By Stephen Williams
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article and please don't forget to comment.
In 2014, Formula One entered a new era when V6 hybrids replaced the noisy V8 engines. The V6 hybrids were incredibly complicated, and this was shown in the opening race of the season when both Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton retired after only a few laps. As we entered into the third season of the hybrid era, certain radio calls between the drivers and the pit wall were banned. The FIA have enforced the rule that the drivers must drive the car alone and unaided. Therefore, the teams are not allowed to give the drivers any messages relating to driver coaching, effectively, how to drive the car.
During the recent British Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg encountered a gear box problem a few laps from the end. The team instructed the driver that he needed to change the mode he was in on his steering wheel. This was allowed as it prevented a car failure. However, when the team instructed him to "shift straight through it (seventh gear)", this was against the rules, and he was handed a ten second time penalty. Effectively, the team had told him how to drive the car in a certain way which is driver coaching. Many agreed that the action was deserving of a penalty due to the rules implemented. It is not yet known if a ten second time penalty will be a consistent penalty handed out to drivers who receive information regarding driver coaching. If it is, the teams and drivers will be relieved that it is not as strong as a disqualification as that would be just as painful as a did not finish. Does this punishment fit the crime?
Before there were radio calls between the drivers and the teams, a driver had to manage his car to ensure it made the finish. But, this was all at a time when the cars were much simpler. After the European Grand Prix, a race when Lewis Hamilton had an engine issue, he was unable to work out which one of the switches on his steering wheel he needed to change in order to fix the problem. The power units have many different modes, and these modes have sub-menus. Hamilton argued that there could have been over a hundred possible modes to choose from to fix the problem. He was changing these settings on his steering wheel while racing around the tight street circuit, which was incredibly dangerous. It seems strange that the FIA insist on these extremely complicated power units, but leave the drivers little help when they inevitably go wrong.
This radio clamp down has also lead to a reduction in the understanding of each race. When there is a mix of strategies throughout the grid, the radio was a way for the teams to inform the drivers of what is expected to happen by the end. This also informed the viewers. There were complaints from the fans before the ban that the teams were constantly informing their drivers that they could not drive fast because they needed to save fuel, or part of their cars were overheating. In this sense, the ban has been good because the fans are not bored of the same radio calls from the team telling them to slow down.
Despite the reduction in team radio this year, when it has been used it has often been very comedic. Sebastian Vettel for one has been extremely aggressive on the radio. His rant about his retirement in Russia was hilarious. I'm not quite sure how many times he swore, but the person on the bleep machine must have had a sore finger afterwards. His teammate Kimi Raikkonen has also been rather forceful, but this is not too unlike the Iceman. Just leave him alone, he knows what he's doing... apparently.
Perhaps the cause of Mercedes' poor reliability this season - which had been nearly faultless in the previous two - is due to the restrictions in radio messages. Maybe the team would be able to share much more information with their drivers to protect their power units without these limitations. All this technology and complexity could be interfering with this year's championship battle.
Ultimately, Formula One is a team sport, so I personally feel that the team should be able to aid their driver over reliability issues, and even how to drive the car in a way to get it to the end of the race, if a failure is imminent. I agree partly with the rule that the drivers should drive the car unaided, especially regarding the driver coaching. A driver should not be told by the team how to drive the car if it is performance related, like telling him to brake later, or instructing him to use a certain gear around a corner. It should be the driver's responsibility to work out where he needs to make up the time. I believe the ban on driver coaching was correct, but regarding the reliability of the cars I feel the rules could have been more lenient because it sounds like the drivers do not always know exactly what they should be doing.