The driverless-car rumour surfaced at the Canadian Grand Prix a few weeks ago, and then became a story in the Italian press. Under the headline 'A McLaren without a driver', it suggested that the team which has been trying to get three drivers - Ayrton Senna, Michael Andretti and Mika Hakkinen - into two cars all season had been up at Silverstone, testing a Formula One machine without any driver at all: a car in which the human pilot had been replaced by a computer.
Some people would say, so what? How could they tell? Aren't they driven by robots anyway? Halfway through the season, every race meeting - like today's British Grand Prix at Silverstone - begins with the expectation of victory for a single team whose technological superiority is such that, cynics say, your granny could do what Alain Prost and Damon Hill do in the cockpits of their Williams-Renaults. Human spontaneity has not exactly been the hallmark of this year's racing. And if that's the case, then one or two of the hard-faced men running Formula One teams might find the idea of saving, say, pounds 10m in salaries not unappealing.
As it happens, McLaren denied the story immediately. 'Our car categorically can't run without a driver on board,' said Udo Zucker, their electronics man. 'The whole hypothesis is idiotic and useless.'
Maybe so. But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. In fact, buried just beneath the surface of what seemed a wildly improbable story is the motive for the conflict of egos and ambitions that has brought a big, rich and troubled sport to crisis point this week.
IT WAS back in March, after practice at Kyalami, the first round of this year's world championship, that Alain Prost found himself on the end of the season's sharpest question.
'At the start of the race tomorrow,' Prost was asked at the pole-winner's press conference, 'who decides which car will lead into the first corner? The drivers? Or the computers?'
There was a bit of laughter, and Prost mumbled something in a politely dismissive sort of way. But a few weeks later the implications of that question had turned very serious indeed.
In the rain at Donington Park, coming out of the second-gear Melbourne Hairpin, what sounded like a crippling misfire - an ugly coughing noise a couple of octaves below the normal bracing bellow of a healthy racing engine - turned out not to be heralding the imminent demise of the leading car. It was simply the new 'traction control' device eliminating wheelspin on the slippery tarmac by momentarily reducing the power of the Renault V10 located behind Alain Prost's back. Prost had nothing to do with it. Nor did Ayrton Senna, whose Ford V8 was obeying similar automatic commands. It was, quite literally, out of their control. If this was to be the future, perhaps we'd seen the last of the delicate skills that made legends of men like Tazio Nuvolari, Stirling Moss, Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve.
But even as the microprocessors in Prost's Williams and Senna's McLaren were battling away at Donington, the sport's governing body was reacting to the growing fear that the 26 drivers currently operating in Formula One could be replaced by 26 remote-controlled computers. Fisa, the international motor sports federation, was taking the controversial decision to ban an entire generation of new technology developed over the past half-dozen years by the clever, tireless, obsessively inventive men who design grand prix cars.
Foremost among those men is Patrick Head, the 47-year-old technical director of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, whose genius provided the cars that brought world championships for Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell between 1980 and 1992, and whose latest creation is certain to do the same for Alain Prost this season. Head's cars represent the state of the art to such a degree that last weekend's French Grand Prix became, in effect, a demonstration run by the two Williams-Renaults of Prost and Hill. More than anyone, Head is the man responsible for turning Formula One into what some people say is nothing than a life- size version of a Scalextric game. His Williams-Renault FW15C bristles with the electronic driver aids that Fisa is trying to ban: the 'active' suspension, the automatic gear-change, the traction control device, and, most recently, an anti-lock braking system.
If Fisa gets its way, all these devices - and others still on the drawing board - will be proscribed from the beginning of next season, for two reasons: the damage that the high cost of development is inflicting upon all but the most successful teams, and the harm being done to the spectacle of motor racing by transferring decisions from the driver to a computer.
