F1 and there always will be. By offering them sops like Max’s brave new green F1 world, you merely encourage them to increase their demands. We might as well brazen it out and admit that F1 is a sport that consumes money, natural resources and effort for no tangible return – and we love it and ain’t gonna stop! :D

  4. I think the only thing to cause manufacturers to leave will be consistent mediocrity, which anonymously fingers some Japanese manufacturers and an energy drink.

    I like Clive’s statement that F1 (and many other forms of motorsport) are older than sponsorship; frankly, if FIA grade motorsport disappeared, there would still be people that build motors and race, even if it’s something we don’t recognize. In fact, a part of me welcomes it.

    There is a recurring theme in limiting aerodynamics, which, the more I see F1 compared to other forms of racing, the more I’m starting to agree with it; and frankly, I’m a bit disgusted that aerodynamics aren’t being fingered in the interest of “making F1 relevant.” I can go to a dealership and buy a car with traction control. I cannot buy a car with a functional downforce wing.

    I don’t think crossing F1 with consumer road cars is a bad thing, because in the beginning, motorsport was how auto manufacturers proved their product was better than the rest. Not everything belongs in a car (pneumatic gearboxes) but frankly, racing aerodynamics save fuel in trucks and many cars.

    The real question of this article, however, is can we keep teams from cheating this time? The answer is no.

    I don’t care how ‘standardized’ they expect your ECU to be; I can cook it so it gives FIA what they want and me what I want and I’m sure every one of the F1 teams has a tech that can pull it off too. It is trivial to skew the data in an ECU, because it is a very simplistic, low-tech computer on an IC chip.

  5. Journeyer said on 13th April 2007, 5:57

    Two things about the standard ECU: one, it is made by McLaren Electronics (or something to that effect). How will the FIA ensure McLaren does not get a jump start on the rest of the grid?

    Two, McLaren Electronics is a partnership between McLaren and Microsoft. I’m pretty sure we won’t get blue screens on the steering wheel displays, but how complex and secure will they make it? They can’t even protect their own OS, what more a solution in motorsports, something that Microsoft have ZERO experience in?

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