There has been a lot of discussion and controversy in Formula One during the winter break about changes to the Technical Regulations in 2008. In particular almost all of the drivers have voiced an opinion about the new standard electronics that come into force. These have been a hot topic because they coincide with a ban on driver aids. Whilst much of the talk has been about the removal of Traction Control there is another consequence of the electronic rule changes that might have a bigger impact on the field.
This is not the first time that driving aids have been banned from the sport. The FIA made the same declaration in 1994 but was unable to effectively police the ruling because teams could hide features such as Traction Control in their software. The teams and drivers made regular accusations about their rivals using illegal electronics, so in order to make sure that nobody was cheating the FIA made Traction Control legal again in 2001.
Funnily enough once the system was allowed almost all of the teams had problems adjusting to it. This suggested none of them had been using it illegally in the first place.
This year the FIA have introduced standard Electronic Control Units which means policing a ban is no longer an issue.
Most of the comments from drivers about the new regulations have centred on the removal of Traction Control.
For the last six years a driver could plant his foot on the accelerator and electronics would take care of the rest. If the wheels started to spin the engine would cut out which meant the car generated maximum traction out of corners at all times.
In 2008 the only thing controlling the amount of power being delivered to the rear wheels will be the driver’s right foot.
Some Formula One stars resent the ban on Traction Control and have gone as far to say that it will make the sport more dangerous.
This argument is a tad weak.
Very few Formula One accidents occur under acceleration from a corner. If you look at all the serious shunts in F1 over the past ten years, such as Kubica’s crash at Canada, not one of them could have been prevented with traction control. Wheelspin will not result in a massive high speed rollover. Traction Control is not much of a performance factor when the car is moving quickly and that is when the big accidents occur.
A few drivers have been especially vocal about the safety consequences of the new ECU and one of them was Felipe Massa. The Brazilian said “In terms of safety, this is a big step backwards. For sure we will have more accidents, and racing in wet conditions will be very dangerous.”
A wet race will not produce the disastrous scenario that Felipe is predicting. The most dangerous things in those situations are the spray and the possibility of aquaplaning. Traction Control will not help you in either situation. Driving in the wet is always going to be tricky, and without Traction Control it will be even trickier. However, removing driver aids will not directly result in more crashes. Aquaplaning and poor visibility are the real safety issues in bad weather, not wheelspin.
Felipe may just be covering himself given that he is expected to be one of the drivers most hurt by the Traction Control ban. Massa is phenomenally quick and his strength is on the exit of a corner rather than the entry. Removing Traction Control might expose him a little, especially in the wet where he has never been strong, which may explain why he has come out fighting.
He isn’t alone though because Coulthard, Button and Webber have also been very critical of the new rules.
In all honesty the ban on Traction Control won’t make much of a difference.
All of the drivers are professionals and will work out very quickly exactly how far they can push the throttle before the wheels start spinning. They will have that well sorted before the first race in Melbourne and there will be very little change to the racing.
It may be interesting though given the comments made by Michael Schumacher. The seven times world champ recently drove the 2007 Ferrari without Traction Control and said “It feels worse than when we last ran without TC. It’s not similar, it’s worse because you have different engines compared to that time. Then you had 10-cylinder engines. Then you could change and play with the gears and now you cannot”.
Whilst most of the focus about the 2008 electronic regulations has centred on Traction Control, there is something else in the new rules that could have a bigger effect on the drivers.
Engine braking has also been banned.
The Traction Control system used the same electronics that helped slow a car by using the engine. Electronics regulated the speed of the rear wheels which meant drivers were able to use this to their advantage under braking as well as acceleration.
When drivers arrived at a corner they could slam on the brakes and use the throttle as a type of Anti-Lock-Braking system. The electronics would govern traction so no matter how hard the driver hit the brake pedal he could not lock up the rear wheels, providing of course he used the throttle just right.
Williams Technical Director, Sam Michael, believes this will have a much bigger effect on drivers than the removal of Traction Control. He said “There is still engine braking, so when you lift off the throttle it’s still there, and you have different throttle maps that you can apply to tune that. The big difference is that there are no anti-lock systems. So under braking when you normally slam the brakes on you have got a rear anti-lock system that controls the rear-wheel slip. That’s gone”.
With the possibility of locking their rear brakes, drivers will have to tread more carefully into the entry of corners as well as the exit. The back end of the car might become the most important part of the new electronic regulations.
The sting is quite literally in the tail.
Two drivers who may not experience such a disadvantage are Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen.
This is because the electronics used by everyone this year will be built by McLaren.
The British Formula One team is just one company under the ‘McLaren’ umbrella. Granted, it is a very large part of the umbrella but McLaren Electronic Systems is another company in the group. Although it is a separate entity to the F1 team there is an obvious overlap and they both share the same registered address in Woking.
Ferrari believes this is providing McLaren with an unfair advantage.
McLaren have played this down and have rightly pointed out the system will be new for them as well. They have admitted to already knowing how the wiring works and how to best fit the unit into their car, but have claimed any advantage ends there. That is an entirely fair and accurate statement.
It isn’t a sentiment that Ferrari agree with, but then you wouldn’t expect them to. Jean Todt has said “it is obvious that, at least at the start, McLaren will have an advantage in the championship”.
Renault have sided with Ferrari and their Engine Technical Director, Rob White, explained “The kit is the same for everybody and the potential is the same for everybody, but those people that start further away have a longer road to travel to get to their optimum.”
Life may be easier for McLaren over winter adjusting to the new electronics but everyone will be on the same level by the time racing starts in Melbourne. Any team that uses the new ECU as an excuse for poor performance is doing just that, making an excuse.
Any advantage McLaren have will be minimal, just as any change to the racing will be minimal also. There might be a lot of fuss over the new electronics at the moment but they will be long forgotten by mid season.
Hopefully by that stage we will be in the midst of a great championship battle, without the slightest hint of controversy.