Is the bewildering complexity of modern top-level motorsport threatening the quality of the racing? Charles Bradley investigats.
To hear a professional racing driver admit “there are things on the wheel that a driver doesn’t know what they’re changing” and “sometimes, all you want to do is drive,” it makes you wonder if the complexity of modern motorsport has gone a step too far.
So when Anthony Davidson, a former FIA World Endurance Champion and ex-F1 racer no less, says he “curses the fact” that cars are so complex, then you have to stop and think that the sport has taken a wrong turn.
The last time I felt this strongly about something being wrong in the cockpit was during the f-duct era of Formula 1 – in which the driver could stall the rear wing, usually by using his elbow or knee to block a vent that pipes air to said wing.
Watching drivers going through Eau Rouge with only one hand on the wheel was frankly terrifying, and while it was an ingenious engineering tweak – and I enjoy seeing technical innovation in this sport – I was glad to see the back of it.
It was just something else to think about in the heat of battle, when surely we want our racing "gladiators" to be fully focused on, well, driving the car and battling each other rather than fiddling with knobs and buttons.
But now it seems drivers are being driven to the verge of distraction by the complexity of their steering wheels…
“They are complicated,” Davidson told Motorsport.com, “and sometimes you curse the fact – all you want to do is drive and then you’re being asked to find the right position on the rotor, and then press plus or minus and the right number within that rotor… and the rotor has 15 positions, and within those you have 15 different options.
“Being asked to change that two or three times a lap… in the [WEC] race it’s more under control. Generally in tricky conditions, or if anything happens out of the ordinary, that’s when you react in the car.”
Is it all really worthwhile?
I recall asking Juan Pablo Montoya after he tested the Porsche WEC car at Bahrain at the end of last year for his first impression and he replied: “I was shocked when they gave me a 30-page manual on how to drive the car! Even at McLaren [in F1 in the mid-2000s] we just had a page of the buttons on the steering wheel, which all had letters. You had to remember which letter did what.”
But since Montoya’s F1 days, it seems, the advances in hybrid technology, coupled with more sensors and settings than ever, have served to further complicate the driver’s life behind the wheel.
“When Toyota first relaunched their LMP1 program in 2012, they effectively took the base steering wheel from the last Toyota F1 car, which shows you how close the technology is and how similar they are,” adds Davidson. “We run the same MES [McLaren] software as F1, so we have the same display and we can do the same stuff.
“It’s like a common language between F1 and WEC. All the default modes they use in F1, we have the same available to us in WEC. There are endless default modes, really, and it’s impossible to remember them all – you have 15 default modes and then 15 sub-modes within each mode.
“It’s basically failing sensors, but you can turn the WEC cameras off, make the radio beeps come on and off – you can do loads of stuff! Why does a driver need to know all that stuff?
“And there are things on the wheel that a driver doesn’t know what they’re changing.”
Which begs the question: why was all this complexity necessary in the first place? Apart from being an exercise in what my old mate Ian Harrison (formerly of the Williams F1 team) would call “engineering masturbation."
As Stefan Johansson too recently commented: “If you allow the designers to make cars so complex that you have to tell a driver how to drive them during a race ... you’ve got to pull back and get back to basics, fast!
“What we have now is what I keep repeating – engineering porn. That’s all it is. The drivers don’t even understand half of it so how can the public?”
When we reflect on the 2016 F1 season, the one moment that is guaranteed to stick out is the Nico Rosberg/Lewis Hamilton collision at Barcelona.
And what was the catalyst? Rosberg was in the wrong engine mode, which caused his car to slow suddenly in relation to Hamilton's.
You have to question what we're trying to achieve here - a World Championship for expert drivers or more-adept knob twiddlers?
Anthony Davidson interview by Jamie Klein