- Auto Racing - Seven-year ban on traction control likely over

Sunday, February 4
Seven-year ban on traction control likely over

LONDON -- The whispers of cheating may be fewer among the regular paddock gossip in Formula One this season.

A Feb. 14 meeting between team bosses and Formula One's ruling body is expected to result in the legal return of traction control after a seven-year ban marked by allegations and suspicion.

If all goes to plan, the once-forbidden electronic driver aids should reappear at the Spanish Grand Prix in April and close a chapter in Formula One history.

But, in a sport where rules are pushed to and sometimes beyond the limits and loopholes are ruthlessly exploited, controversy never will disappear.

Drivers and others already are fretting about computers taking over and the spectacle being diminished.

Traction control, available on many ordinary road cars, helps to reduce wheelspin and gives improved grip in wet conditions and at race starts.

It was banned because of fears that electronics were leveling the field and making it harder for the most talented drivers to stand out.

Now it is set to return, linked to new safety measures, mainly because the sophisticated systems have proved impossible to police effectively.

When Ayrton Senna won the 1993 season-ending Australian Grand Prix, he declared it to be the end of an era in Formula One. Tragically, the Brazilian was correct.

As well as being the triple champion's last race for McLaren, Adelaide saw Senna's last grand prix victory before he died at Imola six months later.

That race was also, officially at least, the last to be won by a driver in a car using traction control.

But many suspect it was no such thing.

That feeling was strengthened last year when International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Max Mosley said a leading team had cheated in 1999.

Mosley hinted that other teams may have been bending the rules as well although the FIA could not come up with concrete evidence.

"There are beginning to be signs of a culture of cheating in Formula One and we are absolutely determined to stop it," Mosley said last April.

Formula One's Technical Working Group subsequently recommended that all restrictions on the electronic control of engines and transmissions be removed but agreed to incorporate this into a package of safety measures.

McLaren's technical director, Adrian Newey, said at the time that he backed the recommendation because "races have clearly been won in the past by cars using traction control and this is an unacceptable situation."

It is this package that the FIA and team principals will discuss in nine days' time before a fax vote by the World Motor Sport Council by March 1.

The FIA has said traction control may then return "as early as the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix."

Teams see the move as a formality and already have been testing with the new systems.

But many drivers are torn.

"No more excuses, it (traction control) will be better because there will be no more doubts," said Italian Jarno Trulli, in his second season at Jordan.

"On the other side, it's not very good for us as drivers because probably we will have less influence on the car's performance.

"From what I've heard from other people who have used it in the past, it will make a big difference at some tracks and very little at others."

"Last year we had several teams using it and then the FIA not being able to police it," said German Ralf Schumacher, world champion Michael's younger brother.

"At the end of the day, if you can't police something, you should give it free to everyone."

Back in 1993, Senna had spoken out against traction control, saying that he wanted to drive his car himself and not have it driven by computers.

That did not prevent suggestions after his death that the removal of electronic driver aids had made cars more difficult to control and more dangerous.

Mosley rebuffed such claims at the time, saying that previously "drivers were constantly complaining that a malfunctioning active suspension system could be extremely dangerous and unpredictable."

Further controversy soon followed.

The Benetton team was found to have had an automatic start system, known as launch control, installed in its cars at the same San Marino Grand Prix.

But the team escaped censure when the FIA said there was no hard evidence to prove it was actually used.

Michael Schumacher, who went on to win the first of his three world titles that year, always has denied that Benetton used any form of traction control.

Flavio Briatore, then as now in charge of Benetton, explained last month how he interpreted the situation.

"We had an incredible car, with a very nice engine and super driver. Our only mistake was that at the time we were too young and people were suspicious," he told Britain's Guardian newspaper in an interview.

"Worldwide sport like this must be clean, with no suspects. The image of cheating is unacceptable. And if everybody has the same thing, at least you stop all the suspicion and the sport has a cleaner image."


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