ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 52 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Traction Control: Sidestepping the Issue

  by Alexander Georgas, Greece

Apropos Traction Control: isn't everyone forgetting the real issues of Formula One today? How does the re-introduction of Traction Control help improve racing or overtaking opportunities? And what real bearing does it have on the competitiveness of the grid? Alexander Georgas brings back the questions that bothered everyone before Traction Control pushed them out of the limelight

As the debate over the reintroduction of traction control continues, everybody seems to agree on the fundamentals of the new change in regulations: it will limit the control of the driver over the car and result in a more level playing field in terms of rule enforcement. While there is a need to ensure that all entrants are given the opportunity to compete in equal terms, most people will sympathise with Max Mosley's claim that any aid which dampens the driver's ability to control the steering, acceleration and deceleration of the car should be banned.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of whether driver skill or mechanical engineering should prevail in the ultimate of racing sports. The answer to this question seems evident: while cutting edge technology gives F1 its very special flavour, it is the skill of the very best drivers in the world, placed in these machines, that makes the sport so captivating. Supreme skill and character are the essence of the sport, while everyone agrees that they should be placed in the best car possible.

Does the introduction of traction control mean a reduction in the need for driver skill? That the best drivers will benefit more marginally from such systems than the less inclined, is undisputed. Additionally, one can argue that in the short run, teams with bigger budgets will benefit more as they will be able to fine tune their electronic systems to benefit such things as fuel efficiency. So, in the end, being a better driver will count just a little bit less than it did in the past.

While so much has been said about traction control, the core of the issue of mind over machine lies somewhere else. Success in modern Formula One racing involves the coming together of a great number of factors. Apart from driving better than others, people like Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve have the level of fitness of a super-athlete. They are capable of extreme levels of psychological toughness and of extended concentration in the most adverse conditions. They are able to get the most out of their teams, communicating effectively with the engineers and rallying their people around them.

Most of all, they are able at all times to extract the most subtle of advantages, which gives them the edge needed to win. In a playing field where gaps are measured in tenths of a second in laps over a minute in length, the difference between first position and no position is ever so slim. Those consistent and lucky enough to put all these things together are the ones that prevail.

In such a sense, being a World Champion is a very different proposition from what it was twenty or more years ago. However, Formula One remains a racing sport and driving skill is of paramount importance. It is therefore unnerving to see most modern F1 races decided in the pit stops. While driver skill is important in following a quick adversary, or putting in the lap times while he is refuelling, it is the art of overtaking on the track which is the mark of the best drivers around. Not seeing it exercised more often is a disservice to the sport.

The introduction of traction control will have little bearing on the amount of overtaking in racing. The real issue here is the car's reliance on advanced aerodynamics over mechanical traction for grip. The aerodynamic systems used nowadays are so advanced that the turbulence from the car ahead greatly reduces its ability to handle. In effect, the systems employed act as a barrier to overtaking. Even a great difference of performance between cars is not enough to compensate for that factor, so the only hope of overtaking on most circuits is driver error or mechanical failure.

While highly advanced aerodynamic systems and grooved tyres do not by themselves limit driver skill, once more than one car is on the circuit, they fundamentally inhibit such practice. It is as if drivers had special devices that could reduce the performance of their adversary's car as it approached from behind. Such systems would clearly be banned! While traction control is contrary to the F1 technical regulation in the letter of the law, by dampening the driver's control over acceleration, the constant move towards more aerodynamics and less mechanical grip is contrary to the law's spirit, in a more fundamental way.

Mosley's staunch reliance on hard grooved rubber, which has pushed teams to rely even more on aerodynamics, has to be reversed if we would like to continue seeing true racing based principally on driver skill and not just technological advancement. The solution is easy: bring back the big slick tyres and lower the wings.

There are those who express the view that such a move would be unsafe, the President of the FIA being chiefly among them. It is true that safety should be the overriding factor in racing, but there is enough evidence out there to point to the fact that heavy reliance on downforce and reduced mechanical grip are detrimental in an accident. The formula is not as simple as stated by Max Mosley, that the gravity of an impact is directly related to the speed at which control is lost. One has to take account of what happens from the moment control is lost to the moment impact occurs, and also what kind of impact that may be.

The FIA's contribution to the increase of the safety of F1 cars is undisputable. A few times in a season we witness accidents that would seem to be very serious, but in fact the drivers walk out of their cars unharmed to take the restart. Such accidents would probably be fatal ten or more years ago. The modern F1 driver is protected better than ever before, with a strong and seemingly indestructible cockpit around him. However, even more needs to be done. Attention should be paid not just to the cars but to the circuits as well. Runoff areas should be extended where possible. But it is probably as important to develop new technology when it comes to the barriers the cars will eventually hit.

The point is that we should not waste our energy debating over traction control, when the real issue is downforce and tyres. This is the chief culprit when it comes to loss of driver control. Unfortunately, this issue has been entangled in the very important debate on safety in F1. Most often than not, in the past few years, a quick and oversimplified fix has been employed to address the serious issues of the sport. Likewise, we have seen the introduction of grooved tyres and puny chicanes in the name of safety. For how long have the grooves slowed down cornering speeds and at what cost to the decelerating ability of the chassis in an accident? Was enough done by merely redesigning corners when spare tyres are still used to slow down the most advanced cars in the world?

Safety and the primacy of driver skill are the central issues that are - and should be - concerning the Formula One community, and as such they have to be addressed together. The introduction of traction control, on the other hand, is a small step backwards in respect to the later. If the FIA is to reverse its position on such a prominently placed issue in its agenda as traction control, it should also take the time to re-examine the matters which have a significant impact on the sport, namely: grooved tyres and the heavy reliance modern chassis have on downforce.

Alexander Georgas© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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