It took only one race for a team to fall foul of the FIA’s promise to empower the stewards in enforcing its crackdown on radio messages. As it turned out, it was the front-running Mercedes team to break through this new and exciting barrier.
It all happened so quickly that you could forgive the Mercedes pit wall for forgetting that pesky 31-point list of what can and cannot be said at any given moment of a race weekend. Though this is the same pit wall, mind you, that only two rounds ago triggered much consternation for refusing to tell Lewis Hamilton how to take his car out of the wrong power unit mode.
The problem was simple. Nico Rosberg was charging towards teammate Hamilton in the final laps of the British Grand Prix with a promise to deliver a thrilling finish when he was mercilessly struck down by a jamming gearbox, almost putting him out of the race.
“Gearbox problem!” Rosberg shouted via team radio.
“Chassis default zero, one,” came a hurried reply from the pit wall, and then, “Avoid seventh gear, Nico.”
“What does that mean? I have to shift through it?” Rosberg queried, and the response came in the affirmative: “Affirm, Nico, affirm. You have to shift through it.”
In just 29 words, two of which were ‘Nico’, Mercedes sowed the seeds for its subsequent penalty, but it would take the most ardent of Formula One fans to identify exactly why that was the case.
Article 27.1 of the sporting regulations states, “The driver must drive the car alone and unaided”, and it is to this rule that the FIA has pegged its radio ban, list item one of which states that only “indication of a critical problem with the car” is allowed, as opposed to instructions on repairing the fault.
But at what point does providing information constitute aiding the driver driving the car?
List item 21 says that “information concerning damage to the car” is legally communicable, meaning Mercedes may have been able to provide Rosberg with very detailed information, enough for him to understand that he ought not use seventh gear. However, if the point is to have the driver understand the problem himself without assistance, is this exception consistent with the spirit of this rule?
Consider also that Sebastian Vettel, who understeered into Felipe Massa, taking both off the circuit, was given a near identical penalty to that handed to Rosberg for hitting Hamilton in Austria. Superficially both were similar – one car pushing another wide – but Vettel’s incident was an innocent moment of lost control, whereas Rosberg’s move was very much deliberate.
Two different incidents classified under the same offence – to quote Ron Dennis, “Where’s the consistency?”
The third source of bureaucratic frustration came from Saturday’s zero-tolerance track limits ruling, which resulted in a number of drivers having their times deleted during and after sessions.
First there was a dispute between McLaren, Renault, and the stewards as to whether Jenson Button would be able to take part in Q2 after Kevin Magnussen was alleged to have driven off the circuit on his fastest lap, but perhaps not on the parts of the track where the rule was being applied.
Later, after Q3 had finished, a number of times were deleted from the timing board under the same offence, leading to significant confusion among the fans in attendance as to the final classification.
Boiled down, all of these regulation and penalty problems stem from the fact that Formula One’s regulatory system is far too complex. Concepts as simple as driving the car “alone and unaided” require a handbook to navigate, track limits only apply to certain corners and are penalised in different ways at different times, and the correlation between actions, offences, and punishments remains vague.
No other sport has this problem. Compare Formula One’s regulation system to the universally understood yellow and red cards in football – even for fans at the ground there is no confusion when it comes to dishing out penalties, but in Formula One it remains painfully difficult to follow.
Simplification is the key. Formula One must first start by appointing a permanent steward to ensure consistency in decision making, and it must then create straightforward offences attached to obvious punishments.
If a driver causes a collision, the fan at home should know immediately what penalty might be coming his way, or if a driver is accused of blocking, the subsequent punishment should be obvious.
Finally, the radio clampdown – supposedly designed to appease the fans, but in reality leaving the sport worse off – must be wound back almost completely, if not entirely.
“I think the rule is rubbish. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense,” said Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner after the race, despite having the most to gain from the eventual penalty. “It’s a team sport … and you can understand why Mercedes would want to give that message to keep their driver running.
“The question going forward is: are these rules right for Formula One?”
The answer, this column would hazard, is no. The radio clampdown is the height of the sport’s obsession with unnecessary complexity, and it simply has to go.