Old And New: The Challenges Of Road Racing In Different Eras

Photo credit: historictransam.com

Photo credit: historictransam.com

The real differentiation between the road racing of today and the racing of yesteryear revolves around technology—more so than cigarette advertisements, long hair, wild parties, fist fights, and corporate hushing of the drivers. With paddle-shifted transmissions, stability systems and traction control, modern cars are arguably easier to drive. However, there’s a surprising amount of tradeoff in the technical and physical realms that make it tough to declare which is the more challenging era. Like everything in motor racing, there are some serious shades of gray which need to be considered here.

Flimsiness And The Challenges Of The Past

Let’s start with the obvious. Resilient cars of today can get thrown over curbs and never miss a beat. Sure, the carbon bits sticking off the edges are easy to snap off, but modern drivers don’t need to deal with the specific challenges that H-pattern gearboxes, analog engines, and fallible brakes thrown at them.

Take into consideration the challenge of heel-toeing, which, with the introduction of paddles, is no longer a necessary skill. Computer-controlled gearboxes also prevented a driver from over-revving the motor, or ruining the gears through a hasty gear change. Former-F1 engineer Frank Dernie says, “there is zero skill in changing gear (nowadays).”

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Johnny Dumfries’ right hand blurs as he shifts gear constantly.

“Shifting gear was difficult,” he adds, “changing gear when under pressure and not making a mistake wasn’t guaranteed.” When caught in a dice with an opponent nipping at their heels, a driver could mis-shift and lose a position. “There are a lot of driver skills of that nature which people don’t seem to be talking about,” Dernie says.

The changes aren’t limited to the electronic gearboxes, but the electronic engine management as well. While I hold modern drivers in the highest regard, everything has been made easier by modern traction control and engine management systems. “Driving thirty years ago was much more violent,” exclaims former-NASCAR engine builder Bill Guzenski, “since you were the only thing keeping you from sliding!”

“I want to clarify that,” he notes. “It is much more difficult, physically-speaking, nowadays than it was back then. Nowadays, it’s all about higher g-force, but there’s not as much violence,” he asserts. Though the speeds are higher, controlling the car was tougher in some ways.

Even with massive rear slicks, the liveliness of older cars made them a real challenge to control.

Even with massive rear slicks, the liveliness of older cars made them a real challenge to control.

Speaking of smoothly-running engines, modern engine mapping has changed the game significantly. To give the most intuitive interface between throttle position and delivered torque, engineers use the fly-by-wire setup to fine-tune the way the motor makes power depending on the circumstances. Even if traction control systems are deemed illegal in a particular category, a clever engineer can designate a specific engine map that acts, effectively, as traction control, even if there’s no spark cut.

Contrast that technical sophistication to the Ford-Cosworth DFV. Perhaps one of the most successful racing engines ever, with different guises of the engine won championships in Formula One, CART, and sports car racing. Revving as high as 11,000 rpm and making as much as 700 horsepower, some described the old DFVs as having a powerband like a two-stroke engine, and keeping it under control was tough.

With these older motors, the correlation between throttle position and power delivered might not be as intuitive. Dernie claims, “the first 5% of throttle travel delivered 95% of the torque!” Therefore, if a driver got a little too greedy putting the power down, or panicked under pressure, they could find themselves in a big slide before they knew it. So, the driver needed to accustom themselves to the specifics of the powerband, and make sure to respect them in tense situations.

Villeneuve in a characteristic powerslide. Photo credit: F1technical.net

Villeneuve in a characteristic powerslide. Photo credit: F1technical.net

A Greater Link Between Driver And Car?

The path of mechanic to driver was more common back then, and that could help men with the technology of the time. Because the cars were known for their fragility, they required plenty of mechanical sympathy. For instance, an experienced mechanic could pick out ominous sounds and behaviors from the vehicle that might spell the end. 

“Nowadays, there’s no more usable noise,” Guzenski giggles. “You can’t hear knock or anything anymore—the engines just run so much more smoothly.” Net-net, it’s arguably better to have an engine that runs smoothly, but undoubtedly, that “usable noise” offered a specific advantage to those who listened to their motors like a conductor listens to every note of their orchestra.

Tricky Telemetry And The Technological Push

“I think kids nowadays have an advantage in understanding the game, not only because they have telemetry, but because they understand it better than the ol’ fogies. They all grew up with Gameboys, and so they can implement that information a bit better than an older guy, who might just sit there confused,” half-jokes Guzenski.

