ESP control systems in a racetrack comparison

The question of the driving dynamics benefits of ESP systems inevitably leads to a fundamental discussion – at least here in the editorial office. One position, the cast-iron one, is generally taken by our colleague Uwe Sener, who is a measurement master, reigning drift champion and a total self-turner – in many respects. His point of view: ESP? On the road, always! On the race track? Please don’t!

Opposite him, sitting on the office chair, is yours truly, the writer, of course. He, too, likes it when it smokes, when it hisses, and when it gets right down to business, but in more extreme automotive situations he sometimes reaches for the filter. Especially when it serves a good cause. In other words, performance. The argument: Torque vectoring systems and rear-axle steering systems also work on their own initiative on handling, but you still don’t switch them off. To which the Sener replies, “But I would if I could!” The good news: Despite the hard fronts, we were able to agree on the execution of this story, which – sorry, Uwe – requires time trials with activated control electronics. The question: How sporty have ESP systems become in the meantime? Are they capable of supporting, slash, assisting the driving dynamics? Can they possibly even push them? Basically: To what extent has ESP evolved from a mere guardrail to a guide rail for the limit zone?

We came to this point about five years ago; the loyal among you may remember. Back then, we examined four cars for the same intentions. The result was that the way the stability electronics work has of course become more focused than it was at the beginning of its creative period, but it still affects performance on the racetrack – less in the dry and more in the wet. So now the second attempt, the rain part of which unfortunately has to be cancelled – simply because we weren’t lucky with the weather. Or rather: much too much. Almost 20 degrees in February, not a cloud in the sky, and that for days – who expects something like that?

Five candidates, one line

The measurements are based on lap times. The ideal line of the Grand Prix circuit is binding for all driving modes and therefore ultimately serves as a guideline against which the results can be measured.

There are now five candidates for this – for reasons. The Civic Type R represents the front-wheel drive faction. And that’s actually due to a silly coincidence. Some time ago, it completed the fast lap for a comparison test – what can I say: due to a user error – not with ESP deactivated as usual, but in its Sport position, but that didn’t stop it from driving around everyone’s ears. How can that be?

Next in line: the Supra. It is nominated as one of those rear-wheel drivers that generate driving dynamics via the liveliness of the rear end. The ESP therefore faces a special challenge: On the one hand, it should serve the driver as a life preserver for swimming at drift angles, but on the other hand, it must not constrict the hips too much, otherwise it will go for the throat of the performance. We can be curious.

The same applies to the Porsche. In our test series at the time, it was the only one to conjure up handling with its PSM that was largely neutral in terms of disadvantages-but, dear friends, that was a generation ago. In the meantime, the 911 is in build stage 992, which wants to be significantly more complex, significantly more intelligent and significantly more sensitive in the area of electronics. Although the development focus was on wet handling, the Carrera S was also supposed to benefit from its finely balanced safety department on dry roads.

Benefit – a nice buzzword for the R8, which even bases its driving dynamics construct on the cooperation of the control electronics. Firstly, because its ESC can be linked to the so-called performance mode, which helps shape the handling depending on three levels (Snow, Wet, Dry). On the other hand, the Audi is not entirely uncomplicated at the limit. Relatively pronounced rolling and pitching tendencies, the peculiarities of the mid-engine concept, plus oodles of power – I’ll put it this way: There are occasional moments when you don’t mind a bit of support or even depend on it.

What’s left? The AMG GT R. It is the only one of this quintet that explicitly designates an elementary component of its stability system as an instrument of driving dynamics. The motto is: from gas brake to track tool. We’re talking about its active traction control system. It acts as an intermediary between the power flow and the road surface, interacts directly with the engine and divides its action into different levels: from mild to wild. Which is the optimal one?

Honda Civic Type R

ESP-Regelsysteme, Honda Civic Type R

Honda Civic Type R: 320 hp at 6,500 rpm, front-wheel drive, 1,410 kg, ESP Sport lap time: 2:02.3 min, ESP off lap time: 2:02.2 min.

But now: into the velvety seats of the Civic Type R – and off we go. After two turns it’s clear why the operating faux pas could have happened at the time.

