The FIA's press release relating to traction control and future safety measures is an interesting package, though accepted grudgingly by most of the teams.
Changing requirements for the Spanish Grand Prix are intended to slow development of the cars, preventing speeds from increasing too quickly. Having added computer control to acceleration in the guise of traction control, the FIA is insistent on keeping them out of all other areas of the car, specifically naming the brakes, differential, suspension and steering, by removing power assistance.
The FIA's attention to power assistance in these systems was almost accidental in origin. Last season, a couple of teams marvelled at the way front runners Ferrari and McLaren have been able to extract better braking out of the same equipment they themselves used, and comments were overheard in high places. It has been long accepted that a brilliant driver can make a big difference with their "feel" for the car under braking, but when Rubens Barrichello moved from Stewart to Ferrari, using essentially the same braking system (cylinders, disks, pads and cylinder pressure limitations), his braking distances shortened noticeably. Same driver, same brakes, different brake control mechanism.
The obvious areas to look for this improvement are better downforce, or better brake controls.
It should be made clear right now, that no-one is accusing McLaren or Ferrari of attaching computers to the braking systems, or otherwise putting in ABS. However, they have found a solution which provides their drivers with better control of the brakes than the competition, and not all of it can be attributed to greater downforce.
So, it became clear that there was a fair amount of leeway for teams to speculate on improving the performance of their cars: and with the need to reduce cornering speeds paramount, making sure the driver has no computer assistance to braking, steering or suspension will help to keep the speeds down. Incidentally, it should continue highlight the capacity of the best drivers for sitting on the performance limit.
Something that was expected in the media was the requirement for HANS (a new, safe, head restraint system that is particularly effective in front impacts) to be introduced for the 2002 season. However, following tests by David Coulthard, it seems the teams have delayed its introduction until a couple of comfort and movement issues are resolved.
The changes for 2002 and 2003 are very interesting too. The driver abort system is long overdue, and has often been mentioned as a potential improvement in recent years. Suggestions ranged from lights on the dashboard to remote engine cut-outs, but have traditionally faced opposition from the smaller teams, who did not want the additional complexity. However, with the requirement for team and driver warnings coming in, this is a trivial addition. This speed limit mechanism is going to require substantial work from the teams to implement properly.
Given the speed profile for a section of track - which will be arbitrarily set by the race controller - the teams have to update the engine (traction control) software to implement a profile which ensures the car has slowed to the required speed by the time the car reaches that point on the track. If the driver has to activate a button, it will almost certainly lead to mistakes, so full automation is required, and that produces interesting issues: the last thing a driver needs is an unexpected loss of power mid-manoeuvre, so adequate driver (visual) warning is a must.
Ironically, this "safety" measure introduces a safety problem area. Given that each team will have a different profile, should a car with a more gradual slow-down arrive at the yellow flag area, a closely following car with a more effective slow-down mechanism will appear, from the drivers viewpoint, to have been brake tested by the driver in front.
FIA changes - technical impact
Looking at the technical aspects for the Spanish Grand Prix, there are some very interesting changes, which demonstrate the FIA thinking ahead of the teams on some key issues.
One of the main backers for traction control being returned promptly to Formula One is McLaren, but there was an unexpected price to pay: the specific exclusion of "fluid whose characteristics change when electrical current is applied." Paddock gossip holds that McLaren has a prototype material to provide just that function, though sources in the team reveal nothing like that was going to make a debut this season.
The system, reputedly, would have provided McLaren with something approaching the holy grail of suspension design: a complete decoupling of the "bump" and "roll" functions. The rate of vertical movement of the wheel relative to the other wheels (ie, what distinguishes a "bump" from a corner) should have been used to drive a hydraulic spring, whose characteristics changed according to the current passed through it: effectively providing active suspension, but without using hydraulic pumps to power the system.
Prost also seemed to have hydraulic suspension in the pipeline. There have been rumours for the last year that the French team has been working on a completely revolutionary system, which has hydraulic suspension for each of the wheels. As originally understood, the wheels would be cross linked hydraulically to provide a sophisticated passive system which is as effective as active suspension. However, the system has drawbacks. Tuning to each track is a tricky business, and there is a high sensitivity to changing conditions. A potential solution - now shut out - would have been electronic tuning of the system, using an electro-active fluid.
In the engines, fully automated gearboxes will be permitted. As it stands, the drivers must basically change up and down manually, though they are allowed a preset - eg "change sequentially down to 2nd gear." However, it has become apparent that manual gear changes are no longer a significant factor of the modern race, so going fully automatic should have no visible impact. Except for viewers of the in-car cameras, which will no longer reveal the driver flicking the change paddles! This change was brought in as a compromise for the speed control mechanisms to be put in place for 2002: as the slowdown systems are to be automated, the teams required the ability to change to the correct gear for the new speeds.
Removing power steering has been a source of nearly universal discontent for the drivers. Eddie Irvine was famous for his distaste of manual steering on moving to Jaguar, and made plenty of noise until he had power steering fitted. Comments at the time hinted that his upper body was not as well conditioned as it had been in his early career, and Ferrari had made him soft. and adding power steering did appear to speed him up.
In any event, the rule is now made, and drivers will be facing a tougher test of their race fitness in 2002.