Reflections with Richard Williams

End this radio-control racing

As he gets down to the job of redesigning Formula 1, Ross Brawn could use a guiding principle. Were he to seek individual solutions to each of the sport’s current problem areas, the men in white coats might soon arrive to take him away. But if he isolated one defining element and worked downwards from that, he might stand a chance of creating a viable future while coming out with his sanity intact. 

Here’s an idea of how he might go about it, prompted by reading a description on the website of Tata Communications, F1’s official content delivery network provider, of Lewis Hamilton’s reaction following a practice session in which he had been in constant radio communication with an engineer. When he returned to the Mercedes garage, Hamilton expected to continue the discussion face to face. Instead he was told the engineer had not been trackside but back at the Brackley factory.

In its way, that sort of thing is rather marvellous. As well as the bank of engineers studying and crunching data at desks in the back of the pit garage, there are dozens of others, hundreds or even thousands of miles distant, playing an equal part in monitoring the car’s functions in real time in order to optimise its performance at any given moment throughout the event.

The obvious comparison is with military personnel working shifts at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, watching screens and positioning their Reaper and Predator drones over Al-Qaeda convoys before pushing the remote firing button. It eliminates danger to military personnel, of course, but to take physical courage out of the equation radically changes the nature of the event: this is not war as it was known all the way from the siege of Troy to the D-Day landings. If that seems a tasteless comparison, it is merely intended to highlight the risk run by Formula 1 when digital technology is deployed in order to eliminate the influence of human inconsistency, unreliability or defective judgment. 

What most fans want, like those insiders concerned by diminishing crowds and falling TV ratings, is a return to a situation in which the driver can clearly be identified as the most important element, producing contests to which the human element once again holds the key. A concern for health and safety means that we are never going to go back to the sort of low cockpit sides that allowed us to admire the style and effort of drivers from Nino Farina in his Alfetta to Ayrton Senna in his McLaren MP4/6, so other ways must be found to let us recognise the differences between them as human beings, and to observe the decisions they make, alone and unaided, under extreme pressure. 

So try imagining Formula 1 without any form of in-race remote electronic communication, technical or human: no sensors monitored in real time in the garages or back at the factory, no radio voice link between engineers and cockpit. The driver could still have control of all the functions currently available on his steering wheel, but he would be entirely dependent on his own analysis and instinct for, say, adjusting the brake balance or selecting the correct engine map in changing conditions. 

He alone would be responsible for choosing which parts of the circuit on which to push, and where to take it easy to extend the life of his tyres. He would make the call on tyre changes, a decision simplified by the use of a single dry-weather compound. He could have an extra button to press to tell the pits that he was about to come in, and two more with which to identify a choice of intermediates or full wets.

Nothing has done more to lower the standing of the drivers in the public mind than incessant radio coaching. It’s toe-curling to hear a young man in charge of a 230mph machine being given tips on how to drive it in battle, and humiliating for everyone concerned when the team principal takes the microphone to issue orders in moments of crisis. All of those decisions need to be returned to the driver, governed only by the system of pit boards that goes back to Alfred Neubauer and the Silver Arrows of the 1930s.

To see the difference that radios make, just watch the Tour de France. A three-week stage race through the French countryside is a glorious spectacle, of course, but much of the actual racing is robotic and predictable because the riders are all wired up and listening to their sporting directors issuing instructions based on kilowattage. In the events from which radios are banned, such as the Olympic road race, random factors and individual initiative take over and true heroism becomes possible.

Cycling’s team directors detest the radio ban. Not for reasons of safety, which is what they always claim, but because it reduces their degree of control. Formula 1’s team managers are no different. When a partial ban was unsuccessfully imposed last year, they claimed that their sport needs radios and constant telemetry in order to remain at the leading edge of technical development. But they’re wrong. They could still spend their budgets on the machinery, and the grid-to-flag control would be back in the hands of the drivers, which is where it belongs.