Over the past two years, there has been a progressive war on radio communications between the F1 teams and drivers as certain corners of the F1 family pursued an obsession with what they saw as driver coaching becoming increasingly prevalent.
It all started with a ‘lift and coast’ instruction and ended with the codification of article 20.1 of the FIA F1 Sporting Regulations.
The regulatory section concerned states, “the driver must drive the car alone and unaided”, and following an FIA review of current practice the result was the issuing of a technical directive 041 to clarify what would and would not be allowed in September 2014.
TD/041 messages concerning the following are not permitted either by radio or pit board)
- Driving lines on the circuit.
- Contact with kerbs.
- Car set up parameters for specific corners.
- Comparative or absolute sector time detail of another driver.
- Speeds in corners compared to another driver.
- Gear selection compared with another driver.
- Gear selection in general.
- Braking points.
- Rate of braking compared to another driver.
- Rate of braking or application of brakes in general.
- Car stability under braking.
- Throttle application compared to another driver.
- Throttle application in general.
- Use of DRS compared with another driver.
- Use of any overtake button.
- Driving technique in general.
Almost as soon as TD/041 was implemented, the teams complained and the FIA relented on the extent of the ban.
A note was issued by the FIA stating, “It seems to us that information being passed to the driver concerning the performance of his car should be separated from information concerning his own performance.
“It has become clear that the former is a very complex matter and that any list of restrictions imposed at short notice will have a significantly different effect from team-to-team. The latter information on the other hand can be considered simple driver coaching.
“With this in mind we propose to postpone enforcement of the information being passed to driver concerning the performance of his car until 2015.
“We believe this will give sufficient time for teams to prepare properly and, more importantly, to ensure that the regulations are being enforced fairly and equitably.
“On the other hand, information being passed to the driver concerning his own performance will be stopped with immediate effect.”
A pretty long note it turned out to be.
In February the following year (2015), the FIA revisited the matter and a spokesperson announced the result of their review.
“The Strategy Group, from whom the original request to limit what messages could be delivered to the drivers, now feel that the balance is right by only limiting messages that can be considered driver “coaching”,” said the FIA spokesman. “Therefore, the only messages we will not permit are those listed in TD/041-14 from last year.”
TD/041 still ruled the roost. Though the spokesperson reserved the right of the FIA to “add a few to this before the start of the season and re-issue the TD.”
All was well again in the world of Formula One radio communication, though the absence of certain types of radio traffic was a source of frustration for some viewers. However, the never ending pursuit of the goal to ‘spice up the F1 show’ meant this would not be the end of the matter.
For 2016, more radio bans were proposed. These were clearly designed to bring more unpredictability to F1 races because the teams were now no longer able to provide the drivers with information about tyre wear, engine performance and fuel levels – unless in an emergency.
At this juncture we’ll duck the full and lengthy technical regulation specification. Enough to say that Toto Wolff endorsed the latest interpretation of article 20.1. “The new regulations, we are so much more restricted in passing on information to the drivers during the race. Strategy, engine-mode deployment, tyre choices, even up to a point pit stops, a lot will be down to the driver to decide.
“Things will be less optimised by algorithms and engineers, and it will give room for error.
“What I like is that it is the driver who will be taking decisions, and not remote controlled from the garage.”
In fact the Mercedes team boss was positively ebullient about the new ban. “It’s an absolutely positive step. The target was to make things less predictable, more variable, and this is what’s going to happen. There is the potential now for races between them to unfold in a different way”.
All this positivity was clearly founded in Toto’s belief in the ‘Mercedes way’ – rooted in the German ability to plan for all eventualities. This had been evident in the Mercedes ‘driver on track code of conduct’ biblicesque tome as developed and deployed during in 2014.
“It will now come down to greater planning before a race”, Toto declared. “Down to intelligence to remember what that planning was, and down to intelligence and instinct to do the right thing at the right time.”
And this was all well and good until Lewis had problems during the race in Baku. ‘The planning’, ‘the memory’, ‘the intelligence’… anyway something went awry in Azerbaijan and Mercedes began to sing a different tune.
Following Nico’s brake problems in Austria, Toto again questioned the scope of the current radio ban, appearing to blame the Lewis/Nico collision somewhat on the drivers lacking vital information.
However, it may well be the last lap accident of Sergio Perez in Spielberg which will be the straw that breaks the stubborn back of the FIA camel.
Deputy team Principal Bob Fernley is now claiming he was banned by race control from passing vital information to both Hulkenberg and Perez about the ‘critical’ state of their brakes.
In his inimitable manner, Fernley observes the irony of the situation: “It seems a bit silly putting a halo on a car but not being able to tell a driver his brakes are about to go.”
This strangely succinct Yorkshire summary of the FIA’s farcical position on the two issues when juxtaposed will surely force the great and good at the Place de Concorde to reconsider.
Yet the FIA will in fact probably argue the second item on the 2016 list of permitted radio information is, “Indication of a critical problem with the car: Any message of this sort may only be used if failure of a component or system is imminent and potentially terminal.”
However, this eventuality is not being sanctioned given the remarks made by Toto Wolff and Bob Fernley.
And Sergio Perez ended his Austrian GP in the barrier.
Is this the kind of unpredictability the TJ13 jury really wants to see in F1?