Charlie Whiting © James Moy Photography

Following Conor Daly’s GP3 accident in Monaco, and with driving standards at all levels in the sport an area of relevant and, I feel, huge importance in the modern era, last week I emailed the FIA with a few questions I had on the subject for an article I was going to write for this blog. Rather than answering them there and then, I received a reply that Charlie Whiting would rather discuss the topic openly and freely at the Canadian Grand Prix. Now, Charlie doesn’t give many on the record interviews, so I was absolutely delighted to accept his offer and on Thursday I had the pleasure of an exclusive audience with Formula 1’s Race Director. The following 30 minutes provided a fascinating insight into the current levels of safety and accepted driving standards in the sport.

As I said, I was going to turn the quotes into an article, but frankly I feel they stand better and will prove more informative if I simply print the complete transcript of the interview for you on this blog.

So here it is…

There are questions that exist at present about driving standards and what is considered acceptable driving. I’d like to start, if I can, by looking at the Conor Daly incident in Monaco and the fact that no penalty was awarded to Dmitry Suranovich for what appeared to be a dangerous defence of position.

There was an investigation, and presumably the stewards didn’t think that he had made more than one change of direction to defend his position. This is something that people often don’t quite get. I’ve only looked at it a couple of times and really only for the purposes of seeing what happened to the car not really the driving standards, that’s not really my business as I’m not race director for GP3. My concern was for what happened to the car and how the fences and guardrail worked. But what often happens in these cases if you have a driver who moves once and then he’s allowed to move back towards the racing line as long as he leaves room, one car width. That’s a new rule for this year. I could see a little bit of darting about but I didn’t think personally that constituted making a change of direction to defend a position, whereas we had quite famously Lewis and was it Petrov in Malaysia, where Lewis went from one side of the track to the other and then again in Malaysia and again with Lewis he got a drive through for doing exactly that. But they were significant changes of direction. But again, I’ve only seen that a couple of times.

On that topic, there have been a number of incidents this year, thinking back specifically to races such as Bahrain and Rosberg edging drivers to the track limits and over the track limits. Nico was investigated for that and no punishment was giving and OK, he was within the regulations in that he only made one move, but from the outside looking at that move it could appear to viewers worldwide that he made a dangerous move in that he has pushed someone off track to defend a position. How is that decision made, what is the thought process in determining that such a move is legal?

That’s quite an easy one. What Nico did was make one move. He made it decisively he didn’t hesitate he just made the move and went in one direction. Crucially he moved before the driver behind him. So he started it. In Alonso’s case they probably decided together if you see what I mean. But it was much clearer in the case with Lewis. But at no point, when there was one car width left between Nico’s car and the edge of the track, at that point there was no part of the car behind that was alongside him. That’s what swayed it just in Nico’s favour. Because at that point he’s allowed to use the full width of the track to defend his position, and the rules say that specifically. He’s allowed to use the full width of the track. He didn’t force the driver off track, the other driver drove off the track. Fernando backed off, lost momentum, but Lewis decided he was going to go for it whatever and kept going, and that for me was the only contentious thing: did Lewis gain an advantage by going off the track?

The same thing happened in the GP2 race earlier in the day when Gutierrez was edged off the track, but it was him that was put under investigation for gaining an advantage by exceeding track limits.

I’d have to look at that one again, but I’m very familiar with the two Rosberg incidents. But Nico was marginally OK, and it was very marginal. Since then I have written a note to the teams and have said that if there is any substantial part of the following car alongside, then you can’t use the full width of the track. I’m due to talk to the drivers about that on Friday here in Canada. We need to have a little chat about that.

There’s also the question of race starts and drivers edging each other towards the pit wall or even during the race when they are coming down the start/finish straight, which is often the DRS zone, and we see drivers being edged towards the pit wall. Is that something you are happy with, watching drivers push each other that close?

Not really, no. That’s what happened with Michael and Rubens in Hungary wasn’t it? Again, in that case a part of Rubens’ car was alongside Michael and Michael didn’t leave Rubens the space he should have done and that’s why he was penalised. If you analyse it, with a completely clear head, and don’t look at the video and say ‘Wow that was terrible,’ if you try and analyse it in very precise terms, in fact Michael’s move wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t far off what Nico did. It was just that there was a wall there so it looked a whole lot worse. Nico was right on the edge of acceptability, Michael was over the edge.

Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, Bahrain 2012 © James Moy Photography

When you have tracks with so much run off, the big Tilke tracks, do you feel drivers maybe feel that they can push each other to the limits more because they’re not pushing their rivals onto grass or into a wall, there are metres of run off. They’re not necessarily taking more risks but perhaps pushing each other further than they would on tracks where there’s more to lose?

Probably. But not consciously, perhaps. It’s the same as the risks they take when they’re driving. They probably do more because they know that the worst that could happen to them is to spin off into a vast expanse of asphalt.

Is that a good thing?

Well, that’s a rather philosophical point.

