Atlas F1 The Case for Low Tech

  by Forrest Bond, RaceFax

We don't know who talked, but FIA president Max Mosley has suddenly discovered that driver aids are enjoying nearly full employment in Formula One. He's about to mount a holy crusade against the computers which make them possible, and while the goal is noble, the pursuit looks like pure Don Quixote

Max Mosley's recent (and very belated) discovery of ersatz traction control and other sophisticated electronic goodies which lurk in F1 engine management software is blossoming into quite a bone of contention behind the scenes.

Advocates of making the drivers - rather than a surge of electrons - do the work of driving should applaud Mosley's efforts, but at the same time it must be recognized that he is, to use a quaint old expression, spitting directly into the wind. And it's a very stiff breeze, indeed.

One of the central problems Mosley faces is having the FIA's techincal people and their external techincal support accurately determine what the engine companies and the engine management concerns like TAG are actually doing with their software. Even if that hurdle is cleared - and it is highly doubtful the FIA, et al, possess that capability - the FIA still has to figure out whether what is being done is a legitimate part of controlling the engines and transmissions, or a work-around for a banned 'driver aid'.

Compounding the problem for the FIA is the fact that the distinction between legal and illegal is often far from clear, not least because the rules governing 'driver aids' are far from precise and show a certain fundamental lack of understanding of the subject. Beyond that, a few subtle changes to the sotware are all that's necessary to cross the line between optimizing power or fuel efficiency and creating a pretty effective form of traction control, to cite but one example.

In its attempts to police the software, the FIA require that teams provide it with a copy of the engine control unit (ECU) software. The FIA's experts then examine the code to determine whether or not it violates the 'driver aids' prohibition and other restrictions. No such determination has to be made at the track, because the FIA simply compare the software downloaded from the cars at the track to the 'reference' software previously analyzed and blessed. It's the same process the FIA use to check fuel for legality; all that matters is that the two match.

Because the software can be optimized for individual tracks, a given team may have as many different software configurations as there are Grands Prix. When you multiply that number of configurations by the number of engine suppliers, you begin to get an idea of the magnitude of the job faced by the FIA's small band of techies, who are grossly outnumbered (and typically out-thought) by the number of people who are creating software.

In order to better deal with the situation, Mosley is proposing to require that ECU software be drastically simplified, and that the number of sensors which feed information to the ECUs also be reduced.

On the surface, that sounds like a practical solution, but it really isn't. It's just another example of the FIA seeking a simple solution to a vastly complex problem. First, today's 18,000-plus-rpm engines are much like the Stealth fighter. Lacking effective aerodynamics, the Stealth couldn't even be flown straight and level if control of its altitude were left to a pilot without 'flying aids,' let alone be made to execute complex maneuvers. In effect, the pilot simply uses the controls at his disposal to tell the computers what he wants the plane to do, and the computer figures out how to do it, nano-second by nano-second.

Similarly, today's engines cannot run simply in response to driver input. For example, without the ECU 'blipping' the throttle between gear changes, the engine would die, because the driver can't do it fast enough. Which is why you never hear anyone talk about heel-and-toe anymore.

Given today's grooved-tread tires, without some form of ECU-derived variation on traction control, drivers would be getting wheelspin on the up-shift from fifth to sixth gear. Wheelspin on the change up to top gear was common back in the 1,000-hp turbo days, and drivers coped, but they had decent tires, which gave the driver decent feedback. Today's tires are numb, and without the aid of engine management programs we'd probably see even the best drivers spinning off on straights. Apparently the current engines won't even idle without an assist from the computer, and without the rev-limiter software, drivers would probably also find it impossible to consistently avoid blowing the pitlane speed limit; even NASCAR - which is computer-phobic - allows pitlane rev limiters.

Where things get really sticky is in Mosley's desire to impose simplified ECUs on the teams at the British Grand Prix, and eventually, perhaps, a spec FIA ECU and software - something which is not likely to happen.

If Mosley thinks the teams are a pain in the posterior to deal with, he hasn't lived until he goes toe-to-toe with the likes of Mercedes and Ford. Even if Mosley wins, he'll lose, because the auto companies on which the sport is increasingly dependent might just decide to do something else with their millions of dollars. It's happened before, and in every form of the sport in which the factories have participated.

