OF PLANES, (TRAINS) AND AUTOMOBILES

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Will 2013 finally be a season that puts the Driver back in the Driver’s Championship? The start would suggest so.

THE CHARIOT OR THE CHARIOTEER?

I recently wrote a post on my economics blog about robots where I used a deliberately provocative line from Marc Andressen who was quoted in a Raghuram Rajan article as asking people whether in the future they will be among those who will be commanding a robot against a majority who will be commanded by robots. As I watched the season opener, the Australian Grand Prix, of the 2013 season, a question that has dogged me for my entire Formula One viewing career started to emerge out of its hibernation, much like the engines of the F1 cars had over the testing season. Who rules the circuit? Man or machine? Most fans I talked to lamented that too much technology were making the races uninteresting as a tech divide among teams was killing all competition. It is an understandable sentiment. Nobody wants their life to become mechanical to the point of being a drone and as a sport Formula One is no exception.

I have never been hugely enthused about Formula One. Maybe it’s just that me and cars don’t get along. I have never completed a single lap without crashing in video games, let alone complete races and have never quite gotten the hang of driving a real car. That doesn’t mean I am a Formula One antagonist who is about to hector you on the pointlessness of driving cars round and round burning lots of fuel and rubber resulting in a mini ecological cluster copulation. On the contrary, I enjoy my occasional Formula One race unless it clashes with my nail filing schedule. And I have enjoyed watching drivers such as Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebestian Vettel strutting their stuff on tight chicanes at mind warping speeds.

There is an oft quoted line that is attributed to Ernest Hemmingway who apparently said that there are only three sports: bullfighting, mountaineering and motor sport and the rest are merely games. Hemmingway’s criteria for classifying something as a sport seems to be related to the mortal danger that the protagonist would be in when involved in the activity. No self respecting Formula One fan would need reminding of how dangerous the sport is – the tragic and infamous death of Ayrton Senna is proof enough and the fact that there has been a posthumous champion (Jochen Rindt in 1970) tells you how dangerous the early days were (13 drivers lost their lives in the decade between 1950-1960; that would be a mortality rate close to that of climbing Everest). Naturally, therefore, the FIA, which regulates the sport has focused on making safety a priority. However, the push for safety also seems to have fundamentally clashed with Formula One’s other goal – to be a rocking cradle for automobile innovation.

WHO’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT?

In a paper titled ‘Formula One Racing: Driver vs Technology’ the author Stephanie Young from Stanford writes that ‘Formula One has always been a sport with a dual mission statement – to promote competition between drivers who operate the machinery and constructors, who develop, produce, test and then race the technology. And sure enough, we have seen plenty of that in display over the decades. Legendary drivers apart, many of the manufacturers, from BMW to Ferrari brought in innovations that eventually made it to some of the cars you and I, well mostly you (I don’t drive) drive.

Lotus, the team the winner of the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, Kimi Raikkonen, drives for have incidentally been long standing pioneers in the sport in their original avatar as the British Green Lotus Team. In the 70s Lotus brought in new aluminum chassis that replaced space-frame design, improvised on ground force aerodynamics that made cars faster, especially at corners and with improvements in underbody design made the cars get a better grip. It was the next phase of innovation, though, that really brought the tech vs skill debate to the starting grid. Turbochargers for engines (which gave them more power) made things so onesided that McLaren pretty much swept the 1988 season winning 15 of the 16 races. The FIA promptly banned turbochargers in 1989.

But that didn’t stop the march of technology. Lotus (again!) were making improvements to the electronics of the cars which was paving the way for better modulating driver control of the car from semi automatic gearboxes (just like the automatic transmission cars that are so popular these days) to how hard the brakes needed to be applied. Steve Machett, a former mechanic with Ferrari and later Benetton, describes in his book ‘The Mechanic’s Tale’ how he decided to move from Ferrari to BMW and not Porsche because of the work BMW was doing with electronics (BMW, in the late eighties, led the field as far as modern electronics was concerned, he writes). He goes on to say how Ferrari had the most sophisticated engines but they were fitted with a rather rudimentary system for the ignition that corroded the engines. In this respect, Formula One cars have evolved like planes have. Airplane control systems have become more and more sophisticated and reliable not just because of mechanical improvements (say, sturdier material for wings or powerful engines that guzzle less fuel) but also because of electronic controls that allowed pilots to control these things more precisely and effortlessly. In the airline industry parlance, the systems are called Avionics and today’s aircraft are so advanced that they can practically be entirely run on auto pilot. The reason they aren’t is very simple – it’d freak all of us passengers out! Which brings us back to the F1 drivers.

