One of the great skills of the older eras of motorsport was throttle control – something which hardly gets a mention today. Nowadays, cars hook so well; their tires are sticky and engines so tractable that the drivers don’t have to massage the throttle pedals like they used to. Once it was an art, and now it’s becomes more of a science.
With older engines and throttle cables, a driver needed to respect the specific characteristics of their powerplant. Some were peaky, some incredibly sluggish in their delivery. Some were perfect, but because of the sharp, hair-trigger nature of the throttle, it always took a sympathetic stamp to get the most from them. Caught in a tense situation, a driver could lose their focus, apply the throttle carelessly and spin their tires easily. A mistake like that at the wrong moment could lead to a loss of position or a sizable crash.
Without modern traction control systems, drivers needed to change the boost levels to soften power delivery with turbo motors, or exercise much more caution with their right feet when the heavens opened or the track dampened. It was much more analog to race in the seventies and eighties, and a driver needed to be an intimate part of the package to be successful.
Of course, the same holds true today. Driving skills are still instrumental components of a racing team, but just as important to success is the mastery of modern systems. In all forms of top-tier motorsport, possibly with the exception of NASCAR, the racing driver needs to be as adept with gizmos as they are talented at braking, turning and accelerating.
For instance, the modern traction control systems intervene almost unnoticed these days, and the cars are far more capable than people give them credit for. Yes, drivers must have a degree of precision and a softer touch, but at the same time, they have the luxury of being able to lean on the systems when they’re tired or the conditions don’t quite suit them.
Even if formal traction control systems are outlawed in their category, the engineers are clever enough to devise engine maps to, effectively, do the same thing. Back in 2009, keen observers noted the Red Bull F1 cars made a distinct, low-pitched buzzing sound out of slower corners. None of the other contenders sounded the same. The reason for this peculiar engine note was the syncopation of the KERS system and the shock position.
To aid low-speed grip, the KERS system was wired to reduce power when the shock was compressed and allow for greater power delivery when the shock was rebounding, or something to that effect. Even the black marks at the corner exits were not long clean lines. They were staccato pieces of black on the track, like the way you’d imagine morse code to look if written in rubber.
But even without complex systems wrangling the power output, the modern driver also benefits from fly-by-wire. Softened throttle maps and a more progressive power delivery is usable these days, thanks to that invention. Of course, powerful engines will always require a respectful touch, but with modern engine mapping and modern turbochargers, power comes as smoothly and sweetly as anyone could want. It’s now perfectly intuitive, since a 5% depression in throttle correlates with a 5% increase in torque. Back in the day, that simply wasn’t the case!
Drivers these days are subject to serious changes in the sport, and I don’t mean to make it sound as if their jobs are easier these days. However, it can be said with certainty that they’re not as responsible for the maintenance of their cars, and that the need for mechanical sympathy is less than it once was.