With David Coulthard's misfortune at the start of the parade lap in Spain, a number of myths concerning launch control were put to rest – for the time being, at least.
As the technology progresses, teams will be able to bring their cars ever closer to an "optimum" launch – but it could be a considerable time before this happens. Arrows engineers are at a loss to recreate Jos Verstappen's lightning getaway, discovering that the driver's feel for what is going on can actually be better than all their sensors put together. Illustrating the point, they have fed the data from a Verstappen race-start back into the launch control, putting the car through exactly the same paces. Needless to say, the results were not as impressive as expected – the track conditions were slightly different, so the parameters were quite a long way out.
Williams, on the other hand, believe they can produce results which are more useful. Whilst admitting that producing the perfect start is a way down the road, their system brings consistency: the start will always be good. Right now, traction control generally, and launch control in particular, is thought to be a big contributor to their BMW engine breakdowns. Until this is resolved, the drivers are being given a choice on whether or not to start with launch control.
Of course, they have to make up their minds and initialise the system before the lights change, otherwise they'll be standing on the grid when everyone else makes their getaway... isn't that right, Heinz-Harald?
The strange thing about Formula One, from Honda's point of view anyway, is the way things change just when you've come to some difficult decisions.
Speculation that Honda are looking to buy out the BAR team never disappeared, despite their relative lack of performance compared to Jordan. Similarly, whilst Eddie Jordan was once ready to sell his team to the car manufacturer for a sum that now looks very reasonable, he has had a change of heart. Accordingly, he has moved the price tag on his team to a level that Honda consider too expensive to entertain – leaving BAR a more attractive proposition. Of course, BAR only remains attractive if Honda think they can turn the outfit into a regular GP winner; they are not in this sport to make up numbers.
For the next year and a half, Honda are committed to maintaining the status quo between Jordan and BAR. The engine deal is on a full works basis with each team, and ostensibly neither have an advantage. Performance clause in both contracts give Honda leeway to move out in the event of a poor season on either side, but they are not in this for the short term.
Before the Spanish Grand Prix, some interesting words were exchanged between Honda Racing's Kazutoshi Nishizawam and British American Racing's Craig Pollock. Despite the relatively straight forward nature of both men involved, the conversation did not include any plain statements and resulted in a very direct question being laid on the table: if the development priorities of BAR and Jordan differ, then which direction should Honda take in their continuing evolution program?
Of course, no answer was given. It's obvious: should there be a need to prioritise development, the team with a chance of winning races will see their requirements met first. It's the same business decision that saw Jordan land the Honda deal in the first place; having a team running the customer Mugen-Honda unit trouncing the full works Honda powered outfit is not good for the company image.
Going back to the original question, it was, of course, entirely hypothetical as both teams are looking for similar improvements, in terms of outright power and improved torque. Weight savings would be nice but are not as important a factor since the return of traction control. Highly sophisticated engine management allows the teams to develop interesting solutions around the same engine, optimising the power/fuel economy equations according to individual needs.
Taking on traction control
Coming away from Spain, an overriding impression from the paddock is that the money has spoken again. The front running teams were, as usual, the men with the big budget, who have been able to put in the testing miles for their new engine management systems.
Leading up to the Grand Prix, there was a general consensus that the introduction of traction control should close up the field, with the more disadvantaged teams able to claw back in an area which is already seen to favour those with big budgets. In the event itself, however, there was little difference made to performance – indeed, many teams ran without their traction control, finding their tried and tested solutions better suited to the track and conditions.
Mika Hakkinen's late qualifying charge was – as he famously stated in the post event press conference – made without traction control. The previous three attempts were adequate, but nothing special; he didn't have enough feel for the car and found that some options in the traction control system were taking away his edge. Having been developed and tested largely by Alex Wurz and David Coulthard, perhaps it is not entirely surprising that the system did not perfectly suit Hakkinen's style. At least, not yet. At Valencia and in future tests, Hakkinen is scheduled to have as much running as required to sort out parameters which give him the feel he needs for cornering on the edge.
In direct contrast to Ferrari's 2600km of testing ahead of Spain, Arrows struggled to get anywhere in their test. As a consequence, there was no significant optimisation to their initial traction control solution, so both cars ran without it for the race in Spain. Budget constraints deny them the luxury of devoting unlimited testing to traction control. Improvements to their engine management system is currently high on the testing agenda – but time spent there means they are losing ground developing other areas of the car.
Politically, the engine suppliers are all for traction control. The better it works, the more directly acceleration performance reflects the power the cars generate from their engines: budget spent on increasing horsepower will have a demonstrable on-track outcome. Traction control offers teams with budgets to spend on testing and perfecting the systems an opportunity to utilise maximum pace from their engine, whilst the tail-enders, as usual, struggle to close the performance gap...