Analysis: Standard ECUs and the mechanical culture shift

The introduction of Standard Electronic Control Units (SECUs) to prevent drivers using electronic aids marks one of the most radical regulation changes to date. Christopher Hayes assesses the impact of the common unit and looks at the reaction in the paddock.

“The driver shall drive the car alone and unaided,” states article 20.1 of the FIA’s sporting regulations. Easier said than done given the technological advances made in recent years. To police and safeguard this sporting fundamental all teams participating in the 2008 championship must use the same FIA-specification Electronic Control Unit the Microsoft McLaren ECU for controlling their engine and gearbox.

No longer will drivers be able to floor the throttle out of a corner safe in the knowledge that traction control will kick in and prevent excessive wheelspin. And the fine art of bringing an 800bhp machine travelling at speeds in excess of 200mph down to just 40-50mph without over-cooking it will be lovingly restored in the absence of engine-braking systems (EBS). Weighing in at some 35% more than last years units and producing half the power, the new ECUs will cost drivers up to four tenths of a second per lap, according to Renault.

Towards the mechanical

Driver aids have been banned before of course but this is the first time that an attempt has been made to universalise the whole electronic package. Combine this with the freeze on engine development and the introduction of life-long gearboxes and you have a regulation change that attempts to bring about a broader culture shift in F1; away from the electronic and towards the mechanical.

No longer will teams be able to turn up at race weekends with pre-defined ‘software setups’ with traction control, engine-braking systems and other electronic gizmos all mapped and tailored to the unique characteristics of the track and even corners in question. This puts a much greater onus on the mechanical setup; getting the best out of the areodynamics, suspension, balance and other chassis elements.

As Fernando Alonso told Formula One’s official website: “You have to adapt the set-up of the car to compensate for the loss of all the systems. It will be down to the driver to adapt.”

This could hurt the rookies. Lewis Hamilton, who will no doubt excel without driver aids, could nevertheless suffer due to inexperience in the technical development of the car there were rumours last year that the Mclaren driver struggled in this area and was forced to copy team-mate Alonso’s set-up on several occasions.

An upshot of this broader design shift is a much bigger focus on aerodynamic efficiency, particularly at the front end of the car, as a means to maximise stability and traction under braking. BMW for instance have been experimenting with all sorts of front-end flaps and components in pre-season testing. The team have ended up reincarnating their banned tall wings as smaller ‘horns’ on top of the nose-cone. The rather ugly looking components make the air “spiral” across the car and help provide additional downforce.

And Renault have made the transition to a ‘zero-keel’ setup where the front suspension is mounted directly to the nose cone. With their previous ‘V-Keel’ design the suspension wishbones attached to a vertical v-shape plate underneath the nose section. This allowed for the wishbones’ optimal positioning: as low and as parallel with the ground as possible.

By getting rid of the vertical v-plate and moving to a zero-keel design the team have in theory sacrificed the ideal suspension set-up in favour of better aerodynamic efficiency under the car. In fact, Renault have got the best of both worlds. With a generally lower front nose section (see the comparison with Honda’s RA108) the team have been able to hold on to their almost horizontal wishbones without the aerodynamic inefficiencies caused by a v-flap. It’s a neat design and highlights the extra focus that aerodynamic gains like this are receiving under the new regulations.

Teams have also been investing heavily in CFD (Computation Fluid Dynamics) technology as a cheaper and more efficient alternative to the wind-tunnel.

Driver reaction

The reaction to the new electronic units in the paddock has generally been positive particularly amongst the ‘old guard’ for whom the memories of racing without electronic assistance are still fresh. The consensus so far is that it is the loss of engine-braking systems that will have the biggest impact.

“That [the loss of EBS] will affect the car on the entry to the corner, so I expect to see more locking up and more running wide on the entry to corners. That will affect the lap time more than traction control,” said the vastly experienced David Coulthard earlier in the year.

“I think the traction control, a lot is made of it, but in actual fact with or without it, that is what you do as a driver. You instinctively make a decision as to how much road you have available on the exit of a corner, whether you have TC or not.”

Indeed, the sport’s younger generations have been quick to adapt to the loss of traction control. According to Nico Rosberg the transition only takes a few laps: “You learn to live without traction control after seven laps – that’s no problem at all anymore in the dry. Unaided braking takes about eight laps.”

The German instead points to the race start as the main challenge under the new regulations. “Getting the perfect start is the hardest thing. It is completely different. Driver control is back in the game now.”

Meanwhile the BMW drivers of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica have reported much greater driver responsibility for managing tyre wear as a result of the loss of driver aids.

The most outspoken driver against the new electronic units has been Toyota’s Jarno Trulli. At testing in Bahrain alongside Ferrari earlier in the year, Trulli hinted that some teams have found ways to simulate a ‘launch control’ system despite the ban on traction control.

“I m not going to name any names, but I think that some teams have already found a way to automate the starting procedure and reduce to the minimum the chance of spinning the wheels under acceleration,” Trulli was quoted as saying in Autosprint Magazine.

“I m not saying someone s cheating, even though we ve received some conflicting information at Toyota,” he added.

And in F1 Racing this month Mike Gascoyne, Force India’s chief technical officer, and his former Jordan colleague Gary Anderson warned that teams would inevitably find ways to implement driver aids through the back-door.

“Even with a mandatory ECU, there are ways a team can generate a form of traction control,” Anderson told the magazine.

“It wouldn’t be an out-and-out traction control, but they could find a way of reducing torque when its not needed, which would give the drivers a bigger working window, especially in the wet.”

The future of standard Electronic Control Units

So will new electronic devices last the distance? There is no doubt that the new units will spice things up and make for a better sporting spectacle. Whether or not they are here to stay depends on at least two key factors. Firstly there is the issue of policing and whether or not or perhaps how quickly teams are able to circumnavigate around the regulations and develop other forms of electronic control. Secondly there is the question over wet-weather driving. Major concerns over safety have been raised with drivers citing erratic behaviour of the more sensitive and ‘peakier’ V8’s in the wet without traction control. Expect the first wet race in 2008 to seal the fate of the Microsoft McLaren ECU.

Picture: With thanks to F1Technical.net