The original motive behind imposing radio restrictions was a noble one: preventing drivers from becoming puppets in the hands of the teams. But has the FIA gone a step too far now?
Amid noise that drivers are increasingly being controlled by their teams, the FIA introduced tighter restrictions on radio communication in 2016.
The idea behind the rule was a simple one: “What we’re trying to do is to make sure the driver is driving the car on his own, that he’s not being told how to drive the car,’’ FIA race director Charlie Whiting told the FIA website earlier this year.
To ensure that a driver does drives the car ‘alone and unaided’, the FIA released a list of permitted messages - which, by the looks of it, looks completely satisfactory.
In practice, however, the scope of this regulation has gone a bit too far.
Perez’s brake failure in Austria
The first case of point is Force India; the team was not allowed to communicate to Sergio Perez that his brakes were about to fail in the closing laps of Austria.
According to the FIA list, a team is allowed to communicate a ‘critical problem’ with the car where failure ‘is imminent or potentially terminal’.
The official document reads as follows: “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 potential terminal.”
So, theoretically, Force India should have been allowed to tell Perez about his imminent brake failure, but the race control directed them not to do so.
As a result, Perez crashed on the last lap of the race while running in points. A prudent man can easily tell that a brake failure can prove catastrophic. Although the Mexican escaped unscatched from the incident, at a different corner or in different conditions, the results might have been a lot worse.
Naturally, team’s deputy chief Robert Fernley was critical of the rule: "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."
Rosberg’s gearbox trouble at Silverstone
In the closing stages of the British Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg ran into a gearbox problem that could have potentially led to his retirement.
Mercedes decided to intervene, telling Rosberg how to fix the problem. They further told him to ‘’shift through the 7th gear’.
After a lengthy investigation, the stewards deemed that the initial messages were within the scope of the regulation, but felt that the team crossed the line later on.
“Having considered the matter extensively, the Stewards determined that the team gave some instructions to the driver that were specifically permitted under Technical Directive 014-16. However, the Stewards determined that the team then went further and gave instructions to the driver that were not permitted under the Technical Directive, and were in Breach of Art. 27.1 of the Sporting Regulations, that the driver must drive the car alone and unaided,’’ read the official statement.
From the verdict on the breach of regulations, there are two important conclusions to derive.
Firstly, the FIA shows glaring inconsistency in what is and what is not a ‘critical problem’. While it is supposedly within the rules to tell a driver how to fix a gearbox issue, a brake failure doesn’t fall within the purview. Needless to say, there has to be more clarity on what is a ‘critical problem’. And something as serious as a brake failure must be included in the list.
Secondly, the FIA imposed a penalty to Rosberg because Mercedes asked him to shift through the 7th gear, considering it as driver coaching. However, it’s quite evident that the instruction was simply given to ensure he made it to the chequered flag - and in no way it ‘enhanced the performance of the car’.
Again, for the benefit of the reader, here’s the exact wording of the regulation:
“Instructions to select driver defaults for the sole purpose of mitigating loss of function of a sensor, actuator or controller whose degradation or failure was not detected and handled by the on-board software. In according with Article 8.2.4, any new setting chosen in this way must not enhance the performance of the car beyond that prior to the loss of function.”
10 second penalty
After the stewards found that Mercedes did breach the regulation, Rosberg was handed a 10 second penalty, dropping him down to third place.
It’s fair to say that the penalty is on the lenient side and sets a bad precedent for the sport. Teams will now be willing to break the rule, knowing that they can escape with a relatively small penalty. This in itself questions the regulation’s existence in the first place.
The FIA must stick to the original objective behind the radio rules. Drivers are stars of the show and must exploit the package of the car themselves.
However, it must not go a step further. Doing so can compromise the safety of the drivers, as attested by Perez. Teams must be allowed to give all instructions to drivers to solve a technical problem, for it has nothing to do with driver coaching.
So far, FIA has failed to change its stance on radio communication, despite calls from various teams. This can be seen as another effort by the regulatory body to reassert its authority on the sport. But these political agendas are doing the sport no good.
by Rachit Thukral