What, no driver aids? Is F1 all wet?

What, no driver aids? Is F1 all wet?

The weather could not have been better. Perhaps not the ideal for offseason tourists, but rain in Southern Spain that presented itself to Formula One teams testing at the Circuito de Jerez in Jerez de la Frontera this week got the circus down to...

The weather could not have been better. Perhaps not the ideal for offseason tourists, but rain in Southern Spain that presented itself to Formula One teams testing at the Circuito de Jerez in Jerez de la Frontera this week got the circus down to brass tacks.

Fernando Alonso, Renault F1 Team.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Spins, offs, beachings and red flags were the inevitable result of drivers in cars without driver aids -- traction control and engine braking.

A part of F1 in various forms since the 1980s, before a mid-'90s ban and then a return in 2001, electronic gizmos that control excessive wheel spin in certain conditions are out in 2008 thanks to rules changes by the sport's governing body, the FIA.

Ditching traction control was seen as a way to placate fans wanting increased driver derring-do. Losing a so-called crutch, drivers are expected to produce errors then more on-track passing. As they must be, the changes were agreed on by every F1 team.

But not five days into the new year with the new regulations, voices at the front were heard to question the wisdom of stripping away the aids. British drivers David Coulthard and Jenson Button cautioned that this way danger lay: The Wet.

Traction control, which employs a wonderful system of detecting wheelspin and cutting engine power, oddly enough calls for more welly, or harder tromping on the throttle, to get a car's computer system to provide correct power application; that is, constant acceleration through corners. Without traction control, a film of water between tires and road calls for a lighter right foot. Drivers' training started in Jerez.

Britain's new leading driving light, Lewis Hamilton, a series sophomore, bemoaned the rules changes after soggy spins Wednesday that twice beached his McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 and left him awaiting flat-bed service back to the paddock.

"The first time it was just wet," Hamilton said. "I touched the curb and just went on to the edge of the gravel it would be good if there were -- some proper run-off areas here -- and then it was the same again in the afternoon. "Without these controls helping you on the entry to corners, there is a lot more locking of the rear wheels. And when you are on the limit and pushing that is what happens."

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren Mercedes.
Photo by xpb.cc.

Coulthard was the first driver to run on the wet track afer Red Bull's launch held at the Jerez circuit. He ran the first installation lap of the new car on Wednesday.

"The big issue is when we have standing water on the track without traction control," Coulthard said. "There hasn't been a big incident -- touch wood -- for a long time, but it's just a question of when that happens."

What Coulthard considers a long time wasn't disclosed, but few fans will have forgotten Brazil 2003. The race was stopped 15 laps short of completion when extrawet conditions prompted spectacular crashes and brought on such chaos that race organizers could not immediately determine the winner (Giancarlo Fisichella in a Jordan, his trophy awarded at the San Marino Grand Prix).

Coulthard's Australian Red Bull teammate Mark Webber, whose attempt to use a puddle for tire cooling resulted in a 150-mph crash into barriers that strew tires and car parts across the track and helped end that race in Brazil, agreed. "No question about it, there will be more crashes," he said.

Fernando Alonso, who smashed into one of Webber's tires that day in Brazil and likewise shattered his car into bits flung across the track, said after driving a Renault R27 at Jerez that he thinks series drivers can adjust quickly enough to wet-weather driving without aids.

"This is the first time that I have driven without traction control, but towards the end of my runs I started to gradually take a few more risks with the car," Alonso said. "I am convinced that after two or three races, we will have completely forgotten how it was to drive with driver aids.

"It's about the driver finding his limits and adapting his driving style," he added.

World champion Kimi Raikkonen, who tested the new Ferrari F2008, allowed that adjusting to wet conditions will be "difficult".

Kimi Raikkonen, Scuderia Ferrari.
Photo by xpb.cc.

BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, who drove the F1.08 at a private test in Valencia, where rain was present but less a bother than gusting winds, felt that the rules change is better for drivers.

"Formula One does not need traction control," the German said. "I enjoy it more as a driver, especially in the rain. For me, it doesn't cross the line of being too dangerous."

President of the FIA, Max Mosley, told Alan Henry of The Guardian that extreme weather conditions would serve to slow the cars and that would provide a safety factor. He described running the British Grand Prix on a snow floor at Silverstone.

"Nobody would get hurt because nobody would ever get up to enough speed to do any damage."

Mosley didn't address that F1 cars do not operate at other than high speeds.

The consistent thing about F1 drivers is they step into the cars and go fast no matter what rules apply.

The 2005 rule that dictated one set of tires throughout a race didn't last long, especially after Raikkonen's spectacular final-lap crash when his flat-spotted tire vibrated his McLaren's suspension into breaking just short of victory at the European Grand Prix.

Whither wet weather? Stay tuned.

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About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Giancarlo Fisichella , Jenson Button , Mark Webber , David Coulthard , Nick Heidfeld , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Lewis Hamilton
Teams Sauber , Renault F1 Team