The Situation Room - inside Race Control (Part Two) 20 Dec 2012
Continued from Part One
In the past the weight of race-affecting decisions was regularly handed to a group who all too often had little or no experience of racing at a high level and, unsurprisingly, confidence in the process on the part of drivers and teams was occasionally in short supply. But that changed in 2010 when the FIA began regularly to bring in a number of former and current racers to the Stewards Room to add a drivers perspective to proceedings. One of the first called up was eight-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen. The Dane made his stewarding debut at the 2010 Australian Grand Prix, has officiated three times since and says its a role he takes very seriously.
I take it as a big responsibility, because I just dont want to make a mistake, he says. I want to have all the facts in front of me in a very short time and make the right decision. And this is the pressure of being in that room. You need to gather all the information possible in as short a time as possible and make the right decision in a short space of time too.
Audi sports car star and two-times Le Mans winner Allan McNish agrees, admitting that his first event, the Monaco Grand Prix in 2011, was a daunting experience.
It was quite a baptism of fire, because while Id spoken to Tom [Kristensen] and Alex Wurz about how it works, when you get there you realise that theres a huge responsibility not just on your shoulders but on all the stewards shoulders, says the former Toyota F1 driver.
The decisions you make can effectively turn a race weekend or a season, if youre working at an end-of-year race as Tom did in Brazil. In that respect, you have to be very professional about it, you also have to be aware of the part you can potentially play in proceedings.
In Kristensens view the role of drivers representative on the stewards panel is just that. I feel that in some ways its my job to be there almost as the lawyer for the driver, he says. But nowadays there is so much information at hand - all the onboard, the real-time data, radio transmissions - that while you can quite easily justify an action, the question is: does that justification match the data. Sometimes the answer is no.
According to Connelly, the addition of drivers of the calibre of Kristensen and McNish has had a profound effect on how judgements are made at Grands Prix.
This has been in my view one of the most revolutionary and outstanding initiatives taken in the sport for years, he says emphatically. It brings a depth of experience and knowledge to the Stewards Room that is irreplaceable. The drivers take it seriously too. They are constructive and they are, in some cases, tougher than the toughest stewards Ive ever worked with.
Race director Whiting agrees, adding that it is the intuition of an experienced driver that often makes the difference to how situations are read.
They have a common sense approach to incidents that helps the process enormously, he says. Guys like Tom Kristensen will be able to look at an incident and immediately say, I understand why he did that. That speed of analysis is invaluable to the other guys in the room. The input from people like Tom, Allan McNish, Mika Salo all of them, is fantastic. It also adds credibility to decisions in the eyes of the drivers.
McNish agrees that, for F1 drivers, having a peer in the judgement mix has made the handing down of penalties a more believable process.
I do think driver involvement has given a little bit of extra credibility to the process, he says. Its a face and a name that the other drivers know. Its someone who has lived their experience and its someone the drivers can speak to in a slightly different way. Unless youve experienced going through Eau Rouge at 175mph, experienced the g build-up on the steering wheel, the reaction of the car going up and over the top of Raidillon, then its very hard to understand what happens when an incident occurs in that environment.
If that makes the whole process sound relentlessly positive - as if the business of Grand Prix stewarding is now a warm and fuzzy endeavour warmly embraced by drivers and teams alike - then it isnt. Whiting admits that drivers are still often dismayed by what they see as inconsistency in the penalties handed out and frequently ask for cut-and-dried sanctions for particular crimes.
At the drivers briefing in Korea, for example, they were calling for a one-size fits all, five-grid place penalty for impeding, he says. My answer to that is no problem, its very simple for us to do that. It would take the choice out of the stewards hands and would be similar to the mandatory five-place penalty for a gearbox change - end of But, you have to be careful what you wish for, because while you might feel justice has been done on one occasion, the same rule will inevitably bite you on the backside on another day and you might not be so happy with a harshly defined rule then.
There is also a feeling in some quarters that the sport is becoming increasingly litigious, with teams demanding investigation of even the most minor hampering of their drivers progress. But Connelly is sanguine about the teams zealous pursuit of justice, saying that, by and large, the current rules have fed into the situation.
It has become more legal, though I wouldnt call it that - I think the teams are just being more precise. Five years ago a lot of the alleged impeding incidents you wouldnt even bother investigating. But those were pre the current qualifying format and the current tyre regulations. Under the current regulations some of those impeding incidents have the potential to cause enormous damage to a teams quest for points.
If youve used your last set of more advantageous tyres but the lap has been compromised then it could have a big say in how your race goes, he adds. For example, at one race this year, Nico Hulkenberg was forced to use another set of tyres because of a relatively minor impeding incident, but that cost him a set of tyres. That meant he started the race with one less set than the people that caused him to use that set. Is that fair? There are always new aspects of the sport to consider.
And that extends to improving the stewarding process, as Connelly acknowledges.
Theres always room for improvement. I dont think the system will ever be perfect because were all human beings, he says. But we are striving for improvement all the time. Were getting very good feedback from some of the teams, very constructive feedback and thats really helpful. We also now have an internal communication that goes from each set of race stewards to all the stewards in the championship after each race, and that goes into all the decisions and why they were taken. Thats very helpful and, again, a lot of good ideas come out of that.
Currently those ideas include the possibility of introducing a points system on superlicences so that instances of bad behaviour would build cumulatively, leading to an eventual ban.
Weve discussed it only once so far, but well discuss again the possibility of introducing a system whereby if you are penalised three times for causing a collision then you get a one-race ban, says Whiting. I know president Todt is keen on introducing a points-based system, whereby you might incur a certain number of points for a certain offence, and then if you reach a certain total you would lose your licence for a race. That makes sense on paper but I think it would need a lot of discussion to get right.
Kristensen, meanwhile, believes there is scope for a new sanction, a penalty less severe than a drive-through.
I think it would be good to have something thats a little bit less severe than a drive-through, he says. Sometimes a drive-through can be very harsh and definitely spoil someones whole race, especially if theyre going for points, unless youre running at the very front. Perhaps there could be a penalty in which youre held for a slightly longer time at a pit stop.
The future of how F1 racing rules on the split-second decisions that can make or break a race is open to question. But just as F1 racing itself has morphed, over the past three decades, from a championship built more on the pursuit of excellence than on its achievement, into a technological powerhouse defined by an obsessive focus on perfection, so the Stewards Room has developed from a coterie of knowledgeable fans gathered around a couple of TV sets, into a group of highly informed experts operating at the cutting edge of technology.
The ultimate point of all that technology is straightforward, however, as Kristensen concludes:
When the chequered flag is shown, the score should be on the board, everybody should understand exactly why it is that way and everybody should leave feeling the right result has been achieved.
Reprinted with permission from AUTO, the international journal of the FIA family. For further info, click here.
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