By Andrew Benson
As Formula One prepares to start a new season in Australia on Sunday, there is a spectre hanging over it that could destroy the very essence of the sport.
With stability control, F1 drivers could no longer corner too fast
Powerful forces are considering the introduction of a technology that would effectively remove the contribution of drivers.
Anyone who thinks Grand Prix racing is already effectively a battle between pit-lane engineers and tacticians has seen nothing compared to what would happen if this technology was introduced.
F1 would no longer be a sport. It would become an exercise in technology in which the speed of the car was the only factor that influenced the outcome of races.
Motorsport's governing body, the FIA, is in talks with road-car manufacturers about the introduction of stability control into F1.
Stability control is an electronic system that is already widely used in road cars, where it saves drivers from themselves.
If you go into a corner too fast, the system takes over, braking the four wheels independently to ensure the car does not go off the road.
Stability control is the strongest driver-aid you could possibly imagine
Williams team co-owner
Used in F1, it would ensure corners were taken at the maximum possible speed.
It would remove almost all differences between the skills of the drivers, leaving a great driver with no advantage over a merely good one.
A driver would simply have to brake and turn in at approximately the right points, and let the electronic systems take care of the rest.
Whether by accident or design, this development has happened quietly.
It emerged in a low-key way at a news conference given by FIA president Max Mosley and BMW executive Burkhard Goeschl.
Mosley talked about "new revolutions, particularly in the relationship between electronics and the chassis".
Mosley says electronics could play a greater role in F1's future
But this was largely ignored at the time because of the reason given for holding the conference - the declaration of peace in the five-year battle between the FIA and F1's road-car manufacturers.
Since then, discussions on the technology's possible use in F1 have been held in what the FIA calls its "horizon group", but there have been no further announcements.
Patrick Head, director of engineering and co-owner of the Williams team, describes discussion of stability control as "an interesting and complete about-face from Max".
That is because for years Mosley has been talking about limiting expensive technologies in F1.
He banned the use of driver-aids such as traction control and anti-lock braking as long ago as 1994, and had continued to advocate limiting them in the intervening years.
As recently as last year, Mosley was talking about F1 cars having standard electronics, as a means of cutting costs and ensuring the absence of driver-aids.
It is not the way we should go
Spyker technical director
Yet now, in Head's words, "we seem to be on a road map to introducing a lot of technologies in the future".
Head adds: "Stability control as it is understood - where you manage the engine and the braking system to put torque on different wheels to either overcome driver errors or optimise the car's performance - is the strongest driver-aid you could possibly imagine.
"It is completely the opposite direction from the one in which Max has been taking us."
It is obvious why the idea appeals to the road-car manufacturers.
To them, F1's appeal is not only as a marketing tool to help sell road cars.
They want to use F1 to develop and refine technologies that are either already in use in road cars, or could be in the future, and then use their success in F1 to persuade the public to buy the cars that contain then.
Manufacturers want to emphasise the links between F1 and road cars
When it comes to plans to use F1 to develop systems that store energy generated during braking and re-apply it while accelerating to create a more efficient car, that makes sense.
Energy recovery systems - such as those used in so-called hybrid road cars - are considered vital to the the future of personal transport because they reduce the consumption of fossil fuels.
Equally, though, they do not harm the delicate balance in F1 between the car and the driver.
Stability control has allowed huge steps forward in road-car safety, but it would remove half of what F1 has always been about - the best drivers battling to the limit in the world's fastest cars.
More alarmingly for the future of a sport which is already seeing its TV audiences dwindle, most spectators are far more interested in the battles between the drivers than they are in the technologies in their cars.
Who wants to watch a sport in which you could guarantee, as Gascoyne puts it, "the quickest car would win, because you'd get fewer and fewer mistakes"?
"As a racing fan, it is not the way we should go," Gascoyne adds.
We have always said it is a question of getting the right balance between technology and drivers - and we're not saying anything different from that now
"Sport is about the random element. You can get an upset. Norwich can hold on against Chelsea and break away and score a goal.
"All you'd be doing with this is taking away the chance of an upset. Is that what F1 needs? No, I don't think it is."
The FIA insists no decision has been made on stability control.
"It would be premature to describe it as a U-turn," a spokesman said, "when I'm not in a position to say whether it's a direction we'll go in.
"We have always said it is a question of getting the right balance between technology and drivers - and we're not saying anything different from that now.
"I'm not even sure we're close to a set of discussions where it could happen."
F1 faces a dark future if stability control is introduced
Mosley has talked about the "enormous possibilities" of "allowing more electronics - things to do with chassis dynamics".
But in terms of F1's spectacle, those possibilities are only negative.
Mosley and the road-car manufacturers might do better to pay more attention to another of the FIA president's phrases - that there are "whole areas of technology which you can't use in F1 for one reason or another" - and abandon the idea right away.
Additional reporting by Sarah Holt