ABS works alongside the electronic stability control and traction control systems of cars to improve their handling in adverse conditions. ABS is used to prevent the wheels from locking up, usually under intense braking. However, you might be wondering if ABS is good for racing.
ABS is generally good for non-elite racers who will benefit from the driving aid, but the best racers will feel impeded by ABS in situations where their skill would produce a better braking outcome. In many motorsports, there are rules that prevent ABS from being used.
ABS is very useful in road cars, and it has been used in track cars too. However, there are some key differences between the two applications, and we’ll take a deeper look at ABS in track racing below.
An Overview Of ABS
ABS stands for Anti-Lock Braking System, and its main purpose is exactly what the name suggests. The system kicks in when it expects any of the wheels to lock up, usually as a result of intense braking on adverse road conditions. It is a fairly complex system, but it’s one of the most important safety features of modern vehicles.
It first appeared in the 1950s when it was used in aircraft, but then in the 1970s, car manufacturers started to implement it into their vehicles as well. It is part of the overall Electronic Stability Control System of the car, about which you can find out more by checking out our article comparing it to traction control. All modern road cars now have some form of ABS.
What Does ABS Actually Do?
Each wheel on your car has a sensor attached to it, and the ABS uses these sensors to gauge when any of the wheels may be about to lock up. If it senses this, it automatically releases the brake on that wheel, and then continuously and repeatedly applies the brake again, with some systems applying and releasing the brake up to 15 times per second.
This rapid application and release of the brake can be felt as a pulsing sensation under your foot on the brake pedal if the ABS kicks in. It can be discerning to feel it for the first time, but in reality, the system is working extremely hard to keep you safe by preventing the wheels from completely locking up.
Key Fact: A slowly rotating wheel provides much more grip than one that isn't rotating at all!
When Does ABS Activate?
ABS most commonly activates if you slam the brakes during an emergency stop or put excessive pressure on them while trying to dodge something in the road, such as an animal or another car. It works to prevent the wheels from locking up under the excessive braking force.
By doing this, it greatly reduces the car’s chances of going into a skid, which for obvious reasons helps to keep you and other drivers safe. Wheels lock up when they lose traction, and this means they have no grip on the road. If you then turn the wheel even just a small amount, the back end could very easily slide out from behind you, or you could experience understeer instead.
With the rapid application and release of the brakes, the car still slows down, and the wheels are prevented from fully locking up. This ensures that traction is maintained, and the car doesn’t skid. Depending on the road surface, the ABS can work to reduce your overall stopping distance, but it can also increase it as well.
It Can Increase The Stopping Distance
As the brakes are not being constantly applied, the car’s stopping distance may increase due to it taking longer to slow down (as the brakes are constantly being applied and released). However, if the wheels were to lock up completely, there is no doubt that this would increase the stopping distance even further. So, when compared to a skidding car, ABS definitely does reduce the stopping distance.
But on a track, skilled drivers want to eliminate any extra millimeter of stopping distance they can to carry as much speed into the corners as possible. So, if ABS has a chance of increasing the stopping distance, would a driver want to use it in track racing?
Should You Use ABS On A Track Car?
When you drive your road car, you may come up against a variety of different surface conditions. For example, there may be mud on the road, it could be raining, or the road itself could simply be imperfect, with loose gravel, holes, and other small obstructions creating an uneven surface.
So, you are quite likely to come across a situation where your wheels may lose traction under hard braking. However, most race tracks are fairly uniform in terms of the road surface. There won’t be any potholes to deal with, and ideally there will be no dirt or debris to avoid either. Although rubber will be laid on the track with each lap, it should still be a smoother surface.
So, would your track car benefit from ABS at all?
Simply put, track cars can definitely benefit from ABS. The speeds at which track cars drive usually means that they can lose traction relatively easily even on the smoothest of road surfaces, especially in the braking zones, as you’re trying to bring a car from a very high speed to a very low speed in a short space of time. This puts a different level of pressure on the brakes than that of your road car.
ABS isn't always allowed in track racing (as we'll discuss more shortly), but the next few paragraphs assume you are allowed to use it in your chosen racing series.
It Needs To Be Set Up Correctly
The ABS system in your road car is tuned to work perfectly with the other components of your car. This includes everything from the tires to the brake rotors and calipers, as well as the brake pads and various other smaller components. This optimization means that your road car’s ABS is perfectly suited to that car and most average driving styles.
In a track car, there is a lot more to think about. The ABS software needs to be tuned even further in order to work with the components within the race car, and it also needs to be optimized for the track surface. Not only that, but race car drivers tend to have very unique driving styles, and so there are a lot more variables to consider with ABS in a track car.
If the ABS is not tuned properly, it can prove to be very inefficient. Racing drivers are pushing their cars to the limit, and so sometimes they need to slam the brakes and use the momentum of the car to help them with cornering. Some drivers actually prefer to have a touch of understeer or oversteer, and so the ABS system would need to be tuned to allow this.
Track Car ABS Tuning
The ABS needs to be tuned perfectly in order to be effective in a track car. Most modern track car ABS systems account for the fact that the car is being driven much more aggressively than your average road car, and so they won’t kick in at the same points your road car’s ABS would. Most track car ABS systems are also adjustable too, so the driver can tune it on the fly for optimum performance.
A well-balanced ABS system can give drivers more confidence in their car, and so it can allow them to push it to its limits with more ease. Although this can result in faster lap times, it won’t always be of benefit to the best drivers. The best drivers will know how to get the most out of their car as-is, and may even lose out on some fine control with ABS, and so they can be faster without it.
KEY POINTS• ABS uses rapid application and release of the brakes to prevent your car’s wheels from locking up
• It is an important safety measure of road cars
• It can be used on a track car, but it typically needs to be set up differently to the ABS in your road car
ABS In Motorsport
ABS has had a bit of a controversial time in motorsport. It was first used in F1 in 1984, when Ayrton Senna used it and struggled to get used to its tendency to pulse under your foot. However, Niki Lauda also used it that year, and he won the Formula 1 World Championship, praising it as one of the best inventions since the wheel itself.
Mercedes and Bosch teamed up in 1990 to use it in the German touring car championships, but in 1993 the system was banned in F1 and it subsequently fell victim to the rules and regulations of other top motorsports as well. This is because the motorsport governing body of the FIA said that it was a driving aid, and that it reduced the skill required by the driver.
Essentially, with ABS the driver could focus less on braking, and more on the rest of their driving. It allowed for later and harder braking, and so it often made things very easy for them. This was seen to drastically reduce the skill required by the driver, and so some thought it reduced the competitive aspect too. It has not returned to F1 since and is outlawed in many other motorsports too.
So much of the time drivers can gain over their opponents is in the braking zones and the corners. As ABS takes away a lot of the skill required in these parts of the track, it's easy to see why many people wanted it banned.
Sports like rally racing and drifting don’t tend to benefit from ABS, as the system overrides the car’s ability to lock the back end (which drivers often want), and the system is outlawed in most of these series too. Oversteer is key in these sports, so the system is only ever seen in those motorsports where the drivers want it and the rules allow it.
ABS is a very useful safety system that’s present in all modern road cars, and its ability to prevent the wheels from locking up means it saves many lives every year. However, its implications in track cars are a bit more complex, and although in some cases it provides a lot of benefit to the driver, in others it reduces their control of the car. Plus, it has been banned in most top motorsports for years.
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