One of the clearest areas of the much spoken of 'cross over' between Formula One and road cars is traction control. And although built to perform slightly different purposes - in ordinary cars ensuring stability under everyday use, in Formula One delivering the maximum amount of power to the road at all times - the fundamental principles remain very similar.
Formula One cars are massively powerful. Even with the grip of modern racing tyres and the assistance of aerodynamic downforce, they are still capable of 'breaking traction' or developing wheelspin up to very high speeds, especially under the loads imposed by cornering. This is inefficient, slows the car down and can damage tyres. Traction control therefore gives drivers a competitive advantage.
To understand traction control it is best to consider the 'traction circle'. The tyres of a Formula One car, like any car, can only offer a certain amount of grip. This can be the longitudinal grip used for braking and accelerating in a straight line, or the lateral grip required for cornering - or a combination of the two. Judging the exact 'mixture' of acceleration and cornering grip that can be extracted from the tyre is one of the hardest tasks faced by a racing driver - too much will result in a 'power slide', too little will see the car putting in a slow time. And it is in this that traction control is of the greatest assistance to drivers.
Not that traction control gets rid of the need for driver skill. The highly 'aggressive' systems on a Formula One car will allow a car to operate very close to the edges of the tyres' capability. But simply travelling around every corner on full throttle would have a very serious impact on the tyres' life and require more frequent pit stops. Discretion is still called for.
Traction control is not new to Formula One motorsport. It has been around in various guises since the 1980s, and cars like the 1992 Williams-Renault FW14-B which took Nigel Mansell to his drivers' championship title were even more electronic-packed than the current cars - featuring computer-controlled active suspension in addition. After a long period during which traction control was banned, the FIA decided to re-allow its use at the start of the 2002 season as it was becoming increasingly difficult to prove that ECUs (Engine Control Units) were not being used to replicate traction control functions.
As with systems on road cars, Formula One traction control works by a comparison of wheel and track speeds, the information gathered by electronic sensors. If the wheel is travelling quicker than the road it is passing over then the engine will be progressively throttled back to prevent wheelspin. In the past this technology was also used in 'launch control' systems, which allowed drivers to make optimum starts. These were outlawed ahead of the 2004 season.
And traction control will be again be outlawed altogether from the start of the 2008 season, when the introduction of standardised ECUs to the cars will make policing the ban far easier than in the past.