Formula One is often referred to as the pinnacle of open-wheel racing. Every year, some of the best automotive engineers in the world work together to shave a few grams, or extract a few extra horsepower to create some of the fastest vehicles known to man. With the help of cutting-edge technology, the likes of Adrian Newey and James Allison are able to design record-breaking cars year after year.
However, the engineers and technical directors can’t have it all their way. Rules and regulations play a major role in F1, from both a fairness and safety standpoint. Therefore, certain technological advancements that have been developed and implemented in other classes of motorsports over the years have been banned in Formula 1.
Take traction control (TC) and anti-lock brakes (ABS) for example. Both systems were developed predominantly as safety features in road cars in the 1970s. Electronic control is used for both technologies; power to the driven wheels is limited when a loss of traction is initiated and brake pressure is limited when the wheels begin to lock-up under braking for TC and ABS respectively.
The FIA mandated the use of traction control and ABS for the start of the 1990 season, and many teams were quick to start using the technology. While it didn’t make the vehicles any faster, it allowed the drivers to push their cars to the absolute limit while reducing the risk of losing time through lock-ups or spinning the rear tyres.
Indeed, such a move by the FIA was in the interest of safety, as F1 cars were becoming ever faster. But the introduction of TC had the negative effect of making it far too easy for the F1 pilots to drive their cars to the limit. Formula 1 became less of a test of driving ability, and more about who had the fastest vehicle. This made race weekends a lot more predictable and viewership actually declined as a result in the early 90s.
Therefore, both TC and ABS were banned in 1994, and not many drivers, teams or fans batted an eyelid to the announcement. But upholding the ban proved to be kind of difficult, as it was easier to hide electronic aids than physical elements. This was evident from the controversy surrounding Michael Schumacher’s maiden drivers’ title in 1994; there were numerous allegations that he had been using traction control in his Benetton B194 despite it being illegal to do so.
After significant pressure from teams and fans alike, the FIA removed the ban on traction control (but not ABS) in 2001. They admitted that policing the ban was a lot harder than they had envisaged, so a whole host of electronic aids could be utilised once again, including automatic transmissions and launch control as well.
Nevertheless this only lasted a further 7 years; the governing bodies decided to ban TC once again in 2008 to coincide with considerable rule changes for the 2009 campaign. The new 2009-spec cars would be a lot slower and easier to handle, thus removing the necessity of traction control on safety grounds. Furthermore, the FIA found a fool proof way of making sure no one was using traction control when they shouldn’t. They began supplying the same electronic control unit (ECU) to every team, which was coded in a way that only very small changes could be made to it and therefore rendered it impossible to add TC.
So, there we have it. We haven’t seen traction control in Formula 1 for 14 years now (and ABS for 28 years), but no one has really been asking for it back. Modern F1 cars have plenty of grip nowadays anyway; huge slick tyres and ground effect both mean that the benefit of traction control is pretty much nullified. Both TC and ABS can actually slow you down as well; they can sometimes overcompensate for grip levels and prevent you from reaching maximum cornering speeds, launch throttle or braking power and kick in when they don’t need to. I say let the drivers race, leave them alone they know what to do!
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