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OCTOBER 19, 2001

Bright sparks at Benetton

NOT the first time, it seems that the 'sparks' of the Benetton factory at Enstone have found themselves in the spotlight of the FIA's technical hawks with new regulations being put in place over the winter to limit the advances being made in engine software and driver aids.

The team's first and most celebrated electrical application came in 1994 when the Benetton was powered by the Ford V8 engine. This was of course the first of seven seasons in which the use of driver aids had been prohibited, and as a result every team was subjected to spot testing. At first both Benetton and McLaren refused to submit to this on the grounds of protecting intellectual copyright, netting themselves a $100,000 fine.

The British-based LDRA software analysis firm then got to work and revealed a 'hidden' launch control program in the Benetton software midway through Michael Schumacher's first championship-winning season. There has never been proof of its use, but the fact that it existed and that it was concealed deep in the car's 'brain' brought about a sharp wrap on the knuckles from the FIA.

This year has seen the reinstatement of traction control and launch control as permissible driver aids for the first time since 1993, but so great have the advances been made in the course of this season that some new regulations have been added for 2002. Most specifically that no means of detecting the race start signals is to be allowed.

Once again the attention has shifted to the sparks at Enstone, where the immaculate getaways of Giancarlo Fisichella through the final third of the season have raised more than just a few eyebrows. Indeed it has been claimed that, while the majority of the field presses a button and floors the throttle when the starting lights go out (in the certain knowledge that the engine is sorting everything else out), the blue cars were already on their way by the time the other drivers reacted.

It's alleged that the Benetton's had slaved the launch control systems to the signal of the jump start indicator, which switches off the moment that the start lights go out, when the engine's brain launches the car within a thousandth of a second.

With human reaction times taken out of the equation the race is on even before the driver knows about it, and he can simply concentrate on finding a suitable gap to squeeze through amongst the slower-starting cars. Sounds like science fiction? Well, maybe not.

Should such a work of genius have been put together it would also have been quite legal in 2001. Yet the cost of developing such a system to the other eleven teams would have forced budgets even further into the stratosphere at a time when there are grave doubts of the ability of sponsorship funds to be secured against the backdrop of global recession, hence for 2002 it's a no-no.