Automobile racing is supposed to be a sport of competition between humans controlling machines. Now more than ever the competition is among the machines as designed by engineers and aerodynamicists. Rulesmakers have to take action soon or racing as an actual sport among drivers will be no more.
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I started this post after reading an article about why a manual transmission is better than an automatic. It was, of course, written by a manual transmission company.
Then I noticed that for some reason — perhaps the withdrawals of Audi and now Porsche from World Endurance Racing’s top class, the relative boredom now exuded by most Formula 1 races and NASCAR’s slow and steady descent in ratings, ticket sales, popularity and sponsor support — it seems a lot of people who know a lot more than I are now writing about the current situation of racing and what should be done about it.
Bless them all for their informed opinions. I have an opinion too.
So let me begin with recognizing that automobile racing must never, ever, ever abandon or further reduce the five basic skills sets of driving: Steering, throttle, braking, clutching and shifting, sometimes all at the same time.
And yes, I believe race car drivers are athletes.
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Two weekends ago Fernando Alonso was trying to advance to the third and final F1 qualifying session at Monza. On his last flying lap he tried so hard he went through one corner flat out, never lifting, in preparation for setting a time that would move him into Q3, the group eligible to run for pole position.
His McLaren/Honda’s computer system was fooled and then failed him. It was expecting a lift through that corner he took flat out, for the first time ever, and then prevented him from the benefit of full power for the rest of lap. Because it got confused when he didn’t lift.
The computer was in control of the engine and maximum power instead of Alonso.
Disgraceful. It will obviously be fixed for next time but the damage was done.
So that’s where we are now. The engineers are directing software and engine management code like maestros conducting an orchestra, becoming racing’s omnipotent masters while relegating the driver to a necessary vehicle occupant and obedient servant.
This is unacceptable.
Race car drivers excel through ‘intelligence’ (single quotes are used because I’m not speaking of intelligence in the traditional, knowledge-storage sense) and physical ability, or at least that’s how it’s always been. There are countless stories of talented wheelmen getting more out their ride than seemingly possible; from Fangio, Moss, Clark, Senna and Schumacher to Jones, Foyt, Andretti and Gurney; from Petty and Pearson to Earnhardt, Stewart and Kyle Larson.
Professional drag racing took off when, even driving in a straight line, with little steering and no braking until the race was over, men like Dick Landy, Bob Jenkins, Ronnie Sox, Don Nicholson and others distinguished themselves because they could master depressing the clutch pedal in perfect harmony with moving the gear shift lever while mashing the loud pedal. All in the wink of an eye.
It was an art, now obsolete in the fastest classes of straight-line racing.
Did you see the movie, ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard? It was a great film about the 1976 Grand Prix championship battle between Nikki Lauda and James Hunt. In a scene that probably never really happened, while driving on a country road, Lauda tells the girl who he eventually marries everything that’s wrong with her car while riding in the passenger seat. She is not impressed and asks, “How can you tell?” He replies, “My ass.” She says, “Sorry?” and he explains, “God gave me an okay mind but a really good ass which can feel everything in a car.”
It’s not just a driver’s posterior. It’s his overall mind and body awareness; his or her ability to recognize and react to what the machine is doing toward making it go as fast as possible. In any condition. Even in the rain.
It’s understanding whether a car is loaded or free or loose or tight or balanced or scary through every corner, down every straight, or every time you brake. It’s getting valuable feedback from the feel of the wheel, the pedals, the gearshift and clutch, the ride. And then reacting to compensate, wherever necessary, with the goal being to catch and pass anyone in front of you or make sure anyone behind you stays there.
Baseball superstars show off their premier throwing, catching, running and batting skills. Football stars run or throw or catch or block or cover or kick better than their peers – who are the absolute best of the best. The highest-paid basketball players run, dribble, shoot, rebound, pass and play defense with best-in-the-world expertise.
Race car drivers are no different. They feel the car and use almost inhuman eye/hand/foot coordination to control their vehicle toward maximum speed, lap after lap.
That’s what racing is all about.
If we take away, or de-emphasize, any of the throttle, steering, braking, clutch and shift components, we are moving toward turning an exciting, death-defying, human skills-centered sport into a series of driver-irrelevant research sessions.
If we continue lessening the consequences of driver input, then racing becomes a competition among radio-controlled cars void of passion, heart, intestinal fortitude or soul. Some entrepreneurs are already pursuing a series featuring electric, autonomous, computer-controlled F1-styled race cars with no accommodation for an unnecessary driver. Thanks, but not for me.
This may sound like blasphemy but the best sanctioning body that adamantly maintains the opportunity for driver success via butt, hands and feet is NASCAR. Especially at the road courses. From Cup and Xfinity and Camping world Trucks to the two K&N regional series and NASCAR Mexico, drivers have to use their talents in being able to operate three foot pedals, a steering wheel and a floor-mounted shift lever; all controlled by their minds and extremities based on posterior-collected data.
(Actually, the absolute best racing series, in terms of human skill, only have two wheels instead of four. Bike racers like MotoGP, MotoAmerica and World Superbike riders have to shift, steer, clutch, brake and throttle while balancing on two wheels. That occasionally slide. Both at the same time. Motocross, enduro and flat track racers have similarly scary-good two-wheeled performance skills.)
No one cares about competition among computer geeks. There’s no romance in solving a math problem. Sports fans – and even casual observers — care about brave drivers who put their lives on the line every time they take to the track.
I wasn’t crazy about race car clutch and shifting mechanisms being moved to the steering wheel but I get it. Still, this means the skill of being able to heel and toe while depressing a clutch pedal while moving a gearshift lever while controlling the throttle while tending the steering wheel, all at the same time, and all at the exact right time, is lost.
But I’ll take that, as long as the technique has just moved from being leg and hand -actuated to finger-operated. It’s still the mind telling the body what to do, when to do it and how aggressively; based on what the driver’s grey matter and gluteus maximus is feeling.
That’s how drivers get the most out of their car. That’s how teams get the most out of their drivers. It’s how racing captures an audience.
Racing needs to remain a sport among drivers. Or else it will simply, sadly and inevitably go away.