Firstly, the display of the two ESP modes is not entirely clear, and their selection via short press, long press is therefore always accompanied by frowning. And secondly, there is initially no trace of any intervention. Even with full protection, i.e. without having pressed the button even once, the Honda can be driven over the course with great motivation, which is above all to be understood as a compliment for the car as such. Even if we repeat ourselves: Everything simply fits in the Civic. The turbo thrust is massive, but meets a hard-wearing front axle. The rear end works hard, but never gives way, while the chassis presses the 1,400 kilos so tightly into the curves that the control electronics can keep their feet still most of the time.

Towards the limit, however, the standard mode becomes too tight. It noticeably suppresses the engine’s power at the exit of slow corners, and more energetic steering is blocked before there’s even the possibility of something slipping somewhere back there. In other words, there’s no progress here, so it’s a step further toward independence. And it is effective. The rear is no longer surrounded by braking interventions, but hangs on a long leash that tightens very late, but brutally if the worst comes to the worst. At the front, however, there is a lot of sensitivity. The driving force seems to come through almost unfiltered. Only at the edge of the grip limit do you notice how the power flow is readjusted in the background, how it is marginally reduced depending on the accelerator pedal position and steering angle. A drag? Not at all!

Because the Civic hits exactly the right spot with its interventions, impulses its front wheels along the threshold between productive slip and useless deflation, so that the bottom line is that neither driving and driver behavior nor lap times differ. At least not appreciably. A 2.02.3 min jumps out in the sport mode of the ESP, a 2.02.2 with the safety gear capped. Clean as a whistle!

Toyota GR Supra

ESP-Regelsysteme, Toyota GR Supra

Toyota GR Supra: 340 hp at 5,000 rpm, rear-wheel drive, 1,521 kg, lap time ESP Sport: 1.59.7 min, lap time ESP off: 1.58.9 min.

In the case of the Supra, the difference ends up being greater, but that was to be expected – because of its design and perhaps also because of its pedigree. As you know, the Japanese is Bavarian through and through, a development of the ladies and gentlemen of BMW, who are unquestionably masters in breeding driving pleasure, but not the born assistance systematics. This can be seen in the tire pressure control system, which takes half an eternity to adapt air pressures, which works in real time in other cars. What did I say, an eternity and a half.

And they hadn’t really gotten the hang of applying a sport-oriented ESP system yet either during our last test. At any rate, the BMW M4 was conspicuous at the time for its decidedly obtuse interventions. Its ESP didn’t form a crash barrier around lateral dynamics, it nipped them in the bud.

The good news is that those days are over. This is true of both the purebred M models and their predecessors, including the Supra in the broadest sense. As in the Civic, the Toyota’s VSC distinguishes between a (rather restrictive) standard mode, the all-off option and an intermediate stage. And the latter now understands the needs of the vehicle concept in addition to its craft.

As said before: The Supra is no ideal line dachshund, which goes well-behaved at gas foot. As soon as you start braking, you can feel the tail lift, how it rotates on its own around the longitudinal axis and then surfs around the corner on the torque wave. The driver has to walk a tightrope, interpolating between “There’s still something there” and “Wow!

And that’s where the sport setting of the ESP comes into play. It blocks any major mistakes, but gives the rear end the leeway it needs for real driving dynamics. In contrast to the M4, the transverse drive is not basically fenced off, it is merely limited in its dimensions – although the interventions are unfortunately not fine enough to really lean on. In any case, the image of the guard rail looks a bit corrugated in the case of the Toyota Supra.

Still: The offered framework would in principle be perfect to make a not overly trivial handling generally acceptable. However, the front axle keeps interfering unpleasantly. The front axle? Yes, indeed! Apparently, the BMW electronics have a hard time distinguishing between sport driving and serious driving. As long as you’re on the throttle, the message to the control units is clear: All roger, the fellow on board is giving tinder, he’ll probably want it that way, let’s let him do it.

However, at the moment of turn-in, things get complicated. Is it really desirable to plunge into a curve at a hundred and fifty? Or is the car just going to be blown away colossally? Put yourself in the sensors’ shoes: explosive situation, isn’t it? And because safety has to come first even in sports mode, the safety personnel prefer to intervene at the neuralgic points – “intervene” in the literal sense of the word, unfortunately. The end result: eight tenths of a second behind the VSC off lap, which is ultimately in healthy proportion to the improved handling.

Porsche 911 Carrera S

ESP-Regelsysteme, Porsche 911 Carrera S

Porsche 911 Carrera S: 450 hp at 6,500 rpm, rear-wheel drive, 1,588 kg, lap time ESP Sport: 1.54.5 min, lap time ESP off: 1.54.5 min.

