Martin Donnelly is one of a pool of former racers who have been called on to become F1 driver stewards. After the Korean GP he offered some insight into the pressures of calling the shots
By Sam Smith
Since the start of 2010 an ex-Formula 1 driver has joined the permanent race stewards to help call the shots, and in Korea it was Martin Donnelly’s turn. It’s the third such appointment for the former Arrows and Lotus driver whose own promising F1 career was so cruelly and violently cut short at Jerez in 1990. He also officiated at the corresponding race in 2011 and at Montréal this year.
“The Korean GP is much more relaxed than other races as there is less corporate and sponsor activity, so the drivers kick back a bit,” says Donnelly. “Last year, Michael [Schumacher] even had a card school going which seemed to be good fun. He doesn’t like losing at that either, though!
“On the Thursday this year, all the drivers got together and had a meal. Daniel Ricciardo tweeted a photo from the meeting, which Charlie [Whiting, FIA race director] helped organise. It was very interesting seeing them together and how they relaxed. That hardly ever happens and consequently you are very privileged to see it take place.”
When the action starts, Donnelly is as professional as he was in the cockpit and prepares well for the job in hand. Gloves and helmet have been replaced with notepad and Dictaphone. Whiting gives each steward a detailed report before each race, which is essentially a re-cap of the penalties that have been handed out during the season, and offers a reminder that a variety of offences need to be looked out for once the track ‘goes green’.
“You have to go into the weekend with a clear head in terms of what happened at the previous race,” says Donnelly. “It’s all about consistency and fairness. That is what we are aiming for throughout the race weekend.
“I attend the drivers’ briefing. I can add points if I feel it necessary, but actually at Yeongam I saved it for the team managers’ meeting instead because last year at Korea there was an incident where Rosberg hit Alguersuari leaving the pitlane, which certainly doesn’t have the best exit I have ever seen because it is almost completely blind for the drivers.”
The stewards’ office is separate from race control but Donnelly is available to Whiting should his expertise be needed for an incident. Sitting alongside Martin is Paul Gutjahr, the chief steward from Switzerland, and Dr Enzo Spano, another permanent steward from Venezuela. There is also a communications expert, ensuring the stewards get immediate access to replays and pits-to-car conversations.
“We have the same feed that everyone sees on TV, but we also have all the communication channels that the drivers have. So all conversations are available, as is data, graphs and all the other information that can assist in understanding an incident. The conversations on the radios can get quite tasty and often the language needs to be edited, so it gets checked before it is released.”
One man whose fruity language sometimes had to be edited out this season is Schumacher. Martin raced against the seven-time World Champion only in Group C in 1990, never in Fl, but the Ulsterman saw plenty of the re-retiring German during the Korean weekend as he was reprimanded in practice for blocking and was also, albeit at the whim of his team, released into the path of Lewis Hamilton while leaving his ‘box’. When there is an incident, Whiting asks the stewards to investigate. They only look at it if asked directly. Martin and the stewards watch multiple replays and also view on-board cameras. Everything is taken into account. It may look black and white, but it’s like piecing together every shred of evidence to solve a crime and it can take quite some time to resolve.
“It’s so different from when I was in F1,” says Donnelly. “You can’t get away with anything now. There are cameras and telemetry everywhere and there really is no hiding place. I have some sympathy for the drivers as they have so much going on in the cockpit and I think one of the reasons for more incidents in the past few years is because there is so much the drivers have to take in. Then again, we had to change gear manually so maybe it’s horses for courses in terms of what goes on in the cockpit from one generation to another.”
The start of the race is always tense and drivers must strive to be at their most serene as their adrenaline rises, so that when the last red
light goes out everything is in control and ready to go. In Korea, Donnelly listened in as drivers received help to get to this level from their teams via the radio, with instructions given on tyre temperature and ensuring the brakes were bedded in properly. In the stewards’ room, the heart rates were also rising. “The start gets the old adrenaline pumping, that’s for sure,” says Martin. “You can’t compare it to actually starting a Grand Prix as a driver, but I always say that if you don’t get a tingle at the start of a race you shouldn’t be involved in it, in whatever capacity.”
As it turned out, it was a relatively quiet race in the stewards office. A first-lap incident triggered by Kamui Kobayashi accounted for Jenson Button’s McLaren and Rosberg’s Mercedes. Donnelly was required to view the replays immediately. The Japanese firebrand was handed a stop/go penalty, which considering that it ended two protagonists’ races could be considered somewhat lenient. Donnelly’s old Arrows engineer Ross Brawn surely concurred.
Donnelly and the stewards also had to deal with the potential hazard of some loose AstroTurf on the circuit. “When Lewis got hooked up with it in the late stages the safety car was on standby,” he says. “It was considered and there would have been a hell of a finish to the flag, but in the end Charlie advised McLaren to make Lewis aware he had that extra cargo on board via a radio message.”
That decision was a relief to Donnelly. A mad four-lap sprint to the flag would have meant a high chance of at least one incident, and the prospect of much time spent spooling through more onboard camera footage.
Donnelly is bound by FIA agreements not to discuss penalties dished out, but the Ulsterman is forthright when it comes to first-lap incidents. “What I can’t get my head around is the chances some of the drivers take on the first lap of a race, especially at a place like Korea where overtaking is relatively easy. When I had my own team there were several key rules, one of which was ‘to finish first, first you have to finish’. There aren’t really any excuses for going out of a race on the first lap.”
What if he were a driver now? How would he respond to the FIA driver steward and his judgements? “You have to be respectful but maybe that comes more with age, who knows? I think the 28-year-old Martin Donnelly might have had a few run-ins with the 48-yearold version. But the key word is respect and I feel that most of the drivers have it, especially for those like me who’ve been there in the cockpit and know exactly where they are coming from.”