The Situation Room - inside Race Control 20 Dec 2012
The F1 era of hand-held stopwatches and buccaneering free-spirit control is history. Not only is the sport itself highly technical these days, but so is the way it conducts itself. The stewards and their driver advisers see all and know all as they ensure fair play on-track
Out on track at Abu Dhabis Yas Marina circuit things are moving pretty quickly. Its only the second free practice of the Grand Prix weekend but the action is already hotting up as Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton trade fastest laps in pursuit of ultimate qualifying pace. The radio transmissions to the drivers advise them of potential hazards, keep them posted on car behaviour and tell them when to pit.
Back in the circuits control tower, however, the pace is altogether more sedate. In Race Control the fizzing radio transmissions are just a soft, white-noise intrusion on the focused silence. Twenty-two pairs of eyes are fixed on a vast bank of screens, each showing a different corner, a different view of the on-track action.
Information, in the most minute detail, floods through but is processed and acted upon as the situation warrants, while posts scroll up on screen with almost metronomic regularity: Mercedes yellow wide T4, McLaren yellow wide T3, Lotus red wide T4. A query appears from a marshal post asking if Race Control is happy with the position of a photographer at the bottom of the Corkscrew, near Turn 3. A check is made and the marshal post is told the position is fine and the focus on the track action continues.
On the other side of the building, in the Stewards Room, the same sense of composure holds true. Here, stewards Lars Osterlind, Radovan Novak, driver steward Derek Warwick and local ASN steward, Khaled Bin Shaiban, studiously follow the session as an operator cycles through the multitude of audio and visual options available to them. Theres little talk beyond the occasional comment on the state of the timesheet.
This is how things get done in Formula One racings command and control centres. From the moment an incident occurs on track to the instant a decision is delivered, the process is all about keeping calm and carrying on. The basis for that is a carefully-constructed system called Racewatch, which makes the judgement on an incident well informed and almost fool proof.
We have an extremely good system in Race Control that is able to detect incidents for us, says race director Charlie Whiting, who presides over the nerve centre and who will be most familiar to F1 TV viewers as the man who pushes the button to start the race. The system is programmed to highlight any incident - for example, if a driver goes too quickly in a section under yellow flags. Thats based on GPS tracking and timing, but the software also has a number of other inputs and is programmed to respond accordingly.
And the response is swift. In the following days third practice session, Sergio Perez is caught speeding in the pit lane and incurs a 2600 fine. Later, the firebrand Mexican is cited for allegedly impeding Bruno Senna in qualifying. The stewards review all the available footage and hand the Sauber driver a reprimand.
Their day is about to get a lot more complex, however. At the end of qualifying third-fastest man, Vettel, slows and pulls over on track. The Red Bull Racing driver climbs out of his car and trudges towards pit lane. The stoppage constitutes a possible breach of the regulations and the stewards are immediately called to investigate. Its a long, slow process as Vettel and team representatives are called to give their explanation and then the officials wait on technical reports from the race
At last, though, Vettel is deemed to have breached fuel regulations by not having enough in his car - a full litre - for a sample to be taken, and hes relegated to the back of the grid. Its a sensational development in an already knife-edge championship battle, but its the sort of decision race stewards make all the time, as Garry Connelly - a regular chairman of race stewards who this year officiated at seven Grands Prix including the season finale in Brazil - explains.
Its a big responsibility but one thats become a lot less of a burden simply because of the technology now at our disposal. We have a wealth of data, that most people wont be aware we have access to.
First of all, we have all the video feeds - the pictures that have gone to air; the vision captured by FOM [Formula One Management] but which hasnt been put to air; the closed circuit cameras around the track, and all the onboard material as well.
The vast amount of camera footage available to the stewards is backed up by a stream of data that feeds into both Race Control and the Stewards Room.
We have GPS tracking, which shows where cars are at any given time, says Connelly. We also have access to all the team radio transmissions, which are very important as they allow us to know if a team has warned a driver that hes about to impede another car and whether a driver has ignored that information.
Finally, as of this summer, we can now obtain real-time telemetry from the cars. Thats really useful as we can overlay telemetry information from an incident with data from previous laps, so we can tell if a driver has done something like failing to back off under yellow flags.
Linking all this together you can come up with a complete picture of whats going on. You have a mass of information that isnt available to the public or the teams. Thats why decisions are sometimes taken that people have trouble understanding, but they simply dont have all the information the stewards do.
And if meting out suitable punishment is still a cause for debate among the stewards, there is also the vast store of historical precedent for the stewards to draw on.
We keep all the incidents from recent seasons on video on a hard drive, and all of that is available to the stewards, says Whiting. Its an invaluable resource because, of course, the same stewards are not at every race. This way they can refer back to all that past footage and it helps them make a more informed and consistent decision.
The stewards also have a list of penalties they can refer to dating back to 2003, he adds. Its categorised by offence and penalty, so the stewards can quickly see whos done what, where, and what penalties were handed out. That way they can, for example, look at all the penalties given for causing a collision over past seasons and then cross reference that with the video and you pretty quickly come up with suitable penalties for crimes, based on historical data.
Connelly, however, insists that the stewards investigations often go deeper than even that, with consideration also being given both to how an incident impacts on a race and a drivers previous race history.
Take a driver who has caused as collision, he says. Typically the offence is punishable by a drive-through, but more recently there have been a couple of occasions where a stop-go has been imposed. That has typically been because the offence has been a second one or more by that driver during the season. So you do look at the drivers record.
We also now take into account the consequences of the penalty. This wasnt done previously and it might lead people to think that there are inconsistencies, but if someone is coming third in a race by 50 seconds, then giving them a drive-through is not a penalty, potentially. So you do look at the consequences.
Youve also got to look at the consequences of their action. To relate this to a civil situation, if I throw a punch at you and miss, Im probably going to get charged by the police with attempted assault or something like that. But if I connect and break your jaw, Im going to get charged with assault causing bodily harm or something like that. That could lead me to suffer more dire consequences. Its the same action, but the repercussions are much different each time.
Connelly points to Romain Grosjeans one-race ban as a situation in which history, precedent and outcome all fed into a decision he presided over.
That incident could have completely changed the outcome of the FIAs premier championship, he says. But what Romain got the extra penalty for was not that, or at least not wholly for that. When youre a relatively new driver to Formula One and you have the privilege of driving in a potentially winning or podium finish car, youre mixing it with a group of drivers who have many years more experience than you do at the sharp end of the field. It therefore behoves you, in our view, to exercise greater care and attention because you are, with all due respect, the new kid on the block and maybe a little out of your league compared with the guys around you at that end of the grid.
It was a very serious decision and one that was taken only after lengthy weighing of the facts, the evidence, history, everything, he adds. However, every decision weighs heavily on the stewards minds. No decision to penalise a driver is ever taken lightly.
Continued in Part Two
Reprinted with permission from AUTO, the international journal of the FIA family. For further info, click here.
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