A trending topic of conversation in the last quarter of the year has been the unprecedented bans on some of the most integral materialistic comforts. Noodles in two minutes and sexual gratification in one. All the meat you could possibly have, barring none. You would think that you were the only one. But wait, there was a time when driving around a track was just about having fun.
Through the years the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) has put bans on various new technologies which were some of automobile engineering’s greatest feats. So much so, that most of them have trickled through the cracks and found themselves in cars we drive today.
Mclaren’s Rear Brake Pedal
Of the dozens of technologies banned by F1’s governing body through the years, McLaren’s rear brake pedal stands out as one of the most unjust bannings. It was banned early in 1998 as McLaren made a stunningly dominant start to the year. Following a protest by Ferrari the system, that had previously been declared legal, was outlawed.
The 1997 Grand Prix of Luxembourg was held at the Nurburg ring in Germany – a ruse to allow both Germany and Spain to have two Grands Prix – Spain also hosting the ‘European’ round. It began well for McLaren with their two Mercedes cars leading ahead of the top brass from the German manufacturer. But it fell apart in the cruellest possible fashion when both David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen’s cars ground to a halt on the start/finish line within a lap of each other. Depressing as the spectacle was things were about to get much worse. The cars stopped near F1 photographer Darren Heath, who had been waiting for just such an opportunity. He snuck over to Hakkinen’s car, thrust his camera deep into the footwell, and clicked the shutter repeatedly. Foot operated clutches have been a thing of the past in Formula 1 for many years, so a drivers footwell typically only features an accelerator and brake. But Turner was expecting to see a third pedal when he had his roll of film developed – and that’s exactly what he found.
The pedal allowed the drivers to operate either of the rear brakes independently of the others. This gave them two additional means of controlling the car and improving the performance – by reducing either understeer or wheelspin depending on which wheel was braked and when. It was an ingenious system that in one respect didn’t add any new functionality to the car, merely a new way of operating its existing braking systems.
It was unsavory to see a perfectly valid system banned on such a dubious technicality when it had been declared legal on other previous occasions. But it was not the first nor the last time that it happened. It did not stop McLaren from running away with the Brazilian Grand Prix – or from winning both championships that year.
Not many F1 fans were disappointed when the news broke in 2007 that traction control was being kicked out of the sport. But this is not the first time that traction control has been banned – last time it happened all kinds of problems arose, not least of which safety, policing and politics. The same goes for Active suspension was perhaps the final great innovation of the Lotus team under Colin Chapman. It was a means of keeping the car’s ride height level despite the constant bumps and undulations of Grand Prix circuits, to maximise grip and aerodynamic efficiency.
Lotus’ began developing the idea before his death in the winter of 1982. Ten years later an active suspension car run by a different team finally carried a driver to the world championship. After that, it was not long before the system was banned.
A popular anecdote about the latter stages of Ayrton Senna’s career concerns the Christmas card he sent to Max Mosley in 1992, in which he implored the FIA President to ban driver aids. Of course, Senna was not acting out of any high moral purpose to preserve the integrity of motor racing – although it is likely that he believed his own talents would be compromised by electronics that allowed the less skillful to elicit traction from a car as well as he did. Senna wanted traction aids and the likes of active suspension and forthcoming innovations such as anti-lock brakes banning because rivals Williams had perfected them, and his team McLaren had not. Nevertheless they were eventually banned, one year later, by which time Senna was on his way to Williams.
The impact the banning of traction control had was complicated, and not at all as straightforward as simply ‘improving the racing’ as many expected. Public pressure did seem to have played some part in the traction control ban. In the FIA’s 2006 survey of F1 fans, 64% demanded a greater emphasis on driver skill over electronic aids – not an emphatic endorsement, but it might have received a stronger response had the issue focused on traction control. Like it or not, for the average fan the closest point of reference to driving an F1 car is driving their own cars. And they know that, on their own cars, traction control is something that saves drivers in the event that they make mistakes. Traction control in F1 does much the same, and so it follows that if F1 is to be seen as a test of driver skill, traction control simply had to go.
Ground effects was another innovation brought to F1 by Colin Chapman’s Lotus team. It was borne of an idea of making the entire car function as one giant wing to increase downforce. It was also one of the first developments to be discovered using a wind tunnel. The team observed that when the outer edges of the car’s sidepods reached the floor it generated a massive increase in downforce. It created a low pressure area beneath the car, sucking it down.
Applying that theoretical observation to the track proved difficult. The Lotus 78 (a.k.a. the John Player Special Mark III) of 1977 was the first car to attempt it and did boast substantially better grip than its predecessor. But poor reliability ruined the team’s season. The team continued into 1978 with a modified version of the 78 but really hit its stride when it brought the 79 out for its first race. At Zolder, the sixth round of the season, drivers Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson destroyed the opposition, finishing first and second by a comfortable margin. They repeated the feat next time out in Jarama, Spain.
A focus on tidying up the aerodynamics of the car made the 79 a leap forward over its predecessor and every other car in the field. The rear bodywork was all-enveloping and the front and rear suspension was brought within it to keep the airflow as smooth as possible. Lotus went on to win eight of the season’s 16 races – total dominance by 1978 standards. But their double title win was, as so often in Lotus’s history, marred by tragedy. Ronnie Peterson died of complications following in accident at the start of the Italian Grand Prix, where Andretti became drivers’ champion. The team also lost the plot on design. Chapman targeted an aggressive development of the ground effects concept for the 1979 car, the Lotus 80. But rival constructors Ligier and Williams beat him by allying the ground effects to a more rigid chassis structure.
By 1980 escalating cornering speeds was becoming a real concern. It was the focal point of a furious dispute between the governing body FISA, typically supported by the manufacturer teams Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo, and the constructors’ association FOCA, led by Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone. Simply put, FISA wanted to ban ground effects because of the dangerously high cornering speeds they allowed, and the fact that if one of the ‘skirts’ broke it could send a car off the track at massive speed with no warning for the driver. FOCA resisted – its teams largely used Cosworth engines that were less powerful than those of the richer manufacturers, and more effective chassis design using ground effects provided them with a means of levelling the playing field.
A series of accidents escalating in severity put pressure on FISA President to act. In testing for the German Grand Prix Alfa Romeo driver Patrick Depailler was killed when his car speared straight on off the road. His death was blamed in part on the fact that the safety fencing on the corner had not been erected. But the massive cornering speed of his ground effect car was a contributory factor.