ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 17 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Technical Preview:
Spanish Grand Prix

Click here for a track map of Barcelona by Will Gray, England

Traction control makes its racing return at Barcelona. For some it is like the start of a new season, for others it is just another rule change that will not alter a thing, but, it is certainly what everyone will be talking about when the teams arrive at the Circuit de Catalunya this weekend.

After rumours and controversy surrounding the use of traction improving devices last year, which continued into the start of this season, the FIA's only solution was to prepare the way for the return of the driver aid that was banned at the end of 1993.

Teams had, allegedly, developed systems to get around loopholes in the regulations and although not necessarily illegal, the difficulties in policing the clever electronics used by Formula One teams had become so great that it made things more simple to open up the regulations in that area than continue to try and police it.

And so, although potentially to the detriment of overtaking, the system has been allowed back into Formula One. It was originally banned because of concerns that driver skill was being severely limited by driver aids after traction control and active suspension created the most advanced Grand Prix cars ever. Those concerns are still there, and although the system's introduction is popular with the teams on the grounds of finally making a level playing field, it is far from popular in terms of its skill limitations.

Currently, when the driver puts his right foot down on the accelerator pedal its movement sends a signal to the electronic control unit (ECU) which reads this signal and converts it to a demand on the engine for a certain power level. This all occurs in a split second, and although it can be manipulated in some ways, the car remains basically in the driver's hands.

However, the new system directly takes away control from the driver because the ECU will now be allowed to put a limit on the engine based on the traction available. The system can read when the tyres are at the point of slipping and stop the engine feeding any more power to the rear wheels, therefore preventing wheelspin. That means that a driver could put his foot right to the floor and the engine would still feed precisely the correct amount of power for the grip level available to the rear wheels.

It seems like a major change, but the teams are split on how it will affect the sport. It will certainly reduce the driver input, and with less mistakes it will reduce the chances of overtaking because generally a driver will make a pass when the man ahead makes a mistake. Teams do not expect lap times to change, and in fact Bridgestone believes they will increase slightly because the power limitation will lead to a reduction in performance. However, the key to speed is a smooth lap and with power on the limit of wheelspin, smooth is exactly what the cars should be.

The most significant area that traction control will affect is the race performance of tyres, and in the highly competitive world of a tyre war that could see lap times decrease in the future as an indirect function of the system's introduction. The cars will be easier to drive and with a reduction of rear wheel slide the tyre degradation will reduce dramatically. The tyres will therefore last longer during a race, and that will lead to the possibility of developing softer rubber in the future.

Right now, however, the reduction of tyre wear will simply come as a relief to the teams because the Circuit de Catalunya is one of the hardest tracks for tyres on the Grand Prix calendar. It has an extremely abrasive surface, and it is a generally high speed circuit, both of which are bad news for tyres, and there may be the chance of another Michelin upset on the cards.

The tyre manufacturers, who both still have relatively little data on the performances of their tyres when running with traction control, will be playing it safe and Bridgestone are taking two types of dry tyre used previously this season. They are expecting a two-stop strategy for the race itself, although the long pit straight in Barcelona could tempt teams to take a look at a one-stop race.

As usual, set-up is a difficult task because the slow corners require downforce but the wide sweeping turns and long straights which define the circuit will force teams to go for a more medium downforce set-up, and the cars will usually resultantly understeer.

At Barcelona this year, it all seems to depend on which team has developed their electronic system fastest in preparation for its introduction. Ferrari have supposedly been running a legal version all season, but it is thought to be very different to the type of system that would be used since the rule change. Minardi have been running traction control on their two-seater promotional car for two years, but most teams will have been testing electronic traction control systems since it was announced that they would return, and all have been intensely developing their solutions in testing since the start of the season.

So will it be a new start or just a continuation of the same? Whatever the result, there remains no doubt that Formula One is returning to the electronic age and, more than ever, it is the car that makes the man. May the best-equipped win.

Will Gray© 2007
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