NEWS FEATURE

Slip sliding away

Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Malaysian GP 2001

Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, Malaysian GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

Anyone who watched the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix will have noticed how much more controllable the 2001 F1 cars look now that they are running on softer compound tires. Opposite lock slides no longer mean sudden breakaway and a spin that takes forever to stop. Once more they are glorious expressions of the drivers' art. But just as F1 is looking good again, traction control is about to kill the spectacle.

Welcome to the world of traction control, the means of preventing wheels from spinning and thus losing grip. It was banned at the end of 1993 along with many other electronic aids, because the FIA genuinely feared that computers would emasculate the drivers. But now traction control, the outlaw that is impossible to police, is poised to return to F1 from the Spanish GP at the end of April.

Triple champion Niki Lauda believes that it takes everything away from the driver. Typically trenchant, he says: "It favors everybody who can't drive a racing car. I don't want the return of traction control. The driver should work. If he makes a mistake and spins his wheels, then some other guy can pass. It's exciting. Now this won't happen."

If you need a new definition for controversy, by F1 standards traction control will do nicely. When the governing body, the FIA, booted out electronic aids in 1993 it was because of genuine fears that cars could soon be pre-programmed to run round circuits without the need for a human at the wheel. Where did that leave the drivers?

Eight years later on, traction control is back. After the Malaysian GP, only Brazil and Imola remain before F1's answer to foot and mouth breaks out again. Some, however, suggest it has never been away.

In Sepang the subject was yet again the talk of the paddock after comments attributed to Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who was said to have questioned systems used on the Ferrari-engined Sauber Petronas cars of Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Raikkonen in Melbourne. By inference he also appeared to be questioning the Ferraris themselves of Melbourne and Malaysia race winner Michael Schumacher and sidekick Rubens Barrichello, who dominated both races. The manner in which the Ferraris ran away in Sepang, admittedly on intermediate tires which were perfect for the damp conditions, was simply endorsement to some of their view that Ferrari has a special engine management system that, while operating within the rules as they stand, performs a similar role to traction control.

This may all be a storm in a teacup and of little significance in the scale of world events, but it further demonstrates the emotional baggage that traction control carries. F1 is an intense environment full of competitive egos, a ripe atmosphere in which to foster feelings that your rivals may not always be as pure as you are.

Schumacher accused Frentzen of bringing the sport into disrepute. But some take the view that Frentzen was only voicing general concerns that have been simmering ever since traction control was outlawed for 1994.

"The policing problem is a serious one, so I guess allowing it back in is the right decision."

NIKI LAUDA

"How many of you people wrote that I was claiming Ferrari was using illegal traction control? Nobody?" Frentzen asked. "I am very surprised he's said that, then."

Frentzen denies saying that Ferrari is running an illegal traction control system. "I said on my home page, where all this news is coming from, how this system, a legal traction control, works. That's a legal system used for some years in some teams. This is the system I was talking about, I never mentioned illegal traction control."

FIA president Max Mosley also disagrees with Frentzen, but said: "It is, however, a fact that some teams are able to tune their engines so that wheelspin becomes unlikely and more manageable. This is not the same thing as traction control." To some it is a moot point.

All of this is so esoteric that race fans the world over are likely to topple somnolently from their grandstands seats or the armchairs in front of the television, but sadly traction control also governs what happens out on the track.

"Throttle control is the art of the racing driver," says Jenson Button. "Taking the art away from him makes it easier for those who can't master it."

In Malaysia, BMW Williams technical director, Patrick Head, said: "I saw a Jordan out there today with a nice bit of power oversteer, beautifully corrected by the driver. I shall be very sad when that is no longer possible, because I have always appreciated being able to watch drivers powerslide cars. I think it will be a big sadness if traction control, and very refined traction control at that, is part of motor racing from here on.

"We don't want a season of concern that every time somebody wins, everybody says, well, they would do, wouldn't they? I don't think that's healthy, either," Head continued. "But the thing is, it's a bit like the apple in the Garden of Eden, really - once you've bitten it, it's very difficult to take it away."

You might wonder why traction control is not making a comeback until the fifth race of the new season, when surely it would have been far more logical to reintroduce it at the beginning. Thank Ferrari for that.

When the idea was first mooted, everyone agreed. Then, during a technical group meeting, Ferrari threw its hands up and declared that it could not possible prepare a system in that timescale, because it "did not have the technical resource."

This is not unlike NASA trying to suggest that it doesn't have the resource to service the Space Shuttle.

Of course Ferrari can organize such a system, because the thing to remember is that the new traction control need not be anything like as complicated as current systems which influence engine performance to achieve a similar aim. One team owner in Malaysia said: "Paul Stoddart said at the meeting that he didn't understand what all the fuss was about. That it was only a matter of fitting a couple of wheel sensors, some wire and a software program. And he's right. It's the simplest technology that we do. What is it, 10,000? It's cheap. Nothing like as complex as current means of achieving the same end might be."

Lauda believes that Ferrari used its control over Prost and Sauber (to whom it supplies engines) to manipulate the vote against an immediate reintroduction of traction control, but both teams deny it.

"That's not so," Peter Sauber says. "There has to be unanimity for short-term changes in the regulations, so if one team is against it that is enough. Jean Todt doesn't really need any support!"

So why would Ferrari demur? That's something that several teams in F1 would like to know, especially after the outcome of the Malaysian GP. Many of them believe that the team has developed the most effective means of achieving the same end as traction control, while staying within rules that are less than clear.

The vagueness in the rules is intentional. The less clear they are, the harder it is for anyone to bypass them, and the more leeway the FIA has to decide what interpretation it wishes to place on any new proposals offered up by the fertile minds of team engineers.

The biggest problem with anything electronic is that it is terribly difficult to determine whether it exists in the first place. Back in 1994 there was much fuss made about software that might be stored only in RAM, which would might be uploaded into a car's systems on the grid formation lap, and then automatically be deleted once the engine was switched off in parc ferme, before any checks could be carried out. Benetton was accused, covertly at first but later more openly, of using traction control that season. It denied it fervently. Subsequent inspection of its software revealed a deeply hidden program called Option 13, which was discovered by LRDA, the FIA's computer consultants. This was accessed by a complex ritual more esoteric than a mason's handshake. Benetton appeared to be in serious trouble. The team admitted that Option 13 was a hangover from 1993, when traction control was still legal, but claimed that it was more trouble than it was worth to delete it from the software package that carried over into 1994. It mounted an impregnable defence: Yes, we may have the software still buried deep in our system, but you have to prove that we actually used it. The FIA could not.

One leading team owner said recently: "You only have to ask why traction control is being brought back. It's because you cannot police it and cannot therefore be sure that some people aren't using systems that achieve the same effect."

"Yeah," Lauda agrees, reluctantly. "The policing problem is a serious one, so I guess allowing it back in is the right decision."

The ultimate irony is that the softer tires introduced for 2001 have far more grip than the grooved tires used up until now, and let the drivers push closer to the limit and stay there, sliding on the ragged edge in a lurid style that has been missing ever since grooves became mandatory in 1998. Qualifying in Malaysia was a joy to watch as cars slithered through the corners. But enjoy it while you can, because the spectacle will be a pale shadow from Barcelona onwards.

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