Speed Secrets: The Traction Control Conundrum

By Ross Bentley

January 28, 2015

I travel around the country doing seminars and talks for various car clubs about performance driving and instructor training, one topic that continually comes up is whether the "driver nannies" - traction and stability control systems - should be turned off or not, and what the pros and cons are of doing so are.David Ray, the founder of Hooked On Driving has a ton of know-how teaching high performance drivers, and putting on well-run events. He's a well-known, very experienced driver and instructor. And as you'll see from his article below, David has thought long and hard about the "driver nannies" issue. I'm doubtful that everyone will ever agree 100% on this topic, but I do believe that David makes some very good points. - Ross
As coaches, we have many dynamics to read when we are introduced to a new driver and climb in the right seat. Certainly knowing their goals and experience is essential. But how does the car they bring affect how we coach? It may be a 1998 Volvo, a Porsche GT3, a Spec Miata, or a Nissan GTR! Cars these days bring an extra challenge for us to manage from the right seat. This article is aimed at the conundrum brought about by the cars that are now showing up with a host of technologies to both go fast, yet prevent the unwashed novice driver from getting in over their head.
These automobiles could also accurately be called “digimobiles!” With more computing power than current spacecraft, the cars coming from manufacturers today are simply amazing. Power, suspension, drivetrain, and brakes – all quantum leaps ahead of cars of just 10 years ago. And THEY are FAST!! In the mid-$30K range, you can have over 400HP, six-piston brake calipers, and oil coolers….YIKES. Ah…. the manufacturers may be crazy, but they’re not stupid. With as much power and performance as is offered, they have been working in parallel to put electronic leashes on all of this performance. In some cases, these leashes cannot actually be completely turned off, meaning that the potential performance is almost impossible to reach – or is it? 
How to teach with, without, or how to manage these systems (we’ll call them TCS - Traction Control Systems - for simplicity) has become a major discussion point for our team. In pondering how to handle these electronic nannies, an epiphany came to me recently. Much of what we teach in a lead car (or in the right seat), is about making the driver smooth, and to provide inputs to the car that transition weight without tossing around and affecting momentum. Even what looks like aggressive driving at the pro level is prompted by subtle feel, and well-timed nudges – albeit at the limit of adhesion.
When pondering what to do in teaching drivers this feel and skill set, I’ve been conflicted on what to do about the many traction control systems. On one hand, it could make sense to tell students to immediately turn them off, as they mask and protect the occupants from feeling the true inputs done by the driver. On the other hand, with big power and K-walls abounding, we don’t want to be victim of that one stab of the throttle, radical pinch, or poorly timed lift. What occurred to me along the way here is: Digital traction and brake control systems are being engineered to simulate analog inputs from the driver, overcoming a novice driver’s abrupt input (digital)!  So – are TCS systems our friends, saving our butts daily, or enemies – masking the driver input so we can relax in the right seat without doing our job thoroughly? 
The GTR is the ultimate example of the conundrum. I’ve done laps in the right seat at spectacular speeds in this car, with the driver clenching and tossing it fearlessly. And while he was “eyes up” and paying close attention, I saw from the passenger seat the frantic flashing of the TCS system activation at virtually every input from the driver. The TCS is saving our bacon, and the driver is getting away with whatever he tries – too fast at entry, early turn-in, pinching exits… it’s all good cuz the electronic nannies are making it so. And yes, it gave me pause to be more proactive on the next session out. But did I react strongly enough? No. Thus – the pondering of the circumstance… what to do? 
I believe we should teach drivers to develop so much smoothness that they start getting faster without engaging the systems. Yes – leave them on to save our bacon – but teach the driver that the flashing TCS warning light is a bad thing. Like the ham-foot brake slam that engages ABS, this should be a no-no. Then – the reward as a driver picks up the pace, is consistently smooth, and is NOT relying on TCS and ABS, we begin turning them off. There are usually stages or levels of aggressiveness of these systems, so we can relax them one click at a time. Then – when a driver does NOT have a coach in the car, but has established themselves as “no drama” and predictable, they turn them off and get the feel for the car “au natural.”
There is an 80/20 rule that applies here. The first generation TCS systems (i.e. simple rear brake application on the Mustang, cylinder deactivation on the Corvette) were extremely invasive and these may need to be either partially or totally turned off to get to a decent pace. The point is that all systems are by no means the same. So each car and each driver needs to be diagnosed individually. Some  drivers (i.e. bucket lister with the ZR1) just need to be made safe for the day and all TCS systems are our friends in this situation. But the point here remains – we are analog beings with good instincts to drive well. Only in the case of hormonal and adrenaline-driven instincts taking over should we really need these digital systems to kick in and simulate analog inputs to our favorite trusty steed. In fact, we really should work hard at this – as the cost of us learning to rely on the nannies would make us their slaves.
So to sum this up:
  • Early TCS systems may prevent a new driver from getting going – so some partial deactivation may be appropriate.
  • Current TCS systems should be left on with beginners.
  • With systems on, the goal should be to develop a style that does NOT trigger the activation of the system. The flashing yellow light is a BAD THING!! Find that analog driving style to prevent the digital systems from kicking in.
  • If a driver progresses and is going to do this as a hobby, gradual deactivation of the system should proceed. The goal here is that, with the driver picking up the pace AND risk level, systems should be in advanced modes to allow the pace, but remain available for the 911 rescue.
  • As the driver reaches 9/10ths, a judgment call is made. The driver is now an informed consumer who should have input on the decision. At some point, if he/she wants to really feel their car perform, shutting the systems off may be in play – but the coach in the right seat is long-gone by now.
  • Lastly – the casual track day driver looking to have a fun day with buddies, should just enjoy their spectacular car and not push any buttons or turn anything off.
The lesson here? The advanced driver should be able to be fast WITHOUT engaging these digital systems, trying to teach us what we should be able to do on our own…. Drive SMOOTH AND FAST.
- David Ray
Be sure to also check David's blog at http://www.hookedondriving.com/blog/
Web: http://www.hookedondriving.com‚Äč
Twitter: @gothooked
Exerpted from Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets WeeklyFor more tips and additional articles on the art and science of racing, click here to subscribe