Byline: Kevin Eason in Monte Carlo
DRIVERS who lined up yesterday on the narrow street that masquerades as the main straight for the Monaco Grand Prix were only too aware that failure to get off the starting grid could result in consequences far more dire than the slap on the wrist threatened by Formula One's rulers.
Technology supposed to guarantee a driver a fast getaway has instead turned into a millstone that hangs heavily around their necks. Four drivers stalled on the grid in the last race in Austria as either they or their cars malfunctioned.
On the relatively wide-open start line of the A1-Ring, the grid was able to weave through the parked cars without incident, but the chances of taking avoiding action here are reduced almost in proportion to the narrow confines of the shop-lined Monaco streets converted temporarily to a racetrack.
A Formula One car hurtles from a standing start to 100mph in the space of half a dozen cars, so discovering a stalled car ahead is like being flung headlong towards a brick wall. With no gaps either side to escape through, it is little wonder that the FIA, the sport's governing body, yesterday allowed an unprecedented session of practice starts to avoid the prospect of start-line carnage.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Jarno Trulli, the Jordan drivers who were both left on the grid in Austria, have already lost confidence in the system, known as launch control, to the extent that they are refusing to use it here. Craig Pollock, managing director of BAR Honda, has refused to order its use and left the decision to his drivers, Olivier Panis and Jacques Villeneuve, on the morning of the race.
The leading three teams -Ferrari, McLaren Mercedes and BMW-Williams -will start with launch control, but many teams will rely simply on the ability of their drivers to let out a conventional clutch, control the spin from the rear wheels and get away cleanly.
What was made clear to drivers and teams yesterday by the FIA is that there will be no room for error. It warned of "severe penalties" for teams that decide to use the system, then fail to set up the complex series of computer codes properly. But at least the authorities were sensible enough to set aside time for drivers to rehearse their complex sequence of launch control button-pressing.
After each one-hour practice, they lined up on the grid and went through their computerised rituals before roaring away towards the right-hand kink in the road at Sainte Devote and on to the famous Casino Square. If they all get there in one piece on Sunday, Formula One will breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Ross Brawn, Ferrari's technical director, said: "It was a great idea to allow the drivers practice starts off the grid. Everyone could check their systems were working properly and hopefully there will not be too many problems on Sunday."
Ron Dennis, the McLaren team principal, believes that teams are getting on top of the technology, but added: "Like every other device on a grand prix car, it is sophisticated and sometimes when equipment like this is introduced, it can fail. Anybody with a problem will simply want to do a manual start. They won't want to take the risk."
McLaren has been the victim of glitches in successive races, with David Coulthard, in Spain, then Mika Hakkinen, who failed to get away in Austria as his car locked in gear. After mistakenly accusing Coulthard of "brain fade", Dennis was reluctant to point the finger at Hakkinen. Instead, Adrian Newey, the team's technical director, described Hakkinen's stall as a "human to systems interface problem". In other words, he pressed the wrong button.
The virtues of launch control, which effectively controls the clutch on the driver's behalf to avoid the sort of stall understood by every motorist, are immediately obvious when a driver knows he can fire off the grid but, at the same time, he is also at the mercy of the technology and his own ability to engage a sequence that demands the dexterity of a computer nerd.
Coulthard, sixth quickest yesterday, will definitely use his system, knowing that Michael Schumacher's slight stagger on the grid a fortnight ago will have been sorted out by Ferrari's engineers, and he must be able to fight technological fire with fire to take victory. "The system is quicker, there is no question," he said. "You have to maximise everything you have so I will be using it. When you sit on the grid, you concentrate on the lights. I won't be sitting there thinking, 'I hope the button works' because I would probably miss the lights. It is a question of the software doing the job."
Launch control joined a package of electronic changes a month ago that included traction control, another gismo to control wheelspin and prevent cars sliding off, yet it was difficult to detect that the new safety system was operating as cars slithered around Monaco's notoriously slippery streets.
Most drivers had their moments when the rear of the car slid wide and threatened to rearrange the barriers. Juan Pablo Montoya did crash spectacularly at the Rascasse hairpin while Ralf Schumacher, his BMW-Williams team-mate, had to be sent home to rest and recover from the heavy impact of crashing his car.
Those two incidents were more examples of the fact that new technology has introduced yet more intrigue to Formula One. Hakkinen was fastest in practice, with Schumacher second, but if either one fails to launch his challenge from the grid, their efforts will have been wasted. They must hope that their practice yesterday really has made perfect.
Practice times, page S8
Copyright (C) The Times, 2001
Coulthard is given shelter from the sunshine in Monte Carlo yesterday as he practises the launch control techniques that have been causing drivers problems on the start line. Photograph by ERIC GAILLARD