‘ARE WE HUMAN OR ARE WE DANCERS?’

If everything about flying an Airbus was pushing a few buttons or everything in cricket was about the technology in the bat (and that debate is another Pandora’s box that is left for some other post, some other time), life or sport would be as exciting as watching those robots go at each other in the movie ‘Real Steel’. There isn’t a real human peril element that Hemmingway romanticized about. If all the calls at every moment of a race (when to apply the brakes while the brake pressure is regulated automatically or when to change gears which an automatic gearbox does by itself) for a Formula One driver were made by his technical crew sitting in the pit lane, there would remain no real point in rooting for the driver. Nobody would call a Kimi Raikkonen the ‘Iceman’ any longer for his calmly executed maneuvers on a particularly tricky corner at Monza (you may kiss the computer in the car instead) or rave about Schumi’s ability to drive when it is pouring like he was the motorsport equivalent of a Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain.

In fact Raikkonen has been one of the proponents of not letting human skill diminish in a sport where technology stealthily usurped the marquee role. In 2008, the FIA banned traction control, an electronic aid that helped drivers apply perfect brakes in essence (regardless of how they ‘stomped’ the pedal) which led Raikkonen (then driving for Ferrari) to comment that “It’s going to make it more difficult for the drivers…it’s more in the hands of the drivers to judge the traction at the exit of slow corners …I think it’s going to be more fun, although for sure it’s going to make it more difficult to drive over the race distance.” In that sense Raikkonen has always been a modern specimen of the old school driver like a fearless Nicki Lauda or the peerless Jackie Stewart.

There is no denying that F1 Drivers, even if they are driving a fully controlled car, need to be superhuman athletes able to withstand the 4Gs to 5Gs of forces they regularly experience during a race. But there has always been the question of entertainment. Just as pilotless planes scare us, entertainment wise our source of joy would be sucked out if F1 turned into virtually a giant remote car racing competition where they let a fully grown man sit inside the car just for the heck of it. It wasn’t exactly a coincidence that as the sport was perceived to be becoming more technology oriented, the viewership declined, alarming the FIA.

This is not to say that the technical crews and heads are unimportant or dispensable; indeed, their support system is crucial in getting that extra edge worth a thousandth of a second that could mean the difference between winning and losing. As Wired magazine wrote last year, “on any Formula One team, you’ll find some of the brightest and talented people in more than a dozen scientific specialties… Scientists are as much a part of a Formula One team as the drivers who get all the TV time.” There is one truth and trade off we have to consider, though. Sport is about the human condition. If cars provide the context for its showcase it appeals but as falling viewing figures suggest if it becomes all about the machine and the man provides the context, we have a problem.

And that is why I am finally excited about a Formula One season. The FIA in the interest of safety has made many changes to technicalities but something like a DRS (a Drag Reduction System) that was introduced last year shows how tantalizing possibilities exist for a tango between man and machine to play out. The DRS, which works by adjusting the car’s wing to give it some aerodynamic boost can be used by the driver but only under certain conditions and in certain parts of the track. The simple (in relative F1 terms!) technology can help “spotlight good drivers” as Young writes in her Stanford paper, because the driver has to control it and use his judgment (DRS cannot be activated remotely by the crew). It is good old fashioned raw racing sense that will help them gain an edge, pretty much what people have been wanting to see since the Romans went to chariot races (Ben Hur, anyone?).

Of course technology should still be showcased at the races and trickle down into our roads and cars to make them better (50% of a team’s budget is still engine development, 5% is driver payments), but as the seven race leader changes (one short of the all time record set back in 1970) in the opening race of the 2013 suggest, we may be in for an exciting era where the driver is back in the spotlight and there is a kind of balance restored between man and machine. And speaking of that, we couldn’t have had a better start than having someone old school like Kimi Raikkonen setting the pace.

To quote Rihanna, ‘Just shut up and drive.’

P.S. I’d have written a longer post, but my nails aren’t exactly going to file themselves now, are they?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “OF PLANES, (TRAINS) AND AUTOMOBILES

  1. Nobody wants their life to become mechanical to the point of being a drone was killer line, superb piece sirji …….!!!!

  2. Raghav Bhat

    absolute delight! felt like reading through history! f1 in nutshell.

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