Friday, March 14, 2008

The Season Begins

Tomorrow night, Sunday in Australia, is the opening race of the 2008 Formula One race season. It's always tough to sit out the nearly five months of the off season, and that break gives the season opener an extra boost of excitement (like the start of baseball season, I imagine, for the diehard fan).

Making things more interesting yet, there have been a few key rule changes over the winter, the ramifications of which can really only be seen once the cars take the track in anger. Some of these things, like the elimination of the spare car or the tweaking of the qualifying procedures, are just a fine-tuning of what are after all quite arbitrary things. But others are fiddling with the very guts of motor racing. The chief of these more substantial changes is the introduction of a standard engine electronic control unit--ECU. Sounds innocent enough, but in practice it has a big impact on how the cars behave on the track and, in consequence, on the demands placed on the drivers.

And that's the point of the exercise. Over the last 15 years or so F1 cars have increasingly relied on traction control--that is, computer management of power to keep the wheels from breaking traction under acceleration--to prevent spinouts, with the result being a pretty sanitized experience for viewers: sand or moisture on the track pose no real challenge to the drivers (at least under acceleration) as the TC would just cut power when any wheelspin was detected. The resultant awful ratcheting sound as the cars pulled away from corner became one of F1's trademark (very loud) sounds.

But the advent of traction control, though it has its application to road cars (and is even now found on many new cars), meant that a machine and / or software was doing what had previously been the domain of the race driver: to control the car at the ragged edge to get around a race course faster than others doing the same. The driver's instincts and skill in feathering the application of power was simply removed from the mix. There had been a ban on traction control imposed by the sport's governing body (the FIA) six or seven years ago, but it quickly transpired that the ingenuity of the teams' massive engineering departments made policing this policy nigh-unto impossible. And so to level the playing field it was decided to allow TC back into the legal paradigm. But nobody liked this decision. So this year, in pursuit of the same goal as last time, the FIA took the more radical step of mandating a standard engine electronic control unit. This effectively makes electronic traction control impossible.

What makes this all rather more fascinating than it might otherwise be is the dire seriousness with which the sport itself approaches technical matters. The top F1 teams spend in the region of $300-400 million each to put two cars through a 19-race season. Think of that: that's several billion dollars a year, much of it devoted to engineering staffs (I believe it was Ferrari or Mclaren who were said to employ an engineering staff of 600 people). There are massive computer and wind tunnel staffs, engine and chassis people, transmission people, suspension people, materials departments, on and on. The result of all this effort is not merely cutting-edge, but a placement of that edge much further along the line of progress than it would be on its own.

And the long and short of that is this: the FIA regulations and dicta simply become hurdles for the engineering staffs to find ways to circumvent. This is why the first traction control ban failed; the teams found ways to accomplish the task without being detected by the FIA. The governing body continues to come up with restrictions in an effort to limit the staggering costs of the sport, and the teams continue to find ways to get around the restrictions. (Again and again we've heard that the cars have become dangerously fast, and that big restrictions on engine size and aerodynamics and changes in tire regulations are required to slow the cars down. And without fail the restrictions are nullified in the space of the winter off-season. The current cars are running near-record paces in spite of years of additional restrictions.)

And that, in a nutshell, is Formula One. That's why people watch. Because it's the greatest non-military technical show on earth. It helps if you find your heartrate quickening a little to see cars trying to beat each other around a race course. But even if you didn't care much about racing it remains a most fertile field for a machinery geek. I've actually verified this by taking a couple non-race-fan pilot buddies with me to a race; pilot means machine geek, even if they aren't race fans. And sure enough, they were all flabbergasted at the sheer extremity of it all.

I've lamented for years that the biggest advances in aviation have come only when governments put military dollars toward some lethal goal. F1 kneels at a different alter, that of advertising dollars and marketing imperatives. There's plenty in this scenario to find unsavory as well, but to me it's an improvement that this gigantic technical design impetus is purely market-driven. If only we could find a way to turn these teams loose on problems of electric cars or energy technology or space travel (things at least tangentially related to their present tasks), we might make some real progress in these fields.

(There are unraised questions here about the role of technology in racing and about what role a governing body ought to play in a racing series. I lament Nascar's use of restrictor plates--among the other things I lament about Nascar--because it's a blatant attempt to achieve a level playing field by constricting innovation. It makes a sham out of racing itself; why bother having different cars at all? The use of a standard ECU in F1 is exactly the same thing, even if the levels of technology in the two race series are not remotely comparable. But this is another lengthy post.)


Jon the Apple Man said...

driving 200 mph in a circle ( ok, not a circle) does not impress me, what you need is a crash and a good car fire!

wunelle said...

But, see, the best payoffs are those which are not consistent (think B. F. Skinner). It's the RISK of that fireball that makes people show up for the Indy 500, which is after all a bunch of cars driving stupefyingly in a circle for two and a half hours (which is the perfect one-sentence description of Nascar, The Only Kind of Racing Which Still Makes Sense when you're Drunk). It takes a crash to make it interesting.

F1 is a lot more interesting than that, but you can always hang your hopes on a fiery crash!

Dzesika said...

I didn't know a thing about F1 when I used to watch it back to the UK, and it was still fun. Now, if I'd had a machinery-geek tutorial beforehand ... it's even more interesting. :)

These days, since the office sponsors Indy and NASCAR, any racing I may/may not follow is decidedly ... different .

wunelle said...

Well, the U.K. is where F1 comes from! There are lots of informed racing nuts over there--far more than here.

I was just rereading my posts from last year's Europe travels, and I thought again of you as I read about relinquishing my Oyster card.

I'd love to go back.