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How to cheat in Formula 1


There's been a lot of talking in Grand Prix racing in 1994 about cheating. But how easy is it to hoodwink the Formula 1 authorities. Cheating is not something which Formula 1 racing is used to seeing. The sport has long been dominated by a clique of self-made team bosses, who operate with what might best be described as the morals of secondhand car dealers. They have always had a code of honor. Deliberate cheating was taboo because stability is the best environment in which to make money.

In the early 1980s when big manufacturers arrived in F1 there was an outbreak of blatant cheating among some of teams, but only because they felt there was no other way of beating the big combines. That quickly died out. F1 entered an era of big business and the implications of being caught cheating deterred teams from considering that course of action. But as money poured into F1 the pressure to succeed increased to such an extent that cheating became a more attractive option.

What was needed was a strong and clear set of regulations to pin down designers. At the end of 1993 - in an effort to cut costs, close up the field and reduce the importance of computers - the FIA, the sport's governing body banned high technology systems which used computers to override the drivers and optimise gear-changing, acceleration, braking and cornering.

The FIA decided to introduce deliberately vague rules so as to be able to dictate what was acceptable quickly and without argument. It is an idea which has long worked successfully in American NASCAR stock car racing. The FIA banked that the teams would err on the side of caution. Many of them griped but fell into line. Others did not. They realised that in order to act the FIA would have to have concrete proof before it could condemn rule-breaking.

In theory the governing body of a sport can do as it pleases, irrespective of the law. If you join a club you agree to play by its rules and regulations. This principle has been upheld many times in law courts around the world.

But F1 has reached the stage that the lines between sport and business are blurred. There are now commercial implications of decisions by the governing body. In other words, if a team is found guilty of cheating the FIA can still find itself involved in expensive image-damage litigation unless the proof of the case is overwhelming.

Finding proof is easy if cheating is blatant. If something can be measured, it can be proved. The FIA is thus covered over basic cheating such as over-sized engines and wings. Illegal fuels can be analysed, tyres can be marked and weights can be measured. All this involves people to police the rules but not in vast numbers. The problem comes when items can be run illegally and then made legal. Tampering with refuelling machines, for example, can be done quickly and easily and to control it the FIA would need a man in every pit.

But these are minor problems compared to the FIA's problems controlling electronic boxes and the software they contain.

"The FIA has over-simplified things," says one computer-smart F1 engineer. "They want it to be like kindergarten, but people are too smart. They want us to write with crayons when we all have computers.

"It is like trying to control smoking dope. They might as well legalize it. It would be better for everybody."

So how do you cheat in Formula 1? It's easy. You hire two men. One is an unscrupulous driver, who is reasonably quick. All he has to do is to activate the illegal systems by pressing buttons or pedals in a certain sequence. The other is an unscrupulous computer programmer. He doesn't need to have any racing experience. In fact being new to the game is an advantage because he knows fewer people and will be less likely to talk. After a couple of well-paid years he can disappear off to the aerospace industry and no-one will ever know.

The most difficult thing about keeping a secret in F1 is restricting the number of people who know. Others may suspect that something is going on but only if they spend hours analyzing data and very few have access to that kind of information.

If you have these two men, a few wheel-speed sensors and a black box anything is possible: automatic gear-changing, traction-control even automated starts.

The glory of this system is that if a driver is under suspicion he can run the car without cheating. He can even switch cars so long as the computer programmer has the chance to plug in to the onboard computer before the driver goes on to the track.

But how do the computer programmers beat the system when the FIA has computer experts analyzing the "source codes" of the onboard computers?

No-one in F1 would tell us, so we figured we would find a software designer and hack into his knowledge.

"To activate a system you can write computer programmes in two ways," he told us. "You can use ROM (Read Only Memory), which is burned into a computer chip and will appear in what is called the source code, or you can use RAM (Random Access Memory). RAM is what we call volatile memory. All you have to do is write a programme which has certain parameters built in at the end - that can be the number of laps completed or the elapsed time, or cutting the engine. There are any number of ways of doing it - which order the programme to self-destruct. You load it into the RAM memory and at the end of a race there would be no trace of it.

"Even with ROM you can hide things and they couldn't ever tell what it is. You can have programmes which jump into RAM. They would have to really analyse it to work out what you were doing. And you can make software so unintelligible to other people that it is ridiculous to try and figure it out. If they asked why it jumped to RAM you could tell them that RAM acts faster than ROM - which is true.

"If you are putting a lot of thought into cheating you can easily do it and there really isn't any way to stop it.

"The only way they can know is if they can see what is in the computer on the grid at the start of the race - and the problem is that you really cannot enforce that. They could insist that everything was done in ROM so it is burned onto the source code and then seal the system on the grid, but if you really wanted to you could bake a computer chip into a carbon composite of the chassis and that could download the necessary programme after the system was sealed!"

The only way to beat the computer men and their volatile memories is to ban all data acquisition equipment, including engine management. This is a very radical step to take but it may be necessary because if teams are suspected of getting away with cheating, the pressure is on the opposition to do the same and so the cancer spreads.

The other option is to legalize everything...

Electronic cheating is not the only rule-breaking possible in F1. The valves in the refuelling machines can be tampered with quite easily to speed up the flow of fuel. The machines are designed to pump fuel at a certain rate and to do this they employ valves which balance the air pressures inside the machines. The use of either super glue (to seal a vent) or a pin (to wedge a vent open) can alter the flow. This is risky because it is dangerous and also because it is relatively easy to trace. But it is also easily solved by the FIA. If only a single mechanic was allowed to work on each wheel - rather than the three per wheel now employed - the speed of pit stops would not be dictated by fuel flow but rather by skill. This would also cut down the danger of personel being burned in a fuel fire.

Another easy way to cheat in F1 is to build a car under the weight limit. This has not been easy in recent years but has been made easier by the increase in the minimum weight limit. The car has to be ballasted in qualifying when there are constant weight checks, but the advantage in this is that you can move the weight to where you want it to be. In the race the ballast is taken out. The car can thus carry the same amount of fuel as the opposition but run much lighter. It will be quicker and can build up an advantage. At the first pit stop it can have another light load added, enabling the driver to increase his advantage over the opposition. A late-race pit stop for a larger load of fuel - when the pressure from the opposition is off - means that the car can cross the line with a large amount of fuel on board. The car is always weighed with all its fluids still onboard... and so can have run underweight for most of the race and yet appear at the finish to be legal.

Is it cheating? Well, no because the car conforms to the regulations when it needs to do so.

But it is certainly pushing into the famous "grey areas" of the rules.