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May the best driver Win

  • 25 March 1995
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Louise Dalziel
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AFTER the Italian Grand Prix at San Marino on 1 May 1994, racing officials impounded the on-board engine management computers from the first three cars across the line for routine checks. These computers normally control aspects of the engine performance such as fuel injection and ignition. But the checks revealed that the computer from the winning Benetton-Ford also contained other software which was designed to control the speed of the engine and prevent the car's wheels from spinning out of control as it accelerated from a standing start. This "launch control" software is banned from Formula 1 racing.

Although the Benetton team did not deny that the software was on board, it claimed that the winning driver, Michael Schumacher, had not used it during the race. The program could only be activated by performing a complicated sequence of actions with the throttle, clutch and gear lever, said the company, a procedure designed to prevent the driver using it inadvertently. Benetton also claimed that the program was only for testing the car and had been left on the computer due to the pressure of work.

To investigate the incident, the F�d�ration Internationale de l'Automobile, motor racing's governing body which is based in Paris, hired Liverpool Data Research Associates, a British company with experience in software for controlling aircraft. LDRA concluded that the software had probably not been used during the Italian Grand Prix and so the FIA took no action against Benetton or Schumacher.

After the race, Benetton refused to hand over the codes that allowed the FIA to access the software until mid-July. By the time the investigation was over however, Schumacher had won six of the first seven races of the season (the San Marino Grand Prix was only the third). Despite a remarkable start by Schumacher in the French Grand Prix, the team vigorously denied using launch control in any of these races. Schumacher competed in five later races, winning two and securing victory in the 1994 Driver's World Championship.

The FIA is keen to prevent a repeat of this controversy in this year's championship which begins on Sunday with 71 laps of the 4.325 kilometre circuit at Interlagos in Brazil. To enforce the rules, the FIA is introducing a range of electronic, chemical and mechanical checks that will be performed on the cars before and after the races. It says the new tests will prove to the public and to the teams that even electronic cheats will be caught.

The electronic revolution began to change motor racing in the late 1980s when car designers realised that computers could control aspects of a car's performance far more effectively than human drivers. For example, engineers at the Tyrrell team based in Surrey claim that a driver can respond to wheelspin in 0.2 seconds but a computer can react some hundred times faster. By the start of the 1993 season, most drivers had some form of electronic help.

The FlA objects to this electronic revolution on two grounds. First, it believes that the devices remove the skill from driving. "Formula 1 cars may be ultra-high technology machines," says Max Mosely, president of the FIA, "but the technology should be exploited by a human being." The second objection is that smaller teams cannot afford to design and build this kind of advanced electronics - fielding two Formula 1 cars throughout a 16-race season already costs up to �30 million excluding engine costs. Overall, says the FIA, cars fitted with all the latest electronic gadgets have an unfair advantage.

In 1993, Nigel ManseIl won the Driver's Championship in a Williams car that could achieve 0 to 225 kilometres per hour and back to a standstill in just over 6 seconds. The car was equipped with an antilock braking system (ABS), traction control, a semiautomatic gearbox and active suspension.

Before the beginning of the 1994 season, the FIA banned three of these devices but allowed teams to continue to use semiautomatic gear-boxes. These undoubtedly improve performance - the car built for the 1995 season by the Jordan Formula 1 team based at Silverstone, has a seven-speed gearbox capable of changing gear in only 25 milliseconds, far quicker than is possible with manual gears. The FIA's decision to allow the gearboxes, however, was based on the fact that they reduce wear and tear on the engines. One of their functions is to allow drivers to select a lower gear only if the engine can handle the increased number of revs this will produce. This prevents over-revving and the costly damage it can cause.

Ensuring that teams do not use the other devices presents a range of problems - although some areas are easier to police than others. An ABS, for example, is easy to spot. It requires a sensor on each wheel that monitors the rate at which they are turning and valves that control the pressure to each brake calliper. When the brakes are applied, the system prevents the wheels from locking and the car from skidding by varying this pressure.

Active suspension systems are also easy to see. These keep the cars level and maintain constant height above the track with hydraulic shock absorbers that require a hydraulic pump and pipes to carry the hydraulic fluid. The ride-height and attitude are important because they affect the air flow beneath the car. Modern Formula 1 cars are designed so that this flow creates a lower pressure beneath the vehicle than above it, thereby producing a downforce that increases the grip on the track. Conventional suspension systems allow this height to vary during cornering or changes of speed and this can result in a loss of grip at crucial moments.

Traction control, on the other hand, relies on computer software alone to prevent wheels spinning out of control and cannot be spotted from a visual inspection of the car. This year, teams must submit their engine management software to the FIA before racing. Experts from LDRA will examine the programs before giving their approval. Trackside checks will be carried out at random using portable computers that can plug into the cars to ensure that the software has not been changed.

The FIA has also introduced a number of new rules for the coming season, such as reducing the size of the engine from 3.5 litres to 3 litres. The changes are primarily aimed at reducing speed. Accompanying them are a set of tests and checks designed to weed out any cheats. For example, the cars must run on petrol of road car quality and the teams must submit samples of their fuels for approval before the season. This year, at each Grand Prix, the FIA will run chromatography tests from a mobile laboratory to check specimens taken on the day against these samples.

The shape of the underside of the cars must also meet strict new rules. The rules are designed to reduce the amount of downforce that can be produced by the airflow beneath the cars and compel drivers to reduce cornering speeds. Previously, all cars have had flat undersides. The FIA now wants parts of this surface raised further from the ground and this is expected to reduce the downforce by up to 50 per cent.

Relieving the pressure

Another rule is that the aerodynamic surfaces on the car cannot move during the race. The FIA says it is possible to design a car with surfaces that move due to the force of air against them when the car is travelling at speed. The height of the leading edge of parts of the car are particularly important. If they drop during a race, they can reduce the pressure beneath the car and increase the downforce. The FIA will check the cars by applying forces to the aerodynamic surfaces that mimic those experienced during a race.

Some engineers welcome the new rules. "It enables our engineers to have another go at redesigning the engine, so they really enjoy it," says Dick Scammell, racing director at Cosworth Engineering in Northampton which built the engine that powered Schumacher to victory last season. The racing teams, meanwhile, are concentrating on improving aerodynamic performance. Their goal is to produce as much downforce as possible with the minimum of drag. Aerodynamic research has already produced cars that are twice as aerodynamically efficient as those in the mid-80s, says Chris Saunders who is in charge of aerodynamic research at Lola Formula 1 based in Huntingdon. "That means the car produces the same amount of drag but generates twice as much downforce," says Saunders. Mosely reluctantly acknowledges that in preseason tests, the cars are lapping faster than during races last season.

Even with its new system of checks, the FIA admits that it cannot watch everyone all the time. Mosely says that the FIA will have to rely on the honesty of the teams to a certain extent. Even still, he is confident that the FIA can uphold the 1995 regulations. "It would be very imprudent to say that no one could ever get round our precautions," he says, "but they'd have to be very clever to do so."

Science Producer, BBC Radio Scotland
From issue 1970 of New Scientist magazine, 25 March 1995, page 26
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