You gotta turn stability control off sometimes… right?

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yellow and black traction control logo icon wiki / chris828

The AMG GT R coupe has one heck of a knob on it. You can’t miss the thing. It’s bright yellow, in the center of the dash, below the vents and above everything else. It doesn’t exactly fall readily to hand, as the old auto writers would say. As a matter of fact, it can be a bit of an awkward reach, especially when you’re laid back in the seat for maximum helmet clearance and you’re busy trying to one-hand the big Benz through a corner at 110 mph or more. Everything about this knob—its modest size, its unlikely placement, the very fact of its existence—screams “Afterthought!” 

Doesn’t matter. This is the greatest knob ever. It adjusts the GT R’s traction control on the fly. Why would you want to do that? Simple. Think of a racetrack. Almost any racetrack where you can turn left and right. Each corner presents a different problem to the driver. In a 40-mph hairpin, you might want to be able to slide the tail out under power to get a better look at the exit. In a 150-mph kink, any motion from the rear end can get very serious very quickly. The AMG lets you dial the traction control back for the slow corner and turn it up for the fast one. 

I’d estimate that this little yellow knob is worth about a second per lap on a two-minute road course. Maybe more. That’s real time, the kind of time people spend tens of thousands of dollars or more to get—millions of dollars if you’re talking Formula 1, where traction control has been banned for some time now but where accusations of secret traction control eventually led to the series adopting a common engine-control computer. 

I applaud AMG for putting the knob into the GT R. Technologically, it was an easy feat—the Corvette has variable traction control as well, although it’s much more difficult to use—but from a legal and risk-avoidable perspective it was a big deal. At some point in the future, someone will turn their traction control down on the street and crash, which will probably cost AMG some time and money in a court somewhere. The decision to provide the knob anyway says a lot about AMG’s commitment to its high-skilled trackday customers.

What does our love of turning traction control off (or down) say about the rest of us? About 10 years ago, I read a poll on a Mustang “Coyote” owners forum where more than half of the respondents said that they regularly turned traction control off the minute they got into the car. Didn’t matter if they were in the pit lane at Sebring or the pickup lane at Safeway. It was an automatic motion for them. Clutch in. Shifter in neutral. Turn key. Release clutch. Hold brake and press the traction control button until the light appears on the dash. I think that’s very close to insane. 

The Mustang drivers aren’t alone. Over the last 18 years I’ve seen hundreds of my racetrack students turn traction or stability control off as soon they get in their cars. Why? Virtually every car made in the past 15 years has a stability control system which is smarter than the human operating it. In some cases, as with the AMG GT R, the car is actually faster around a racetrack with some level of traction control engaged. The Corvette team sets its lap times in a car with “competitive mode” selected. 

Before I require them to turn their safety systems back on, I always ask my students why they’re turning those systems off. I listen patiently. The reasons I get range from the somewhat understandable (“This car overheats its rear brakes when ESC is turned on, and the pads crumble”) to the frankly bizarre (“I don’t want my friend who is taking pictures to think I’m a pansy who takes his foot off the gas in a corner”), but most of them boil down to “I think I know better than the engineers who designed my car.” In a few corner cases, such as the time-trial champion with ASC+T in his old M3, that’s true. And those are the very rare exceptions which prove the rule. 

The aforementioned rule, by the way, is: “If you would be in any way negatively affected by crashing your car, leave traction control on, or at least in the ‘sport’ or ‘competitive’ mode.”  That’s the on-track rule. The street rule is even simpler: “Leave it on.” 

Last week, a reader emailed me to discuss his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. He’d heard about my extremist stance on the above matter and he suggested to me that there were some worst-case scenarios off-road or in extremely bad conditions where traction control hurts more than it helps. “If that weren’t the case,” he wrote, “Jeep wouldn’t give you the button to turn it off.” Oof. That’s a risky assumption. The Wrangler will also start just fine and run down the freeway at 100 mph with all the seatbelts unbuckled. Doesn’t mean we should do that.

That said, there are some situations where you’d absolutely want to turn off the traction control on your Wrangler. In virtually all of these situations, the speedometer is snugly nestled beneath the 10 mph mark. I’ve done enough off-road driving in my various Land Rovers to know that sometimes you need a bit of wheelspin. There are also times when you need the vehicle’s behavior to be 100-percent predictable during steep climbs or the negotiation of a particular obstacle. 

Jeep knows this, and it also knows that some nontrivial percentage of Wrangler owners actually go off-road, so it makes it easy to defeat traction control. If I ran Jeep, I’d configure the Wranglers to turn all the systems back on when the speedometer hits 25 mph, kind of like how many Porsches will silently reactivate their stability-control systems when ABS engages. I would do this because Wranglers are among the vehicles most in need of computerized stability control in emergency situations. They sit high. They have low-traction tires, relatively speaking. They weigh a lot. It’s much easier to get a sliding or half-spinning VW Golf pointed in the right direction again than it is to wrangle a Wrangler which has set a course for the nearest telephone pole.

Can we come up with other situations where it’s worth turning TC off? If you’re trying to move a car on a sheet of ice, maybe. Dyno runs. SCCA Solo 2 autocrosses. That’s all I got. I’m told that some older pickups can misbehave when TC kicks in during trailer towing. I’d want to know more about that before I said for sure. The modern trucks have systems which will actually settle your trailer if it starts swaying. 

There’s some mild irony to the cars-and-coffee crowd turning off their ESC because it’s a perceived insult to their driving skills. Most of the truly experienced racers out there would love to have a first-rate traction or stability system in their cars. Today’s GT-class players, in both street and track trim, are so powerful that managing the rear wheels is just about a full-time job. There are few things I like less than being in a situation where I’m trying to set a reference lap in something like a McLaren 720S and I realize that the computer is costing us time in one or two corners. That means I’ve got to switch everything off and take my chances on the rest of the track. I’m sure that Steve McQueen wasn’t bothered by that—but Steve McQueen could also afford to replace what he crashed. 

That’s why I adore that AMG GT R so much. It allows you to have your traction control cake and cheat it too. The fact that you look like a crazed monkey in the dashcam video as you flail at the knob 20 times per lap is a price I am happy to pay. It should really be on the steering wheel, like it used to be in F1. But I’ll take what I can get. 

In theory, you could dial down the traction control in your AMG GT R as you left cars and coffee. Please don’t. You’d be the reason we can’t have nice things. The same goes for your Mustang, or your Corvette, or your Wrangler. Unless you can clearly articulate a rational, ego-free, highly-specific reason why you’d need to turn off the safety systems for a very short and well-defined length of time, just be smart and leave them turned on. We’re all better off that way. Maybe we need a catchy slogan. Something like…

“Unless you can afford to wreck it, don’t go to the menu and uncheck it.” Oh, that’s terrible. How about this?

“If you’re driving on the street, whether it’s to your home or your job, it would be really neat if you don’t touch that knob.”

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