The 911? Is altogether another Schnack! A very special one. Here, it’s not a matter of taking out tension for the ESP. On the contrary, it has to try to maintain the car’s tension. Because unlike the Toyota, the performance here is largely in the engineering genes. The driver? Just has to pull it out – “just” in quotes, of course. Basically, the Carrera S is a bit like the Civic, but with the drive sign reversed.

Certainly, the performance and speed levels are many times higher, but they are also made up of the highest chassis precision and a balanced relationship between engine power and grip. So the ESP, which is called PSM here, doesn’t have to keep a bad-tempered crocodile in check, but actually just hold hands. Or, to take up the image of the guardrail once again: The guidance through the limit zone is forged by the lock, roll compensation and rear-axle steering – the control electronics merely ensure that the bundle is not torn out by some rough motorist.

The interventions are correspondingly discreet. Here and there a bit of torque is cut, sometimes a brake intervention flits into the handling, which, if we’re honest, is more likely to be registered because of the flickering light than any anomalies in the driving feel.

Only when the tire grip starts to weaken in the heat of the moment, i.e. the ground on which all the fine mechanics are placed, do you feel how a little bit of flexing is done at the very edge of the limit range. And with how much sensitivity. The result? Almost logical: two laps that are like two peas in a pod – in the times, in their creation, but also in the effort that is put into them.

To push the 911 to its (distant) limits, you have to tickle it out of its oh-so-stable lateral position, drill the braking phase deep into the turn-in process, and then use the throttle to pull the resulting tail spin through the curve. However, the sport PSM only helps indirectly. It stays in the background, standing at the foot of the electromechanical climbing scaffold as the mother of its own courage, allowing the 911 to gymnastics, yaw, and yaw, but is immediately on the spot as soon as you, hopperla, miss the mark.

In short, Porsche’s stability electronics are not (yet) a stirrup that lifts you to the limit, not a real driving dynamics advantage, but definitely a psychological one, depending on your personality.

Audi R8 V10 Perfomance

ESP-Regelsysteme, Audi R8 V10 Performance

Audi R8 V10 Performance: 620 hp at 8,000 rpm, all-wheel drive, 1,691 kg, lap time ESP Sport: 1.53.7 min, lap time ESP off: 1.53.1 min.

Doesn’t that apply in general? Yes, but the remaining duo shows that the weighting of technical and mental support sometimes varies.

You can definitely use both in the Audi R8 – that much right away. But before we dig for the causes and clarify how or to what extent they can be eradicated by its ESC, let’s pause for a moment in front of this wonderful engine – in front of this ten-cylinder icon that will probably soon be no more. Shall be. May be. Hach …

But the tragedy of this imposing sight is not only its transience, but also the fact that the 5.2-liter is also something like the trouble spot of the Audi, its problem zone. Or in nice: the ultimate challenge.

The V10 unleashes a monsoon of propulsion of biblical proportions, unleashing an exponential display of power at extra-tight rev bands that whip you straight into seventh heaven, but – and this is the point – also interacts with the handling. The power literally rears up against the car, seems to bend the whole guy out of its kinematic context – and makes it slump abruptly as soon as the thrust lets go of it again. On a straight stretch, this is a real spectacle, no question about it, especially since the slight tidal range intensifies the feeling of speed even more. However, as soon as lateral acceleration is pushed underneath the roaring and ebbing of the elemental forces, the many forces build up on a chassis that is probably a bit too lax overall. Audi Sport is aware of the problem… sorry, the challenge, and has added an optional coilover suspension for the performance model, which certainly curbs the load changes, but doesn’t eliminate them.

The same applies on a different track for the Performance mode. It is supposed to brush the R8 to maximum performance via all-wheel drive distribution and a special torque vectoring strategy. In other words: calm down. The idea is good, but the implementation is not as productive as expected. What’s missing is stringency. Sometimes the Audi gets stuck in the racing line, sometimes it pushes over the front axle, sometimes it falls into the driver’s back. Such circumstances naturally impair the work of the ESC, which is in itself very sensitive. And: the effect. Just as it benefits from the rich roadholding in the Civic and 911, it suffers from the whims here. A guard rail function does push through every now and then. But when the R8 goes over the top from the inside, the electronics have no choice but to, dong, smack it.

