Has it all got a bit much? Image c/o James Moy Photography

Has it all got a bit much?
Image c/o James Moy Photography

The FIA has moved to ban, with immediate effect, radio communication between pitwall and driver during a Grand Prix which is “related to the performance of the car or driver.”

This is a fairly substantial shift in regulation, and comes in the midst of the first year of an era of total re-education for the modern Formula 1 driver, as issues such as driving within a fuel flow limit and “coasting” have led to an increasing stream of information from team to driver over the manner in which the car should be driven.

As broken this morning by my colleague Adam Cooper, the teams have been informed of the following by FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting:

“In order to ensure that the requirements [sic] of Article 20.1 of the F1 Sporting Regulations is respected at all times we intend to rigorously enforce this regulation with immediate effect. Therefore no radio conversation from pit to driver may include any information that is related to the performance of the car or driver.”

Article 20.1 states that “The driver must drive the car alone and unaided.”

As such, the recent flow of radio messages detailing when a driver should brake, what gear he should be in and when and to what extent he should be using the throttle, had been called into question. Quite apart from seemingly being at odds with Article 20.1, from the perspective of external impressions of the sport, these messages were seemingly starting to give over the view that the drivers were simply puppets being told how to drive fast, rather than the gladiatorial beacons of Derring Do which their predecessors, all arms and elbows, had been.

Whiting also confirmed that teams would not simply be able to get around the issue by sending information electronically to the driver, one must imagine via messages to the steering wheel screen.

“We should also remind you that data transmission from pit to car is specifically prohibited by Article 8.5.2 of the F1 Technical Regulations.”

It remains to be seen exactly how the FIA will police this new regulation, or indeed how deep it will run. Pitstop strategy and safety issues will still, we believe, be permitted to be broadcast, and if so this in itself leaves open interesting avenues.

For while one imagines it will now be illegal to tell a racer how he should be driving the car, will it also be illegal to broadcast information over tyre temperature, brake temperature or any number of other variables brought to light by the many Terabytes of telemetry gathered in each Grand Prix? Afterall, such information is key to race strategy. Such information may also be born of safety.

If a driver may not be told how to drive the car, then perhaps it will be legal to deliver this type of information, but without the requisite advice on how the driver might wish to resolve the issue.

Unfortunately, due to the wording of the regulation change, it is open to tremendous interpretation. What does this directive cover? Surely any and all pit to driver communication concerns performance. Does that mean that all radio communication is outlawed? If strategy and safety is permitted, then what will that cover? No matter what is resolved in the meetings which will have to take place in Singapore before the five red lights go out, debate will no doubt rage over what is and is not permissible and how one gets around the concept of coded messages. It seems almost ridiculous to ask, but will it now be illegal for Mercedes to tell Lewis that “It’s Hammer Time”?

While mid-season rule changes are never advisable, in this case I think that, in its intention at least, it’s a good idea. For while strategy is a key part of modern day Formula 1, and radio communication now a key tool in the narrative of any F1 broadcast, the idea that racing drivers are being instructed how to drive on a corner by corner basis can only take away from the belief that these men are the best of the best.

David Beckham never wore an earpiece, for Sir Alex Fergusson to tell him when Ryan Giggs was open and unmarked on the opposite flank and to advise on the exact moment to execute a 35 yard floating cross-pitch pass to him. Johnny Wilkinson had to rely on picking grass and watching how it floated in the air to determine wind direction and velocity when he was taking his trademark rugby kicks.

It should be left to a racer’s instinct to know how to drive.

To paraphrase a world champion who despises the over-use of modern day radio in Formula 1… leave them alone. They should know what they’re doing.

UPDATE: Since writing this piece the FIA has clarified what is and is not permitted and it seems as though the only messages now held as legal are those regarding traffic, pit stop timing and team orders.

Frankly, this seems akin to using a sledgehammer to remove a tooth. For while the concept of putting the driver back into focus may have been the objective, the outcome will be tantamount chaos created by a hastily and ill-conceived cover-all solution to a complex issue.

The directive covers all sessions, not just the race. So we must now assume that even using the radio to talk to the driver while he’s in car in between runs in practice is now prohibited. Any and all information regarding the operation of the car and of how a driver might improve his or his car’s performance is off limits by radio. Pitboards will come back into favour, and one would imagine, a complex system of hand signals or perhaps some quick sign language lessons for the relaying of information in the pits during practice and qualifying.

What is more likely is a ridiculous and convoluted system of coded messages, thus putting the sport and it’s drivers even further out of touch with reality. Something this change was supposed to resolve for the better.

If this directive simply covered the issuing of driving instructions such as when to brake and what gear to use, as it seemed at the outset, it would be a tremendous positive. What we’ve got instead puts Formula 1 in the dark ages, and behind even it’s most grass roots and basic entry level feeder series.