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Technology In F1 - Just Because You Can Doesn't Always Mean You Should....

AllRace Magazine
Commentary by Rick Carlton - Allrace Magazine


This F1 season marked the end of an eight year cold war between the FIA and the forces of technology. In that context, the event may have also tolled the beginning of the end of a sport known for its critical balance between man and machine. I refer of course to the Spanish Grand Prix, the first race since 1993, wherein, teams could re-deploy traction and launch-control. While the impact of the decision may appear benign to date, particularly in the context of the ever-present motivation to run F1 systems that are beyond state-of-the art, the tacit admission by the FIA that the cost of policing electronic systems had gone beyond the sanctioning body's ability to control, clearly accelerated the sport's creeping metamorphosis away from driver athletes and toward joystick jockeys.

Yes I know, Formula One is the top technological series in the world. Teams spend hundred's of millions of dollars each season on the application of the latest systems and materials in order to be competitive, so what's the big deal? Well, in the midst of that molded carbon-fiber, titanium, fiber-optic, silicon-driven structure sustaining power to weight ratios on the order of 20:1 is supposed to be a human being; and where will that component fit both now, and more importantly, in the future? In combat aviation it used to be referred to as the "Man-Machine Loop" or the mating of a dumb system with a smart pilot. Great pains were taken by designers to insure that automated systems, which were prone to failure then, as they are today, sustained some fail-over mechanism to the human occupant if a catastrophic condition occured. Over time, as technology advanced, more and more automated systems crept into aircraft designs in order to sustain acceptable "workload management" levels in the face of ever more extreme combat environments. But therein, lies the rub. What is particularly extreme and combative about spending a sunny afternoon, somewhere in Europe, watching a motor race?

The governing industrial and commercial forces that manage, compete and financially support Formula One are at conflicting ends of the motivation spectrum. On the one hand, the FIA wants to maintain F1's cache' as the ultimate in motorsports technology while manufacturers want to enhance brand identification, use the series as a cutting-edge training ground for their brighter engineering talent, and take-in additional product sales dollars as a result of their Grand Prix efforts. At the other end are the fans and the corporate sponsors who understand that if no one is watching it is irrelevant whether a car's wheels are made of concrete or polished aluminum, or motive force is derived from squirrels versus exotically blended fuels. The latter group is clearly motivated by the sight of one man racing against another, while the former is driven by a preference for pure engineering dominance, rather than human competition.

The fact that the FIA yielded on the ban as a result of its inability to police the use of technology indicates the depth of the problem and the invasive nature of automation in a sport that is still supposed to be about human competition, as well as, design specs. A typical Tifosi, for example, can tell you in a heartbeat where the closest locanda (tavern) is, or where to buy the best Ferrari logowear at the track. But, if you ask that same person for the V-angle, bore, stroke and fuel/air map specifications for the Ferrari V-10 chances are they'd just as soon know those details as they'd carry on a conversation in Swahili. Now, by quietly leaving the battlefield to the engineers, the FIA has thrown in the towel just at the time when they should be protecting the human side of the equation, not abandoning it.

What is most galling was that we'd already seen some sterling driving performances prior to the rules waiver. Ralf Schumacher was positively brilliant on the start at Imola while Juan Pablo Montoya's pass on Herr Schumacher at Brazil has already become legendary within the racing community. Along the way we also saw massive wheel-spin, power oversteer, throttle-lift understeer, and more aggressive dicing throughout - in a word we started to see these guys racing. Unfortunately, that disappeared when drivers once again were reduced to systems managers while computers attempted to do all the thinking. And, in the case of Mika Hakkinen's experiences with his McLaren's balky launch-control interface, the systems have made a mess of it. Personally, I'd sooner watch the ground crack than allow a computer to think for me. Count yes. Index yes. But think? Not on your life. Sadly, for those athletes competing in F1 they've gotten up close and personal with their silicon partners long before the rest of us will have to. Early on I wondered how Juan Pablo Montoya would get along with his personal R2D2 and you know what? He turns the thing off much of the time!!...AR

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