NOVEMBER 11, 2000

Volte Face: Why the FIA could be right to bring back traction control to Grand Prix racing in 2001

AT first glance, it might be too much to take in.

AT first glance, it might be too much to take in. After eight years, endless controversy and thinly veiled accusations of cheating between the competing teams, Formula 1 seems set to allow back traction control from the start of 2001.

Last week's F1 technical working group, comprising representatives of all the competing teams, gave a unanimous green light to the proposal. The teams, so it seems, now want engines, transmissions and differentials to be all completely free - with the exception of torque-steer differentials - and that will now be recommended to the F1 Commission at its meeting at Monaco on December 7.

The argument in favor of such an apparently radical step is based on F1's potential contribution towards road safety in the longer term. There is a body of opinion within the FIA which believes that, within 50 years, road deaths could be reduced to virtually zero by the computerized control of traffic flow.

Anathema though it may be to the traditionalists, it is thought by some that if the electronics are allowed to "let rip" within F1, then the FIA World Championship could be positioned as a realistic catalyst for change in measures contributing towards road safety. It goes without saying that such a responsible, high profile image would do much to make F1 an attractive investment to the many car companies who are currently formulating a strategy to invest heavily in Bernie Ecclestone's SLEC empire which controls the F1 commercial rights on a long term basis.

On the face of it, this seems an extraordinary reversal of previously well-established policy. On the one hand, Adrian Newey, McLaren's renowned technical director, is just one voice amongst many this apparently controversial bid.

If adopted, traction and launch control, plus fully automatic gearchanges, will be readmitted in 2001 -- nine years after they were banned from the world championship as unacceptable driver aids.

"I am in favor of such a development," said McLaren technical director Adrian Newey. "I am no great fan of traction control as such, but the fact that you have fuel and ignition systems on any car means that, in my view, if you have the mindset to cheat and use traction control, then the basic tools are in place for you to do so.

"I think it is a pragmatic and positive thing to do because races have clearly been won in the past by cars using traction control and this is an unacceptable situation."

This change of view has apparently come in the wake of a letter from FIA president Max Mosley, addressed to the competing teams acknowledging, admitting that the governing body is now aware that various forms of traction control had in fact been used by certain teams "in 1998 and earlier." The governing body added; "we would have vigorously challenged these had we known at the time."

Few people doubt that this unanimous decision will be carried when the F1 Commission meets in Monaco. Yet we understand that FIA President Max Mosley is far from totally persuaded by the argument. On the one hand he can quite see the justification for positioning F1 where it can be seen to make a long-term contribution to motoring safety.

But he has frequently expressed the view that F1 should be an unfettered drivers' championship without the interference from too much technology. Mosley believes that the adoption of a standard FIA-provided electronic control unit for all cars could be a workable alternative, but if the technical gurus are all in favor, he's probably not going to stand in their way.

Cynics may be forgiven for thinking that the cheats have won the battle here. But the teams reckon if that is the price to pay for an even - and easily policed - playing field, then it is probably worthwhile.