It's a world of haves and have-nots, Head pointed out last week during a conversation in his office at the Williams factory in Didcot, and the have- nots are falling further behind. 'The people who spend money and do a decent job on the technology get better results, which makes them more attractive to sponsors. And the have-nots are saying that the cost is now so high that they're going to have to stop. For the people who run Formula One, keeping reasonably full grids is important. So a lot of the driving force to limit the haves is coming from the have-nots.'
Does he sympathise with them?
'Some of them. Those who make a good job of the resources they have and spend wisely. But one sees quite a lot of have-nots with very large motorhomes, flying to the races first-class. When we were starting, every penny was scrimped and saved to spend on the cars.'
He is more receptive to complaints that the new technology is reducing the driver's contribution. 'I think there's an element of truth in that,' he said.
In fact he wouldn't mind seeing the last of traction control and ABS, and is opposed to the possible next big step, which would put a computer in charge of the car's steering. 'Nobody's doing that yet,' he said, 'but one or two people are thinking about it. As you can imagine, it's a fairly sensitive area. Drivers aren't very keen on the idea of having something other than themselves doing things to the steering.'
The active suspension, on the other hand, is being outlawed because, in Fisa's opinion, it falls within the definition of 'moveable aerodynamic devices' - a category invented in the Seventies to stop drivers adjusting wings during the race. Head disagrees, partly because he thinks the Fisa bosses are wilfully bending the definition in order to achieve their political aims, and partly on the grounds that racing teams are doing research which will one day have a much broader application. 'Active suspension is totally appropriate to a Formula One racing car,' he said. 'But it would also be very appropriate to buses and trucks, and to things like the tilting high-speed train that British Rail tried to do a few years ago - they couldn't solve it, but it would be a relatively trivial problem for any of the top Formula One teams.'
Semi-automatic gearboxes will probably be permitted under Fisa's new rules, but no further development of automatic gear-changing will be allowed, meaning an end to the evolution of the 'smart' gearboxes currently available to the McLaren and Williams drivers, which can be programmed to change gear all the way round a specific circuit without any driver input whatever. 'Not all drivers want to use it anyway,' Head remarked. 'I believe Senna doesn't, for instance.'
Full automation is currently being used at the start of the race, though. As well as exploiting traction control in the sprint to the first corner, Head pre- programmes the initial gear-change, from first to second, on the FW15Cs, leaving Prost and Hill free to think about other imperatives. 'There's so much noise around the driver,' he said, 'at a time when he's really just concentrating on trying to find that gap.'
At this point in our conversation Head wandered over to a plan-chest and pulled out a technical drawing. Then he picked up a heavy loop of flexible steel belt, about 18 inches around. This, he announced, running his finger along the lines of the blueprint, was the basis of the team's next innovation: a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. He and his staff, he said, have been working on it for three or four years, and it will be ready to run on a car in a couple of months' time. This is a gearbox with no fixed ratios, and therefore no gear-changing; ironically, the only people to try one before were DAF, who put a version operated by rubber belts on their tiny saloon in the Sixties. Head has been working with the same company that produced the DAF device - an unusual example of a racing engineer following road-car technology rather than leading it.
But this is still an example of racing offering benefits to the industry. 'We go racing because that's what we like doing,' Head said. 'We never grew up. Dinky Toys and all that. But if there is a spin-off to the motor industry, it would seem to be better than if there isn't. For instance, our engines have to use fuel efficiently. The way the transmission uses the engine in a race car will get you the best lap time. In a road car, what that means is very high fuel efficiency. Most drivers use much more fuel than they need because they're often in the wrong gear. I think that's an aspect of the car that's better under computer control. Essentially, CVT will manage the engine in such a way that it uses the minimum amount of fuel, and puts the smallest amount of pollutants into the atmosphere.'
