Traction control in Formula One

I suppose it couldn’t be Formula One without some form of controversy or even scandal. Designed to produce just that little unfair edge over the competition, be it commercial or technical, the fact that some teams are prepared to go beyond what most of us would refer to as the rules of the sport is just another indication that motorsport at its pinnacle is all about business and apparently little else.

In the past we have had the McLaren ‘spygate’ and the Renault ‘crashgate’ affairs. More recently, and on a more technical note, we have had ‘exhaust blowing’ – either hot or cold. But as I write, the Formula One paddock is all a-rumble about another form of unfair advantage – traction control, and whether Red Bull has devised some devious method of circumnavigating the regulations by modulating the engine output torque at the rear wheels other than via the driver’s right foot. 

The premise would seem to come down to the apparently inescapable logic that since the Red Bull cars are consistently the slowest of the top teams in the speed traps, yet have higher than average speeds along the straights then they must have better traction into, out of or all the way through the curves that precede them.

At this point I assume that few people would disagree. However, of all the teams, Red Bull Racing would seem to be the only one that still has ongoing issues with its KERS system and, like adding 2 and 2 together to make 5, or even 25, the supposition is that the team is somehow using KERS harvesting to modulate the engine output torque to deliver some form of traction control system outside of that banned by the regulations since 2008.

Whenever teams come up with a superior chassis or engine package it gives them something like a 2 s per lap advantage at certain tracks, so it is only natural that tongues start to wag. But the disclosure of the staccato effect of the rubber laid down as Mark Weber’s car was accelerating out of the hairpin at Singapore has only added fuel to the fire, with the claim that the team is exploiting tyre grip up to its maximum of a small amount of slip by continually harvesting KERS into, through and out of the curves, giving the effect of traction control. Modulating the torque so that the tyre would slip slightly – giving maximum traction, then breaking traction altogether, at which point more KERS would be harvested, thus reducing torque to the rear wheels only to re-establish traction, with the whole thing repeated again every few milliseconds – does indeed sound to be highly plausible given modern sophisticated electronic sensors.

Traditional traction control systems involve cutting the spark ignition to individual cylinders and ramping the timing of this spark back in again via the engine ECU and its control software. In the McLaren engine control system for Formula One this function is switched off inside the ECU.

Although many people have asked if such as a system is fully legal, perhaps more importantly it doesn’t seem to be illegal. And plausible doesn’t mean to say it is possible within the regulations as written, or indeed that Red Bull – true to its denial that such a system exists – is exploiting such a system. Whatever the case, it must be certain that other teams developing their new cars will be looking very closely, since control of traction with the new 1.6 litre turbocharged engines will be even more critical for 2014.  

But such is the secrecy in Formula One that perhaps we will only find out when Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey finally puts down his most famous pencil and folds away surely the only drawing board left in the sport to write his memoirs. Could it be a best seller for 2025 I wonder?

Fig. 1 – Traction control-free zone

Written by John Coxon