Traction control and ABS (2023)

Does Formula One really need to run all the technology we take for granted in road cars?

The first time you hear it, as a car accelerates hard out of a tight corner and runs up through the gears, it sounds just like a serious misfire. It isn’t. This is traction control at work.

Many are already used to it on their road cars. BMW and Mercedes-Benz, for example, have had it for years. Some may even be familiar with its downside, on cars which do not feature an override switch. It can be tough in loose snow, when an engine will just sit there on idle because the rear wheels are spinning and the computer system doesn’t want them to lose the traction they need to lose in order to get the car moving up a slope. . . Most Formula One systems allow the driver to dial in degrees of control.

Traction control – seen as yet another undesirable example of excessive technology by many purists (myself included) – first appeared in F1 back in 1990. Ferrari’s technicians sat down on the Tuesday after the Italian GP on September 11, and came up with a traction control system that it had working on the cars in Portugal less than a fortnight later. That was pretty impressive, but as Harvey Postlethwaite once remarked, “Ferrari has the technology to do all these sort of things, but unfortunately in the past they’ve often got lost in the politics.”

That system was relatively simple, just software and a wheel speed sensor. That Portuguese race was, of course, the celebrated occasion on which, as team-mate Alain Prost was fighting with Senna for the World Championship and the Ferraris sat on the front row, Nigel Mansell drove at him at the start of the race. Prost made the markedly better start up to that point, whereat he had to swerve to avoid an all-red collision. He was using traction control. Mansell, suspecting that it was all a ploy to penalise him further according to team insiders, had switched his off, believing that Ferrari was using it purely to favour the Frenchman!

Mansell never did like traction control. His first reaction when such a system was perfected by Patrick Head for 1992 was to accuse the Williams team of trying to even out his starting advantage over Riccardo Patrese. He saw it as just another erosion of a driver’s influence over his machinery, and he has a point. The whole idea is to let the car decide how much power to apply, taking away a vital driver function. Says Damon Hill: “You put your foot down and the engine minimises wheelspin and maximises usable horsepower. That’s it. It’s obviously a big help, especially in the wet,”

That original Ferrari system came about after one test and a week’s worth of design, but couldn’t be used for the full lap. Later that year, when the team went two seconds faster than anyone else during a wet test in Estoril, it rather tipped its hand. As one engineer recalled: “When we did that we had everybody calling round to see just what we were doing! They could see the wheel sensors and that was that!”

Later in 1992, at Magny Cours, Jean Alesi drove heroically in his Ferrari to lap at similar speed on slicks in the wet to Mansell, who had just changed to wets. I congratulated him later on what I still believe to have been a great performance, but he just shrugged. “With traction control, it is nothing.”

How do F1 traction control systems work? Usually they either cut the fuel supply or the spark. Good road cars do both, but the problem in F1 is that doing that simply takes too long. There are penalties. Lamborghini engineer Mike Royce: “The brutality of the spark-cutting system comes in the very sudden and very marked rise in exhaust temperatures. It’s better to cut the fuel, but better still to use fly-by-wire.”

McLaren, which has to pay for breakages associated with its TAG-designed system, uses the latter, to the chagrin of Cosworth and Ford and Benetton. The Witney team finally got to test its own system just prior to Monaco, after delays with safety testing associated with use of an electronic throttle. One designer said recently: “How can it take Ford that long to sort out Benetton’s traction control system? Sure, I can see why a fly-by-wire throttle might pose a few problems from the safety point of view, but they could easily have worked something else out in the meantime. What are they playing at?”

The spark cutout also poses fuelling problems. The ignition is cut, but not the fuel supply. If a driver dials in more and more control, as Rubens Barrichello did at Donington, it can contribute to significantly higher fuel consumption, as well as the risk of washing lubricant from the bores. Barrichello ran short of Sasol with five laps to go.

“From a technical point of view,” an engineer friend said recently, “traction control is very nice. It’s an interesting solution and makes a car quicker. Of course, the driver usually wants to believe that he’s the difference. With good traction control and anti-lock brakes he’ll just have to jam on the brakes and then mash the throttle to get through the corner. The need for a driver’s sensitivity to how late to brake and how early to get back on the gas has gone, and he just has to sense how fast he can actually corner. Something has been lost.”

Anti-lock brakes – ABS – is the other device which purists fear will further erode standards of driving skill. Williams and Benetton have both tested systems, and as these words were written the former was preparing to run it in qualifying in Canada just as Bosch had frozen developmenf on the latter’s until FISA has clarified the 1994 technical regulations. Former World Sportscar champion Jean-Louis Schlesser has good reason to recall his experience of an early system, during a test with Mercedes’ GpC contender at Barcelona. A sensor failed and indicated that a wheel was not rotating. It was, of course, but the system told the computer that the brakes had locked up and so resolutely it refused to offer any further retardation. Schlesser arrived at the hairpin with his right foot hard on the middle pedal and nothing happening. He pushed so hard that he actually bent the pedal, and he suffered serious cramp in his right leg for the rest of the day. He was lucky to escape a worse fate.

Without doubt, ABS will be of great benefit, but one tends to agree with a tongue-in-cheek Steve Parker, Ford’s F1 Programme Manager, when he commented in Barcelona: “It’s nice to see all these roadcar things coming through to Formula One: traction control, anti-lock brakes. What’s next? Perhaps they’ll all have a cruise control . .”

At one stage, before he changed his mind about “letting technology have its head”, Max Mosley liked to compare modern racing cars with fighter planes. “It’s like the difference between a modern fighter plane and a Spitfire. The fact is that you probably need more qualities to fly a modern fighter than you did a Spitfire in 1940.” That was all very well, but you don’t have spectators when planes are being run quickly. That’s the difference. In racing the spectators want to be entertained. Ideally, they want to see man against car against another man in another car. They want the vicarious thrill of seeing somebody do something that they can’t do themselves.

Damon Hill makes a point: “If you take traction control away, you’re still not going to see speedway style cornering. You’ll still see Alain Prost with all four wheels pointing in the same direction. You’d have to go to really narrow tyres and hard compounds to promote that.” Now there’s an idea . . .

Some feel there is the danger that even the most mundane road cars will become more sophisticated than F1 cars, if traction control and ABS are banned from racing. That’s cock-eyed thinking. So what? Road cars these days are built to be almost idiot proof. To require of the driver the minimum level of ability and sensitivity. We should get rid of traction control and ABS now on racing cars and damn well celebrate that they don’t have them. Come and look! How can these heroes get round a soaking wet Donington without the hand-holding devices we mere roadcar drivers take so much for granted? And lust look how much that guy is having to fight his car and the conditions to stay on the road!

Semi-automatic transmission actuated by controls which allow a driver to keep his hands on the wheel, active ride, and continuously variable transmission of the type being developed by Williams all seem desirable technology in both racing and road cars. But traction control? ABS? What do you think? Should we opt for the esoteric perfection of technicalities until all racing becomes as tedious and predictable as those slotcars which are held to the track by magnets? Or should the challenge remain visible? Should it still be obvious that the performer is working on a high wire? D J T

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