Does it come down to a question of respect?

Well there are two things we need to think about there. Normally and I think Bahrain is the exception to the rule, the track verges, as in the edges of the track, are grass. The run off areas are the parts straight on around the outside of a corner. I think I’m right in saying that there are no other circuits with asphalt for verges. I’m just trying to think but I’m sure they are all grass. So it would have been a whole different story if Lewis would have kept his foot in and used the grass instead of the asphalt in Bahrain. He would have lost downforce, grip, he would have lost everything on the grass. I don’t think Nico would have done anything different had it been grass, I think it’s the driver behind who would have done something different.

As far as drivers taking more chances shall we say if they’ve got a huge run off area, I think a lot of things wouldn’t happen. There are lots of manoeuvres that drivers probably wouldn’t contemplate if there weren’t the big run off areas. If we go back to Prost and Senna in Suzuka, there’s no way they would have engaged in those things if there’d been a wall at that part of the track. That’s an extreme, of course, but the principle is there in my opinion.

I was speaking to a young driver yesterday, on the record, a GP2 race winner and a current F1 reserve driver, and he told me that while young racers don’t necessarily feel immortal, they know the cars are so safe that they can push each other closer to the edge because the car will save them. Is that the risk that we run? That the cars are so safe now, the tracks are so safe, that these guys are racing with no consideration for their own wellbeing, or even worse, for the wellbeing of their rivals?

It is, I suppose, an unintended consequence of having much safer cars and much safer tracks, but that’s what the stewards are there for. If you think a driver has deliberately forced another driver off track, and we go back again to Nico and Lewis, that was a very close call for the stewards. Did he force him off or not? If he’d got half way alongside and you’d forced the guy over then you’d be nicked, despite how safe the track is or how safe the cars are. I’d like to think drivers didn’t think that. I’m sure they take more risks when it comes to trying to do a quick lap, when they’ve got open expanses of run off area. That’s inevitable. I think laptimes around Monaco would be a bit quicker if there was no guardrail there, you know? But I don’t think that they do anything that they shouldn’t do, and even if they did they’d be nicked. It wouldn’t matter how big the verges or the run off areas are, whether it is grass, asphalt or gravel. If the move is wrong, it is wrong.

Charlie Whiting with FIA President Jean Todt © James Moy Photography

How much responsibility do you and the stewards feel when looking at an incident in Formula 1 and deciding whether or not to apportion blame or a penalty for defending that has been too harsh, that if it is not dealt with sufficiently that it will filter down to junior categories that this is an acceptable way to race. If we go back to those Rosberg incidents, potentially in a young driver’s mind it may have been on the limit but perhaps it’s now OK to push somebody off.

In answer to the first question, yes there has to be some consistency especially in GP2 and GP3 because they are with Formula 1 and everyone sees what goes on. But obviously with Formula 1 being televised worldwide other drivers see it and if they think, and I’ve heard clerks of the course say to me, ‘This bloody driver said to me, well if Michael Schumacher can do that, then so can I.’ It’s going to happen. But the difficulty, really, is trying to explain for example why Nico wasn’t penalised. Because when I first saw it I said, ‘Wow, he can’t do that.’ But when you analyse it, and you realise that well he did move first, he decided to go that way, Lewis decided to go that way but not until after and he never got alongside him and had to drive off the track to get past him… but it didn’t look that way at first. That’s why it takes time to analyse these things properly and to get the right outcome. But to get that across to young F3 drivers in Germany let’s say, who were watching it and are racing in the Euroseries the next weekend and think, ‘Well he got away with it, so it’s acceptable,’ it is very difficult for them to understand why it was found acceptable.

And for the fans as well. Perception is 95% of reality. You’ve got all the cars carrying FIA “Make Roads Safe” logos and yet apparently it’s OK to pull off a move like that and if the fans don’t correctly understand why that move is OK, there’s a mild irony to them carrying that message.

I can see why people would say that. All the stewards can do is look at each incident and judge it on its merits. They have far more available to them than the public can see. This is often the problem. They have on board camera shots that haven’t been shown on a broadcast, we have a race incident system which helps us analyse things from different angles, that you can’t get from normal cameras. With all those tools available to them they can make the right decision. In Rosberg’s case it was the right decision. But it is quite hard to get that across. If someone has got an idea in their head that what Rosberg did was wrong, it’s going to be very hard to shift that in my experience.

The repaired catch fencing at Monaco following Daly’s accident © The Buxton Blog

Moving away from driving standards for a moment then, and back to something you touched on at the very start in relation to Conor Daly’s accident in Monaco and that you were more interested in the fencing and how it did its job. The race was red flagged because the supporting poles were bent back and the fencing was gone. How well do you think the catch fencing did its job, and is the FIA looking at alternative methods of supporting catch fencing because one thing that has come up in conversations I’ve had since Monaco is just how lucky we were and how lucky Conor was in that incident, because of how bent those poles were and we think back to last year and the manner in which Dan Wheldon lost his life… and but for 90 degrees of rotation it could have been an incredibly similar accident.

