ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 18 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Reflections on Catalunya

  by Roger Horton, England

A happy and relieved Michael Schumacher stood on the top step of the Spanish Podium, after scoring a dramatic if rather fortunate last lap win, when the McLaren of his great rival Mika Hakkinen ground to a halt whilst leading on the final tour of the 65 lap race.

Juan Pablo Montoya finished second in his fifth ever Formula One start, and Jacques Villeneuve rounded out the top three - the French-Canadian scoring his first podium finish since the Hungarian Grand Prix back in 1998, when he drove for Williams. It was also the first ever Podium finish for the struggling BAR-Honda team.

This race, of course, saw the legal return of many of the electronic driver aids banned since the end of the 1993 season, principally traction control, launch control, and fully automatic gearboxes. It was the overriding topic of discussion amongst all the teams and drivers: were we watching a contest of man against man, man against the other man's computer software, or a combination of both?

The new dilemma for outside observers was aptly demonstrated by one of the very first questions posed to Montoya on his debut appearance at the FIA mandated post-race press conference. "Was this a launch control start, or a Juan Pablo Montoya start?" He was asked. The Colombian has already garnered a reputation as being something of a demon starter in his short F1 career, after regularly making up places in the opening seconds of his previous four starts, and in Spain he had gone from eleventh on the grid (after David Coulthard's demotion) to sixth by the first corner.

No, it transpired it had all been down to the effectiveness of his launch control system. Montoya had simply pushed a button and his car's system had done the rest. No doubt someone back at Grove - the team's home base - was overjoyed that his handiwork had gained one of his drivers so many places at the start of the race, and, as it turned out, would also be instrumental in scoring six valuable points for his team, although to be fair to Montoya, the overtaking move he made on Villeneuve was under braking for the first corner.

To some observers this was just the inevitable march of progress, to others it marked a bad move away from the very essence of what 'Grand Prix' racing was supposed to be about. Forever devaluing one of the few remaining moments of pure drama left in an F1 race weekend - the awesome sight of twenty-two drivers controlling their 800 horsepower cars off the grid.

Prior to the race, three-time World Champion Niki Lauda had opined that the changes had made the cars so easy to drive that a monkey could do it. Eddie Irvine supported his boss by stating: "I think it's totally wrong for Formula One, you need about the same amount of skill as walking into a room and turning on the lights." An exaggeration no doubt, but it was easy to understand his point. Drivers are year by year becoming more like airline pilots, basically passengers in their cockpits just monitoring and juggling the various systems from the 'menu' of option available to them on their steering wheels.

During qualifying Mika Hakkinen had become so frustrated by the way traction control was making his car handle that he was quoted afterwards as stating that he switched it off and went back to the old fashioned way of driving the car, with the feeling from 'the seat of his pants' and his God-given talent that has taken him to two World Championships and eighteen race wins.

Not so, according to McLaren team boss Ron Dennis: "In qualifying Mika had selected an option in which fewer options were available to him - I think it was a little bit too black-and-white to say, 'he switched it off,' but he did switch off some of the functionality.

"You have to remember that the electronic freedom encompasses every function on the engine and gearbox," Dennis continued, "But the more options you have, the more you have to have the ability to select those options. There are a whole range of parameters available to the drivers, and those options are variable. It is important for drivers to understand how to get the most from the changes. They still have a throttle pedal, still got brakes and still got steering wheels. The changes are putting the driver in the position of having to explore new envelopes of possible performance."

At some time in the future, after his driver has won a race in changeable wet-dry track conditions, we are going to hear a team boss praising his driver's ability to scroll through his available menu options in the 'heat of the battle' and his skill in deciding which was the optimum setting to use at any given period of the race to suit the conditions. This may be progress, but is it in the right direction for a sport that derives much of its interest from fans supporting their favourite driver and care little and understand less of the technology involved?

The fate of the two McLaren drivers in this race aptly showed the perils of this new technology. Hakkinen got to within a few corners of victory before an obvious mechanical failure saw him stop by the side of the track. The appreciation of his heartbreak was obviously to all and the crowd responded by giving him a standing ovation. Scant reward perhaps for a great drive, but maybe the acclaim helped to ease his pain. It also helped that the flames belching from the rear of the car signalled that the failure had nothing at all to do with the driver.

David Coulthard by contrast suffered an electrical glitch in his new computer software that caused his car to stall on the grid. A computer failure is impossible to see from the outside, you can only observe the results, and for Coulthard this meant starting from the rear of the grid and a long afternoon in prospect. In days gone by, stalling on the grid was almost always a driver error, so he was pretty much condemned by everyone including his team chief Ron Dennis, who initially accused his driver of 'brain fade'.

Only a later check through the car's systems cleared Coulthard of error, but without question the unleashing of these technical aids has diminished a driver's ability to be the master of his own destiny. It will also soon see a whole new chapter in the 'racing drivers book of excuses' in the months ahead.

It's a fair point to make, that the FIA had little choice but to open up the systems it so obviously couldn't police. But it should always be remembered that the sport has accepted these new rules not as a measured step forward for the long-term good of F1 racing, but because the consequences of inaction were infinitely worse, that the cheats would win with illegal cars and make a mockery of the racing completely.

Finally it was left to Jarno Trulli to remind everyone of the one constant in racing that always stays the same - its danger. Trulli dedicated his fourth place finish to the memory of his fellow countryman and former Ferrari driver Michele Alboreto, who was killed last week testing an Audi in preparation for the Le Mans 24-hour race.

"He was," Trulli said, "a truly lovely person as well as a great driver." Amongst all the other disagreements at Catalunya, this was something that everyone could agree on.

Roger Horton© 2007
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