But, of course, the reason he's letting me see this project, whose very existence was a triple-A secret until this moment, is that he knows it's going to be on the banned list. At Fisa, he said, they're terrified of it. 'They think it's going to be worth seconds a lap, and it'll blow all the other cars off and spoil the fun even more,' he said. 'I don't think it's going to be like that at all. And in my opinion, just about every road car will have one of these on it in 20 years' time. Using it in Formula One is a way of showing that it can handle a powerful car, with reliability. But if what Fisa wants goes ahead, it's a dead project. Which seems a pity.'
Also due to disappear in the ban is telemetry - the communication of electronic data between the car and the pits. Head scoffed at the suggestion that wild-eyed boffins with grown-up versions of Scalextric control buttons have been slowing cars down and speeding them up during races. 'An awful lot is possible in the minds of people who don't have to achieve it,' he said. 'We do have car-to-pits telemetry at Williams. It collects the information on the car, stores it, and zaps it in to us as it goes past the pits. It lets us see whether the gear changes are being performed correctly, whether the active suspension is working properly. We can't do anything to correct it, but at least we know if there's a problem. McLaren are the only people with pits- to-car telemetry. They're saying they can transmit to the car and maybe change a setting in the engine management. If you did something illegal, though, the other teams would pick it up and protest in no time. And I don't think the drivers would really fancy the idea of somebody changing the settings on the car during the race, do you?'
ABOVE Patrick Head's desk is a black and white photograph of two sports cars on the Goodwood track in the middle Fifties. Behind the wheel of one, a white Cooper-Jaguar, is the designer's father. Patrick Head grew up watching motor racing in the days of string-backed gloves and four-wheel drifts, which might explain why a chap whose cars are started and stopped by computer can see a bit further than the end of his slide-rule.
Don't your inventions, I asked him, spoil the spectacle for fans who turn up to see the drivers working at the edge of their ability to control the cars?
'That's why Mansell is so popular,' he replied. 'It's his driving style. Prost is the opposite. He's at the edge of control, too, but instead of going like this and this (he mimed wild steering), if you look at the data you can see that it's lots and lots of tiny little corrections. He's just as close to the edge - but he believes, and he's probably right, that if you let the car get out of line and bring it back, the actual speed will be less than if you hadn't let it get out of line to begin with. The problem is that it's not interesting to watch.'
And presumably your aim is to create a car so perfectly balanced that the driver's effort is never visible.
'Yes, and therefore there's undoubtedly a conflict between what the designers want to achieve and what is probably good for motor sport as a box- office activity. No doubt about that.'
Under an agreement between Fisa and the constructors, changes to the technical rule-book require two years' notice. Head is deeply scornful of the governing body's manoeuvres to start the ban at the beginning of next season. At an emergency meeting on Thursday, they will threaten to disqualify all but two cars of the current 26 from this year's remaining races, on the dubious grounds of retroactive illegitimacy. 'Terror tactics,' he said. 'They specialise in creating chaos and then coming in with an edict to resolve it. My complaint is that we've never been asked to get together in a room and say what we think is bad or good, and what we'd be prepared to give up. ABS, traction control, electronic interference with the steering, any form of automatic start, we'd say yes, bad for racing - as long as everybody in this room agrees, we'll flick all the switches off and give them up straight away. But what's being proposed at the moment is a very unsophisticated ban. I just don't think it's very bright, basically.'
But what will you do if you have to throw all the expensive toys away?
'Maybe we should give British Rail a call and see if we could get their tilt train working] No, the only thing we can do is ensure that we're better than the other teams at using whatever technology is left to us.'
Motor racing exists within a delicate web of interests: science and industry, sponsorship and television, sport and finance. Sometimes their interests are congruent, sometimes conflicting. Stability is always fleeting. At the moment, the struggle is between technology and showbiz. Perhaps the Fisa boys are right, and the time has come to curb the imaginations of the engineers in the interests of the spectacle. But perhaps Formula One is a more complicated organism than that. And once it loses its appeal to the restless brilliance of a man like Patrick Head, will it ever be quite the same thing again?
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