Of course. Yes, it could have.

The debris fence designs are laid down as to what we recommend as ideal. For example the posts are separated by four metres, they have reinforcing cables and the mesh goes over the top. That is exactly how it is designed in Monaco. They use steel “I” beams, unlike the fences here in Canada which use round supporting poles. There are lots of different ways of doing it. But I think they did an exceptional job in Monaco. They did a really good job. It kept the car from going over the guardrail. It prevented a marshal post being hit. But, as you quite rightly say, imagine the force it would take to bend those “I” beams. If that had been his head it would have been an un-survivable accident. That, unfortunately, is where luck comes in. It’s really hard to guard against that. It’s really hard to build fences that don’t have big solid structures in them. Because big large unsupported areas of mesh, I mean there are things around apparently, such as those they use for skiers and rock falls, avalanche sorts of things to stop rocks falling onto the road, but you still need some sort of support for them.

What we have at the moment is what we consider to be the best option. You will always run the risk of a car and driver hitting the debris fence at just the wrong angle and in Dan’s case, when you look at those fences over there on those ovals, we’re talking tubes a foot wide. They wouldn’t have moved at all. Massive. Twenty reinforcing cables, much higher than our fences. They are fundamentally to stop a car going into the crowd and at those speeds they’re the sort of things you need. But for that cruel twist of fate he would have probably had this horrific looking accident and walked away from the car. I think 14 cars were in that crash.

In Suzuka they have substantial fences there down the pit straight, and it’s a good few years ago now but Ogawa was involved in a crash there, and died after his Formula Nippon car hit a supporting pole.

You will never eradicate injury because of the nature of the sport. But what you can do, you can look at what’s likely to have the best outcome in the majority of cases and a typical example is the height of the noses on F1 cars. We’ve done a lot of research and chucked cars into rotating wheels and we found the optimum height above the ground to stop a car launching is between 150 and 200 millimetres. You go over that you’ll launch, you go under that and you’ll go under tyre barriers.

So, you still run the risk of possibly going under a tyre barrier if you’re bouncing over a gravel trap, and you still possibly run the risk of launching if your ride height is a little bit higher than normal. But that’s the best thing we can find to do, and if we implement that then it is going to attack a large part of it. You’ll never get it all. You’ll never find something that is 100% safe. If you look at the upsides and the downsides you say well, how many accidents have we had where cars have been launched by a nose hitting a wheel? Lots. How many times have we seen a car go under a tyre barrier? One. So which do you want to stop? The one you see the most of. That’s the trade off you have to make sometimes.

Going back to catch fencing, are you looking at alternate methods? I’ve heard talk of Perspex type affairs almost like what they have in ice hockey.

I’ve not seen anything like that. I’ve not heard any discussion. We do have new debris fence material which is really quite good. It was used on the first corner in Malaysia for the first time this year. It is made by a company called Geobrugg AG in Germany, and it is used for avalanche containment. The advantage is you can have a larger spacing between posts so it reduces by half the amount of posts you could potentially hit.

Have you worked with or are you in discussion with the guys in Indycar about what they have learned from Dan Wheldon’s crash?

Oh yes. We have a full report on that.

So one final question, and thank you so much for bearing with me through all of this, we saw a number of loose wheels in Monaco and they all appeared to be very clean breaks.

There were two examples in Formula 1, and Maldonado’s was most bizarre. It actually broke the axle and it snapped the disc in half, so the wheel was there with half the axle and half the disc so the tethers weren’t able to do anything. I don’t believe there’s anything we can do about that to be honest. The other one, which I believe was Perez, was that he hit the guardrail and literally punched the middle of the wheel out. There is very little one can do about that and the only consolation you have is that the amount of energy required to rip that off dissipates a huge amount of the energy of the wheel and you didn’t see the wheel going that far. Conor’s wheel went quite far though.

It did, and it very luckily missed the cars coming through the debris. How are things going at the FIA with your investigations into cockpit safety?

That’s a big project and we’ve tried fighter jet canopies. They work but there are quite a few problems with those. They need to be 30 millimetres thick which presents sufficient optical difficulties. We need to try and get something that you can see through when you’re sat down there and that’s very hard. We tried a roll structure. It’s an ugly thing but it did the job. So next we’re trying to find something that’ll be a deflector. In the end we may have to end up with something that will help a lot but won’t eradicate the likelihood of something hitting a driver. It may not prove to be impossible to completely eradicate that. Even if you put a driver in a closed car, there’s no guarantee a wheel won’t fly through the windscreen for example.

We are doing our best, the guys at the Institute are doing a lot of work on this, but it is not the work of a moment and it is fraught with difficulty.

My thanks to Charlie Whiting for taking time out of his schedule to talk to me, and to Matteo Bonciani at the FIA for organising the interview.