LONDON (Reuters) - Australian Mark Webber fears Formula One bosses will have to make some tough calls to ensure driver safety in a season that could see more crashes than before.
The Red Bull racer’s concern stems from the introduction of an innocuous-looking box of tricks called a standard ECU, the electronic control unit best described as the car’s nerve centre.
All cars have the same sealed device fitted this year, allowing the governing FIA to outlaw the traction control systems and other so-called ‘driver aids’ that have made the cars easier to handle in the past.
Many drivers welcome that, feeling that they will be able to show off their talent better and reap the rewards for their skill, but there is some trepidation about what will happen when the weather turns bad.
That is when traction control comes into its own, helping the driver to keep the car on the track.
“No question about it, there will be more crashes. We’ve seen it in testing. There are more guys going off, there are more red flags, and that is going to happen in races — that is 100 percent sure,” said Webber when the new Red Bull was launched in January.
“There will be some venues where it’s going to be very tricky for us,” added the Australian, who made clear he was up for the challenge anyway.
“The grip level could be incredibly low, so even for us guys who are supposed to be reasonably handy, it’s going to be extremely challenging.
“And if you’ve got standing water, obviously that is going to make it even worse,” added the Australian.
“There are going to be times when the show must go on those days, and that is when we must find the line between ‘does it really have to go on?’ or ‘can it wait an hour or two and be delayed?”‘
Last year’s Japanese Grand Prix at the Fuji circuit illustrated the dangers that drivers face in extreme conditions.
Much of that race was behind the safety car in heavy spray and minimal visibility. Webber failed to finish when Toro Rosso stablemate Sebastian Vettel ran into the back of him while the Australian was in second place.
Webber said the use of the safety car posed its own dangers, particular when racing resumed.
“Everything drops — pressure, temperature — and it is sometimes as dangerous to go back to racing,” he cautioned. “A safety car can only go at a set speed and these things (Formula One cars) don’t like going that slow.
“Sometimes we can’t even keep up with the safety car, so it is a very fine line.
“There are going to be some interesting calls during the year...it’s nearly uncharted waters, it’s a new stage of Formula One,” said Webber.
“Fuji, for instance, could never have gone ahead. There wouldn’t have been any cars on the track. We were getting saved all the time (last year) by aggressive TC (traction control) maps and things that could really help you powerboat your way around the track.”
Team mate David Coulthard agreed that standing water was the big concern.
“There is clearly pressure for us all to race in Fuji and if we go there now without TC (and it rains), there won’t be as many cars finish. I can guarantee that,” said the Scot.
The good thing about removing traction control is that it gives the car back to the driver. The obstacle to banning it in the past has been ensuring effective policing to prevent cheating, a hurdle now overcome by the standard unit.
“It (the ban) gives a driver some more control and we have to do the best job we can with it. Perhaps the better drivers will do a better job,” said McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, last year’s overall runner-up as a rookie.
While those with smoother styles might be expected to benefit, all the drivers have raced successfully without traction control at some point in their careers and will not take long to adapt.
“After two or three races, I think we will have forgotten what it was like with driver aids, and the cars will be performing well without them,” said Renault’s double champion Fernando Alonso.
“I am in favor of the TC ban,” agreed Toyota’s Italian driver Jarno Trulli. “Like many other drivers, I am a little bit concerned about driving in wet conditions without it. Concerned, but not afraid.
“For sure we are going to face some problems, maybe it might be slightly more dangerous. But in the end, if 10 or 20 years ago they were driving without TC we can drive as well,” he said.
“In the last 10 years, the technology has taken over a driver’s input so it’s good to have a little step back. It’s a way to give the car a little bit back to the driver.
“It won’t change the performance much but maybe it might help to make drivers a little bit more insecure or make more mistakes through the race which might lead to more race competition and overtaking,” added Trulli.
Editing by Clare Fallon