Too Much Tech In Racecars?

#4 Corvette at the Sebring 24 Hours
#4 Corvette at the Sebring 24 Hours, courtesy of Motor Trend

If you watched the 2013 Sebring 12 Hour race, you already know that Corvette won.  If you didn’t watch the 2013 Sebring 12 Hour race, the vibrant, yellow Corvettes with the brutal and grunty V8 engines won the 61st edition of the 12 hour endurance race held in Florida every year.  However, if you watched the race, you also know that in order to win, Corvette Racing had to endure some nerve-wrecking technical difficulties rather early on in the event that forced the #3 Corvette Racing car to retire.  Luckily, the #4 team was able to look past the problems of their sister car and provide an exhilarating final few hours on their march to victory while ‘Vette Racing lovers slowly but surely recovered from their mini heart attacks.

It also, however, caused me to think a bit about the growing change in the complexity of racing cars.  And unfortunately, not all teams have been able to overcome non-driver-error technical difficulties like Corvette Racing did, resulting in disappointment among the team’s fans and racing lovers alike (let alone the team itself).  With that being said, I asked myself: ‘Is there too much technology in today’s racing cars?’

Corvette at the Sebring 24 Hours
Corvette at the Sebring 24 Hours. Photo courtesy of Motor Trend

Now, I perfectly understand the advantages of technologically advanced racing cars.  First and foremost, safety is optimal, as drivers nowadays often tend to walk away from horrific crashes.  Second, performance is as a racecar’s performance should be, leagues ahead of the regular cars or road-going versions.  However, there’s always one downside to technology that practically everyone who’s ever owned a technological device has experienced: failure.  And that’s exactly what Corvette Racing experienced on Saturday afternoon.

In the earlier hours of the Sebring 12 hour race, the #3 car, driven by Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, and Jordan Taylor, retired with from the endurance event with an overheating gearbox.  While that was what knocked them out of the race, that was more of a final blow to the numerous other problems of the day.  At a certain point in the race, the car’s electronic dashboard – the information center of the car that features the rev counter and numbered gear – went black.  The driver was neither aware of how fast he was going nor was he aware of which number gear the car was in, vital bits of information when racing.

This doesn’t happen too often in racing, but it still does happen.  As an avid racing fan, the last thing I want to see is my favorite team having to retire from something that was not the driver’s fault at all.  Nor do I want to witness an exceptionally competitive team, capable of putting up an extremely entertaining battle for the win, having to withdraw from the race due to technical difficulties.  That’s like watching your favorite driver be wrecked by somebody for no apparent reason, it’s depressing.  But as the racing departments of manufacturers cram more technology into their racing machines, it’s a growing possibility.

Porsche 962 Group C
Porsche 962 C LH. Photo courtesy of Sportscardigest.com

Technology in racecars also lowers the necessity for raw skill formerly required of drivers, although current drivers are still incredibly skilled at what they do.  However, with the inclusion of things such as traction control and ABS, driver’s lives are made a bit easier, which subtracts the godly presence many youths thought of drivers who sat behind things like Group C racecars – myself included in those dreamful youths, fear was nonexistent within those men.

However, these traction control systems allow drivers to get on the throttle much earlier and more vigorously with less concern of unexpected, hair-raising powerslides as a result.  Safety wise, this is a good thing, and it can be entertaining too.  Watching a driver mash the throttle to get around an opponent mid-corner with no tail-flailing excitement afterwards is a joy to watch.

ABS is on an equal level as far as safety is concerned, if not more important.  Drivers and fans no longer have to worry about a skidding moment of terror if the driver hits the brakes too hard.  Like traction control, it can be exciting as well, as drivers can brake later and harder and then let the computers figure out the rest of the situation.

However, with the inclusion of computer-controlled systems in the cars, possible failure of these systems is highly plausible.  For example, what happens when the ABS fails when a driver approaches a hairpin at 150 mph? Or the traction control stops working just as a driver opens the taps mid-corner?  To be honest, I’d rather not think about the ensuing troubles.

F1 car drifting with fire
F1 car drifting away from fiery death. From Scrapedcrusaders.com

Also, as I previously said, these systems allow a driver to do things he normally wouldn’t dare doing in a sans system-assisted racing car.  For me and possibly others, it causes a spectator to think less of the skill the driver has, and instead think more of the things that the computers allows the car to do.  I recognize that these drivers are ten times better than I dream of driving but that’s part of what makes the racing drivers have that otherworldly type of presence.

With computer technology involving itself in immensely in the car’s performance, it just seems like the driver doesn’t have to do as much as what was formerly required.  For example, I find myself in utter amazement when I watch an onboard video of a Porsche 962 navigating Le Mans, but an onboard on a 911 GT3 Cup creates a mere raise of the eyebrows for me.  Impressed, but not speechless.

That said, for me the big issue is the possibility of technological failure. A race in which a team is left uncompetitive due to things out of the control of the driver only brings about disappointment to racing fans like me.  Failures such as a blackout on the information display is unacceptable, a gearbox that won’t shift when the driver pulls the paddle-shifter because of computer failures is infuriating.  Maybe I’m just nostalgic, but it’s hard to argue that the more control a driver is responsible for, the more exciting and enjoyable it is to watch.

Racing is the stuff of dreams for car enthusiasts.  Being able to watch extreme, stripped-out beasts chasing each other down is electrifying.  But watching the same car that was contributing to this incredible excitement retire laps later due to technological failures is every synonym there is for the term disappointing.  Excuse my nostalgia, but frankly I’d like to see a return to H-shifters and needle tachs, three pedals and a rear-view mirror.  I’d like to see cars that are up to modern safety standards but have a touch of old school.  I’d like to see a return to the golden age of racing.

-Brad

3 thoughts on “Too Much Tech In Racecars?”

  1. Good article, however I have to add my 2 cents:
    1- While I share your frustration when a car needs to retire due to a technical malfunction, you also need to consider the other side of racing. Sure, the driver being able to manage the car, hit his lines and make smart decisions on the track is vital, however another huge aspect to racing is the team itself, and their ability to build and maintain a quality machine that will last the race. If that weren’t the case, then only drivers would deserve recognition for a win. (obviously this is something that is more apparent in some classes than others, such as F1 vs. a spec GT class, but the point stands). Manufacturers and teams being able to put together the best car possible within the rules has always been a major component of the sport.

    2- Going back to the ‘golden days’ of racing would be a step back for the sport. Sure, there is huge appeal to racing of the olden days, and fortunately you can still enjoy that as James mentioned above. However racing has always been about developing technology for automobiles to advance the automotive field as a a whole. In fact, much of the technology that finds its way into the great street legal sports and super cars that we all love has obviously been developed in racing. And it goes both ways- street cars are developed from race cars, and in many series and classes, race cars are derived from their road-going counterparts. Racing would lose a massive amount of its appeal if there was no correlation between a car you can buy for the road today vs. what you see on the track on race day. Plus, if some of those technologies were removed from racing, there would be many street cars that could almost out perform race cars through parts of the track, which obviously would be a huge negative.

    So, while your frustrations are valid, taking away those two huge components of racing would only hurt the sport. Enjoy vintage racing for what it was (and don’t get me wrong, I love it too), but it would be a mistake to hinder racing technologies and, for that matter, the automotive industry in general.

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