Formula 1 is the highest tier of motor racing out there; combining sophisticated aerodynamics and otherworldly technology to sculpt racing cars with unprecedented levels of performance. With over 1,000-horsepower at the rear wheels of a 2021 car, it makes you wonder – “just how much help are the drivers getting to keep their car on the track?”
Formula one cars do not have traction control. Instead, drivers rely on skill, knowledge, and experience to maneuver a one thousand plus horsepower F1 car around a race track.
The answer is, not much at all. There is no traction control or anti-lock brakes on a Formula 1 car. Hence why we so often see cars spinning out of control (Nikita Mazepin), making shortcuts across the run-off areas (Max Verstappen), or arriving into turns with plumes of white tire smoke blinding their opposition during a lock-up (Lewis Hamilton).
What’s a Traction Control System?
With traction control, you can drive a car quickly in virtually any scenario without having to worry much about spinning out or losing control of the car. When the electronics in the car sense the tires are losing grip and you’re on the verge of losing control, it immediately cuts power to the wheels, just enough to prevent any further loss of grip.
Because traction control is an active system that can be turned on and off, and it only comes into play when it’s needed, the driver doesn’t have to be as skillful with the throttle control – which, if used in F1 would make for some very sleep-inducing racing on a Sunday afternoon.
Why Don’t F1 Cars Have Traction Control?
As technologically advanced as they are, today’s F1 cars are missing many of the driver assists you may be used to on your daily driver, including traction control, stability control, cruise control or anti-lock brakes; so why don’t F1 cars use driving aids that are known to make driving powerful cars “easier”, like traction control and ABS?
Well, it’s not a matter of simply knowing-how, you only need to take a look at an F1 car’s steering wheel to get a sense of how complex Formula 1 cars really are, modern F1 cars are highly complicated machines, made up of over 8,000 clever electronic components and an Engine Control Unit (ECU) that grants teams and drivers the ability to measure and control aspects of the car’s performance characteristics.
Furthermore, to make the claim that Formula 1 is (as the name implies) the leading class of motorsport while allowing the drivers such luxuries as traction control and ABS would be absurd, not to say that it hasn’t happened before. F1 and the FIA have had a somewhat unstable relationship with the use of traction control, seeing its prohibition and reintroduction many times over since the 1990s.
The Use of Traction Control in F1
At the start of the 1990s, traction control systems in one form or another started making their way into Formula 1 cars, with each team devoting endless hours of electronic wizardry in a bid to extract any possible advantage from their car, often by exploiting any potential perks that had yet to be banned by the FIA.
Williams, Ferrari, and Benetton all developed advanced electronics for their cars that allowed them to control a range of features, even suspension! The arrival of traction control wasn’t to everyone’s taste however, many criticized its use, including drivers, stating it diminished the sport by making the cars easier to drive and favoring teams also with considerably higher budgets that could afford to develop the electronics further.
Like with most things in F1, if something grants a driver enough of an advantage, it starts to look like some kind of “cheating” must be taking place. Soon enough the party came to an end when in 1994, the FIA banned pretty much every electronic driver aid, and it wouldn’t be until 2001 that traction control would make a return. You might remember cars from the 01-08 era exhibited a range of unusual stuttering sounds during launch, or while speeding through fast chicanes at circuits like Suzuka and Montreal, that’s the sound of the traction control working to prevent the wheels from losing grip.
The reason we don’t have traction control in F1 today is because it’s still banned by the FIA, a decision made for the 2008 season. That makes the racing we see today, perhaps the most difficult, and exciting.
How Do Drivers Tame All That Power?
Formula 1 is racing with the highest stakes imaginable; there’s little to no margin for error when advantages are measured in hundredths and thousandths of a second. That being said, it’s solely down to the skill and aptitude of the driver to tame the volatile beast using only their hands and feet, save for minor adjustments that can be made on the steering wheel with assistance from the team via radio.
If a driver accelerates from a corner and gets on the gas a fraction too early, or is just a bit too aggressive with the right foot at the wrong moment, it can all be over so quickly. So as comical as it might be to entertain the wealth of Nikita ‘Mazespin’ memes on the internet, it does bear considering how unintelligibly difficult it would be for us ordinary folk to drive an F1 car, let alone set quick lap times or score points!
When we watch the start of an F1 race, we’re all anticipating who will get a “good start” off the starting line, often allowing them to challenge for the lead into the first corner.
The difference between a driver gaining or losing positions at the start of the race could be the result of many factors:
- Reaction time
- Throttle application
- Tire temperature
Now surely these drivers, even at such an elite level must suffer from the occasional nerves and anxiety while waiting for the red lights to change too? They’re still human after all.
Is There An Alternative To Traction Control?
One useful feature teams have at their disposal are programmable engine “maps” that can be selected by the driver on the fly; essentially a file containing code that dictates parameters within the ECU, altering the fuel delivery to the engine. Cars often have 3 fuel/engine maps to choose from,
- One map produces more power, at the expensive of greater fuel usage and engine wear
- The other will produce less engine power, but grant the benefit of greater fuel economy and lower engine wear.
- The other type of map, which is most commonly used is a combination of the 2.
Formula 1 cars have a limited number of engines they’re allowed to use during a season, this means they have to make them last – the consequence of failing to comply with this rule can arrive in the form of grid-place penalties, proving very costly for championship contenders later in the season, as we’ve seen before.
One of the ways teams try to preserve engine life, while remaining competitive, is to “dial-down” the power, saving the less-restrictive engine maps for when it’s needed the most. While a change in fuel mapping might give the driver marginal gains when used effectively, it isn’t considered a driver aid as it is a feature of the ECU and not a feature that can be turned off.
So next time you watch a Formula 1 race, you’ll have some new knowledge bombs to drop on your friends and family. Now that you know all about traction control systems, how they work, and some interesting anecdotes regarding their sometimes-controversial history in the sport, we have to ask, “do you think Formula 1 cars would be faster if traction control was no longer banned?”
Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.
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