It is also worth noting that F1's continued success is tied to the car companies in less obvious ways, the most important being a likely engine shortage, and sooner rather than later.

Honda recently sold its share in Mugen back to the company, and has done no development on the Mugen-Honda since last year. That, more than anything, is why Jordan has gone from knocking on the door which admits one to the front rank of teams, to struggling against Benetton.

Running a static engine in a dynamic series has effectively ended Jordan's hopes of crashing the Ferrari-McLaren party, both this year and next. And with Renault coming in, one has to wonder about their continuing commitment to the primary 'customer' engine, the Supertec, which won't help Arrows maintain the suddenly improved pace it has shown so far this season. In addtion, Peugeot will bid adieu to F1 at the end of 2000, leaving Prost with little to hope for beyond those Supertec engines.

In all likelihood, then, a severe engine shortage is on the not-too-distant horizon, and one which will further divide the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. As proof, witness the increasing efforts of Bernie Ecclestone to get the auto companies to agree to supply two teams each. Ecclestone knows there's a finite limit to how many auto makers will become involved in F1, and the ultimate number is lower than the fixed number of teams which are now allowed in the series.

Mosley's desire to reduce the technology - which is what essentially draws the manufacturers into the sport - could prevent new manufacturers coming in, as easily as it can send some of the current suppliers packing. A technology reduction will therefore almost certainly exacerbate the problem of manufacturers eventually pulling out of F1 simply because they don't win, like Peugeot.

The result, if Mosley attempts a major simplification of ECUs, is likely to be more harmful than the imposition of grooved tires - the single most anti-competition rule imposed in the last 20 years. Certainly, 18,000 rpm engine will be a dim memory, and adapting to the restrictions will not be the work of a moment. In the end, the engine wizards will simply find another way to accomplish those things which Mosley and Co. attempt to eliminate, while continuing to use the software tricks which the FIA fails to detect. In effect, Formula One - whose hallmark has always been high technology - is a victim of its own success.

Before the advent of team-owned wind tunnels, chassis dynos, four-post 'shaker' rigs and Lord knows what else, technical innovation was a hit-or-miss proposition, the result of a creative spark of genius. Now it is more purely science, and the rate at which the technology is escalating is geometric. And as with so much of modern technology, no one bothers to ask whether these things should be done, only whether or not it could be done.

In the process, the sport becomes decreasingly dependent on the human element, at least that part of it which gets strapped into the cockpits. That said, technology can't be uninvented, a lesson Mosley is finally in the process of taking on board.

Despite the impracticality of the instant simplification Mosley proposes, one should be in sympathy with his intent, if not his methods, because who wouldn't like to see modern drivers put to some old tests of skill.

Mosley's approach will, in some form or another, prevail, simply because he's the president of the FIA, and evidently one with a very poor memory of the days when he was a driver, and then an F1 constructor/team owner. He's determined to dumb-down the cars, the tires and the engines, which wouldn't be a problem except that he's evidently going to do it without any overall plan, and without any meaningful technical understanding of the cars.

However, what Mosley is about to learn is that trying to draw the line between what's really going on and what is paranoia is tantamount to trying out for the part of Don Quixote, leaving Mosely tilting at ephemeral electronic windmills.

Worse, the problems only begin there. In the end, Mosley will likely find that making the computers dumber without causing chaos is simply impossible, because it will require more than a bandage solution. To do the job properly, the cars, the engines, the tires and a good portion of the sporting regulations will have to be changed, not piecemeal, but as a coordinated package. And devising that kind of plan is, based on current evidence, quite beyond the technical and intellectual capacity of the FIA.

In the end, and again using history as a guide, some form of compromise between the opposing positions held by Mosley and by the teams and their engine manufacturers will probably result. Mosley has staked out an extreme position soley so he can 'compromise' to what it is he really wants. Hopefully he will succeed, because, after all, Formula One is supposed to be a contest between human beings and not a video game.

      Related Articles:

The Full Transcript of the press conference with Max Mosley at Imola
(Apr-7, 2000)

Forrest Bond© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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