New radio restrictions a start, but not enough


From Spa onwards there can be no radio communication to the driver about clutch settings once he has left the garage on the way to the grid. That’s the full extent of the ‘manual control’ that is being imposed by the FIA on the advice of the F1 strategy group; it doesn’t mean that F1 is reverting to the driver simply juggling a single clutch control and throttle pedal to get underway.

There will still be two-part operation of the clutch, the driver will still be using two paddles – one to pre-set a clutch bite point he hopes will be most appropriate to the grip of the track. Once he has found good traction, he uses his judgement in how to release the second phase of clutch.

All as before; all that has changed is the engineer can no longer be advising him on where to adjust the pre-set to, based on the grip recorded at the dummy launch. The driver must work this much out for himself – which is sure to introduce a greater variation in the quality of the starts.

Fine – for now. Anything that reduces the amount of advice engineers are giving drivers over the radio, and which then results in a greater spread of outcomes, is good. But it’s hardly even beginning to address the number one turn-off for a great many fans – that the drivers are being guided in how they run their races.

This extends way beyond just the starting procedure, or the radio ‘driver coaching’ ban that was imposed from late last year. It includes also advice on tyre wear, fuel consumption, brake temperatures, etc. – crucial advice that impacts directly upon race strategy and the way the driver runs his race and all of it monitored and controlled by banks of engineers, some of them not even at the circuit, but back at base, plugged-in to the garage in real time.

Engineers are hard-wired to chase perfection. Leaving anything to chance that could be controlled within much more finite limits, to give much more consistently excellent outcomes, is an anathema to them. But it’s absolutely what F1 needs: random variation of outcomes, less predictability.

Vettel’s win at Sepang seems like a long time ago…

A forum contributor to this website, John W, summed-up fans’ frustration with the radio-controlled era of F1 perfectly after last year’s British Grand Prix: ‘The main reason I’m not interested any more is that no matter how exciting the cars are to watch on track – and I admit they have their moments – I can’t get over the fact that there are hundreds of engineers and IT people all controlling every possible aspect of the race from a windowless bunker in Milton Keynes. This is not racing in my book, no matter what the cars do on track. There isn’t enough left to chance any more, and that’s what makes it dull.’

But beyond that, F1 needs it to cast the drivers as heroes once more rather than as mere celebrity employees. Having them guided in how hard to run their races, being instructed in the minutiae of managing the car’s vital organs, even being told what pace to set, does not lend them an inspirational image. Like a cancer, F1 has allowed the march of engineers’ chase of perfection to gnaw away at one of the sport’s crown jewels – the projection of heroism of the drivers.

It is not retrograde in the technological sense to ban radio communication to the drivers for all but safety and imminent mechanical disaster issues. Such a ban would not be taking F1 back to the dark ages; it would simply be delineating the areas of responsibilities between engineers and drivers more precisely and in doing so correcting the insidious damage done by a wrong turn the sport unwittingly made some time ago. The perspective from the participants inside is so very different from that of the fans on the outside – and that very often gets lost in the competitive intensity of the doing of it.

Ideally, the drivers would still have all the information they needed at their disposal, from read-outs on the steering wheel. But it would be up to them how they used that information – whether to attack now and conserve later on if necessary, whether to be undisciplined if the raw adrenaline of battle overrode the tactical imperative. Some would be much better at managing these variables than others – adding an extra dimension to comparison between them, as well as broadening out the way races were run.

Fuel, tyres, brakes, energy recovery: these would remain sources of advantage, but how that advantage was derived would be down to the driver. As an average they wouldn’t do it as well as the engineers – and as a scatter around the average it would be wildly different.

So what about race strategies? Here’s a radical idea – how about the drivers decide those too? There’d obviously by a team-derived ideal strategic plan pre-race. But let’s leave it to the driver to decide how to adapt that plan to how his race is evolving. Some would be way better at it than others. Which would give engineers nightmares – because the theoretical optimised outcome could be so easily thrown away. Perfect.

The Spa directive is a move in the right direction – but a tiny one. The next step should be to make the radio an emergency channel only.

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