Ipart I:/I A Case Against Gizmos
May 7, 2001 | 10:00 A.M. EST
It all has to do with the return of traction control and other electronic gizmos to "aid" the drivers that are now legal. And despite doing as much testing as possible beforehand, the Spanish Grand Prix weekend became a testing ground for the teams to work on all the systems.
The Barcelona paddock also became a forum for everybody to express their thoughts on traction control, launch control and all the rest of the new gizmos.
Eddie Irvine is one of the most severe critics.
"It's wrong for Formula One," he said. "It's totally wrong. It makes my job easier. I'm getting paid the same money and making less effort. The technicians know what the best traction parameters are, and they fiddle away with their numbers and we just press the throttle on the floor and relax."
Electronic driver aids were banned at the end of the 1993 season, but ever since there have been rumors - and not so subtle accusations - teams were cheating. And, indeed, some teams were cheating. One team programmed its computers to dump the traction control system any time the engine was switched off. One hid its program so deep in its software it thought the FIA technical inspectors would never find it. They did.
But it got to the point where the FIA admitted (1.) It knew teams had bent the rules; and (2.) It was getting impossible to police the ever-more-intricate systems.
Plus, there was no easy way to interpret just what was legal and what wasn't. So the FIA and the teams decided "if you can't beat them join them" and made most of the systems legal starting with the Spanish Grand Prix on April 29.
The three main things that are now legal are traction control, launch control and automatic gearboxes. But it goes far beyond that.
Basically, there are now no rules restricting what you can do with the electronics and computers on the engine and gearbox. The options are almost infinite. Unlike the pre-1994 rules, however, electronic and computer aids to the steering, brakes, and suspension are still banned.
Traction control allows the driver to plant his foot on the accelerator and not have to worry about the rear wheels spinning. The computers take care of that.
Launch control is used only at the start. No longer does a driver have to finesse the clutch and accelerator to make the best getaway from the standing start. He just flicks a switch and the computers do it for him.
The teams have been using semi-automatic gearboxes - where the driver changes gear by flicking a paddle behind the steering wheel - but now fully automatic gearboxes are permitted.
Just about all the drivers hate the new systems because it means a computer can help even the odds between a fast driver and a mediocre one.
"I'm opposed to it driver-wise because it does take away from what you can do in the car, how you feel the car and how you set the car up," said Jacques Villeneuve. "On the other hand, if you're allowed to change your electronics every week and there are 11 teams doing it, there's no way the FIA can keep up with that, and there's no way the FIA can see all the intricate codes and understand if someone is cheating or not. So it's better to have it open and then at least it's clear no one is cheating."
Villeneuve's British American Racing Honda had a spectacular blow up on Friday before the Spanish Grand Prix, as he tried to make a practice start leaving the pits. He said he had no idea if the failure was somehow related to the traction control computers running amuck.
Honda, meanwhile, didn't even acknowledge in its daily press release the engine had failed. An engineer from a rival engine company said there was no doubt that Honda's computers had screwed up and caused the blow up.
Villeneuve's teammate Olivier Panis is another driver who wants to show his skill rather than have a computer do it.
"I don't like this traction control," he said. "I know for a driver it's not good fun. I prefer to drive with my foot. But it's a big help when the tires are very old. The FIA decided to do this because they imagined that some people used it last year. I don't know which team. If the FIA is more comfortable that everybody has it, then we'll use it."
The days of a driver making a lightening start and going from sixth to second will soon be gone, Irvine said.
"If you qualify 13th you will get into the first corner 13th because nobody will be able to make a better start than anybody else," he said. "You need the same amount of skill as walking into your room and switching on your lights."
Then he sneered: "Another great decision!"
"It won't be the driver who gets blamed for stalling at the start now," Irvine said. "It will be some guy no one has ever heard of sitting in a room where no one ever sees him... he will be the one who made the mistake."
Ironically, Irvine went from 13th to ninth at the start.
That guy sitting in the room was responsible for the two most vivid and embarrassing examples the new systems are far from perfect. David Coulthard's McLaren Mercedes suddenly died just before the start of the final formation lap. Instead of starting third he had to start at the back of the pack. Given what happened in the race, that cost him a win.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan Honda was left stranded at the start when the traction control decided not to work. He eventually got going, only to tangle with a driver at the back of the field and spin out of the race.
Three-time world champion Niki Lauda said a monkey could now drive a F-1 car. That was too much for Michael Schumacher.
"So we have 22 monkeys in the cars now? Good." Schumacher said. "Obviously, Niki likes to say a lot of things. Maybe a monkey can drive, but certainly not as fast."
Villeneuve said the gizmos would raise the limits of just how far a driver can push the car.
"I prefer not to have it," he said. "But traction control doesn't mean you're just a passenger. The limit is higher now because you don't have to think about it. You just put your foot down, then get a bit sideways and correct it. You don't have to lift because you know the engine will cut out. That's why it raises the limit. An average driver will be helped late in the race when they get tired and concentration is harder. That way it will level out the drivers a bit."
Love it or hate it, traction control and launch control and the rest are here to stay. But judging by all the fits and starts of the cars in Spain, more than one team has plenty of work to do before perfecting the systems. Villeneuve, for example, said he preferred to start the old fashioned way rather than use the launch control. Mika Hakkinen and Ralf Schumacher both turned their traction control off and set their best qualifying laps.
In the race itself, winner Michael Schumacher used both traction control and launch control. Juan-Pablo Montoya started the race with launch control, but didn't use traction control on his way to second place. Villeneuve, meanwhile, didn't use launch control, but did use traction control to finish third.
The electronic gizmos are back, but they're far from perfected.