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Taming the beast - driving without driver aids 27 Feb 2008

Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault R28 Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, 26 February 2008. World © Moy/Sutton Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R28 Formula One Testing, Day One, Barcelona, Spain, 25 February 2008. World © Moy/Sutton Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault. Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday 20 February 2008. World © Hartley/Sutton Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R28 Formula One Testing, Day Two, Barcelona, Spain, 02 February 2008. World © Patching/Sutton Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault Formula One Testing, Day One, Barcelona, Spain, 01 February 2008. World © Bumstead/Sutton

A major talking point for the new season surrounds the arrival of the Standardised Electronic Control Unit, or SECU, and with it the elimination of driver aids such as traction control and engine braking systems.

The SECU enables the FIA to police an article of the regulations central to the ‘DNA’ of Formula One racing - that “the driver shall drive the car alone and unaided”. But, what should we expect as this new era dawns? And how difficult is it to tame a 2008-spec Formula One car? Double world champion Fernando Alonso and Renault team mate, Nelson Piquet Jr, explain…

“It is in the low-speed (second gear) corners that you notice the difference because that is where the traction control would normally kick in,” reveals Alonso. “That means you have to change your driving style quite dramatically. Last year we used to go straight to full throttle, but now we need to be gentler and feather the throttle.

“Another difference this year occurs when you get wheelspin because, in the absence of traction control, it becomes impossible to stop it - even if you back off the throttle. When you have wheelspin, the revs rise and you have more torque, which makes the wheels spin even more. Therefore, to deliver a good lap time, it is essential to avoid wheelspin through all parts of the corner, and that is not easy.”

Alonso also highlights the variation in steering inputs: “With traction control we used to get more understeer at the exit of the corner, but this is no longer an issue. Rather, from midcorner onwards, the car oversteers and slides more, which again influences your driving style and the racing line.”

The new regulations have also removed the engine braking systems (EBS) that used to moderate the locking of the rear wheels, and give greater stability, under heavy braking. It is the loss of this system, rather than the loss of traction control, that Piquet believes has the greatest impact.

“The biggest difference you notice with the 2008 cars is not the loss of traction control, but the absence of engine braking control because the car is much more unstable, especially on used tyres,” says Nelson. “When you look at the telemetry, the brake pressure is now much less compared to last year. With EBS you could brake much harder; if you did that without the electronics, you will simply lock up your wheels.”

Alonso echoes Piquet’s sentiments and emphasises the need to adapt set-up accordingly. “Without EBS you do suffer with locking of the rear tyres because stopping a car travelling at 300 km/h is not easy,” he explains. “You have to adapt the set-up of the car to compensate for the loss of all the systems. It will be down to the driver to adapt and I am convinced that as the season develops we will have forgotten what it was like to drive with these aids.”

And yet, despite all the changes, the speed of the cars remains almost unaffected. The loss of the driver aids represents a loss of between three and four tenths per lap, a difference that is unnoticeable to the naked eye. More important, perhaps, is what the fans now know they are watching: 22 of the world’s best drivers, in total control of the most demanding racing cars on the planet.