At first glance, the lap times seem correspondingly consistent: 1:53.7 min in the sport setting of the ESC, six tenths faster on its own. But beware: This weighting includes the driver factor. And that’s far more than a tipping point with difficult characters like the R8. Those who are able to take the strain and aren’t afraid to parry a lunge from the wide rear at higher speeds actually have a better chance of success when they take on the Audi personally. The other 99.3 percent of humanity, however, will find a partner in the stability electronics that not only serves as a shrink, but also as a sherpa for the scramble through a rugged limit range.

Mercedes-AMG GT R

ESP-Regelsysteme, Mercedes-AMG GT R

Mercedes-AMG GT R: 585 hp at 6,250 rpm, rear-wheel drive, 1,634 kg, lap time TC stage 6: 1.51.1 min, lap time TC stage 3: 1.50.0 min, lap time TC off: 1.49.9 min.

And the AMG’s ESP plays precisely this dual role. It even takes it to the extreme. Whereby: It has to be said that the traction control, which ultimately makes it so special and above all so experienceable, is strictly speaking not an ESP function as such, but its extended arm. But let’s start at the beginning: As with the Audi, the GT R’s performance is caught between a martial engine on the one hand and a correspondingly difficult usability on the other. The explosiveness is of a different nature, however, and does not arise from complications in the chassis or concept, but simply from the combination of 700 Newton meters with only one drive axle. But the bottom line is that it has the same effect on the driver. He sits in the eye of a hurricane, which can be headwindy to obnoxious depending on the talent level.

The regular ESP, which also splits into two stages here, is quite challenged by the drive situation, and probably even overtaxed. Certainly, little or nothing can go wrong thanks to the defensive control strategy. On the other hand, the GT R is so chained even in sport mode that you’re circling around far below the vehicle’s potential on the track. A classic dilemma that the traction control finally resolves. It becomes active after the conventional ESP is switched off and differentiates between a total of eight stages – plus the Off stage, which is to be understood literally.

As in the GT3 race car, the system works on the basis of a friction value simulator that calculates the slip at the rear wheels, adjusts the engine power and releases it according to the set level. In other words, the drive power is not subsequently shaped; it is delivered as needed. Admittedly, this sounds complex, but in practice it works so well that the yellow rotary control can be understood and used as a mixing valve. Every turn to the right reduces, click-click, the swing of the tail, every turn to the left increases it. Click-click.

In the lower levels, the challenge is really reduced to not overdoing it when turning in. If you reach the apex unscathed, you can walk right in. Traction? Will be clarified internally. Conclusion: There aren’t many cars with which a GP course time of 1:51.1 min can be achieved so stress-free. Nevertheless, the buffer naturally shows in the performance. 1.2 seconds are ultimately missing with TC stage 6 on the fastest time, which was also realized in the GT R without residual protection. However, level 3 in particular is exciting, as it hits the golden mean on the wide scale from straitjacket to Halligalli. See: the tiny difference. Only a tenth is missing on the maximum feasibility – with a blatantly reduced difficulty level.

How does that work? Well, for one thing, the traction control colleague backs off so far that exactly that glide zone remains free that the AMG needs to exhaust its capabilities; for another, the regulations here actually function as a guardrail. You don’t bump into them, you lock into them, are pulled back into line by adjusting the torque, briefly adjusted by the lock and, as soon as everything is in place, immediately let out again together with all the sows. In short: simply ingenious! And in such a way that even the self-turning sener, emotional breakout as he is, nods his head appreciatively.


One finding remains unchanged from our last series of tests: The sporting benefit of stability systems increases as the driver’s level decreases, or rather decreases in proportion to the car’s drivability. Sounds turgid, but logical, I think. Nevertheless, a lot has changed in the meantime. The interventions have become finer across the board and thus more adaptable. See above all: the Supra. It’s what’s called a tail-slider, so it needs both clear limits and the right dose of laisser-quer from ESP. Earlier systems would have despaired of this differentiation, battened down the hatches and shoved their basic principle in your face: Safety! The Toyota’s VSC manages the balancing act, but would only need a bit more feeling for what’s happening on the front axle. The situation is far less complex with Honda and Porsche: They are inherently stable, so they only use the interventions as an invisible band that lightly pushes you back into line here and there. Result: no performance difference between ESP sport position and off-mode. Remaining? The extremes: Audi and AMG, which can’t get their tense drive situations under control with the classic ESP functions alone.

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