Dominic Dobson, a man we’ve chatted with before, raced through the “transition from analog to digital,” as he puts it. Dobson’s professional career began in the mid-eighties, when the “driver’s ass and brain recorded all the data.” Sussing out an understeer issue, or determining whether a problem is aerodynamic or mechanical in nature could make the difference between winning and losing.

Telemetry made the field much tighter and made the car a bigger part of the equation. Photo credit: ScribbleLive

Telemetry grouped the field much tighter and made the car a bigger part of the equation. Photo credit: ScribbleLive

Towards the end of the eighties, and more prominently in the early nineties, the first form of serious telemetry hit Indycar with Pi Research system. It tracked RPM, gears, tire pressure, temperatures, and provided a throttle trace as well as a shock trace. This meant drivers no longer had to remember what their car was doing in the middle of a specific corner; they could just focus on driving.

This came at a price, however. After the Pi arrived, drivers could no longer get away with providing their engineers with misinformation. If they were off, the machines caught them. This could lead to confusion between the driver and engineer, and predictably, some of the older drivers hated it. Nevertheless, it accelerated the development of the sport and made it more competitive.

It’s in-part to this push in technology that has tightened the grouping these days. Qualifying times were separated by much larger margins in the past, but nowadays, tenths make a substantial difference, even on longer tracks. This meant that drivers played a smaller part in making up for an underperforming car, since the telemetry brought engineers and drivers closer to the ideal performance their car could provide.

In years past, swashbuckling drivers like Keke Rosberg and Gilles Villeneuve could take their cars by the scruff of their necks, bite their lips, and make up the difference. Now, the car counted for more because the competition is made fiercer with the push in technology.

Dealing With Downforce

Dobson made the transition to winged cars with a Formula Atlantic, which sported skirts. As we’ve discussed here before, downforce is something challenging to master, but the first cars were even less communicative towards the limit. The cars were never willing to participate when driven at eight tenths, but within the last two tenths, “they came alive,” says Dobson. However, it meant the cars were not that progressive on the limit of adhesion. Exiting a corner with more than 15% slip angle wasn’t a consistent way to go racing, and eventually a driver would lose control of their skirted car. As Dobson says, “It’s like going to Vegas—the odds aren’t in your favor.”

Though the skirted prototypes like the Porsche 962 were more progressive at the limit, engineers had a limited understanding of roll and pitch sensitivity, as well as aero-stability, so drivers had to contend with sharped-edged racing machines that didn’t forgive foolish mistakes.

Were The Cars Of Yesteryear More Physical?

Yes and no. There’s no doubt that modern cars carry greater cornering speeds thanks to developments in tire, chassis, and aerodynamics. As we’ve seen recently, modern prototypes and open-wheelers can pull six Gs in the corners and under braking, and the current drivers need to be incredibly fit to endure the loading. However, the interface between driver and machine is different.

Nelson Piquet—fit but not the fittest—just before collapsing on the podium at the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix. Photo credit: epic-formula1.blogspot.com

Nelson Piquet—fit but not the fittest—just before collapsing on the podium at the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix. Photo credit: epic-formula1.blogspot.com

One of the big distinctions between the two eras is the advancement in tire technology and aerodynamic downforce. Big, sticky slicks and effective wings, which the drivers love, make the braking areas much shorter, and the grip levels higher—but is that good for racing? Not necessarily: Dernie notes, “if you had hard tires that lasted longer, that would mean that braking distances were longer, and the difference in grip between the racing line and off-line would be much less.” For that reason, too much grip makes it much harder to overtake.

Power steering makes life much easier for the current crop of drivers, who don’t seem to need as much muscle mass, particularly in the upper body. Even though modern cars make more overall grip, cars from the eighties still had plenty of downforce, and needed a strong upper body to turn those massive slicks up front. Take a gander at linebacker-like Nigel Mansell in his prime and contrast him with jockeyish Max Chilton, and the picture gets clearer.

Even Mansell's moustache looks like it lifted weights. Photo credit: Tumblr

Even Mansell’s mustache looks like it lifted weights. Photo credit: Classic Cars HQ

The buffeting of the drivers by airflow is reduced since their heads don’t stick out quite as much, and the drivers are given the option of air conditioning, traction control, paddle shifters, and the like. Though modern drivers have to deal with serious contractual demands, a more stringent workout regime and the challenging politics of today’s racing, there’s no doubting the unique skills drivers of the sixties, seventies, and eighties needed to be successful.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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