Is it time to tear up the FIA rule book?

In terms of racing, this year’s race at the Valencia Street Circuit was easily the most successful of the three that have been held so far. Although arguably it was mostly as a result of the shake-up that occurred after Mark Webber’s horrendous accident with Heikki Kovalainen — which we really do not like to see — the fact is that the spectacle was quite good. The start and the first few laps certainly had a lot going on, even before Webber’s crash.

Unfortunately, as often happens in Formula 1, the on-track events have been overshadowed by the inept management of the sport behind the scenes. The stewarding in Valencia was a complete shambles, making a mockery of the sport.

As if the shambolic nature of the stewarding wasn’t enough, the issue has been compounded by Ferrari’s over-the-top reaction. Yes, they have a point. They were hard done by. The FIA systems should have worked better. But, in the words of a former Scottish First Minister, it was more of a cock-up than a conspiracy.

It is unusual for Ferrari to jump up and down and complain about unfair treatment at the hands of the FIA. This is the team that brought us farcical events like Austria 2002 and the “manufactured dead heat” at Indianapolis the same year — yet now they complain about manipulated race results. Never mind, I suppose eight years have passed…

The stewarding problem wasn’t solved after all

Of course, one of the biggest changes in the way the sport is run this year (apart from the change of FIA President) has been the introduction of an ex-driver to advise the stewards. At first it seemed to be working — the stewards were staying quiet, keeping out of matters they didn’t need to be involved in, and generally doing a good job.

Unfortunately, it must just have been a run of good luck, because the past few races have seen a return to the bad old days of shambolic stewarding and controversial conclusions. They still need to be doing a better job.

Getting the involvement of former drivers is a welcome move. But it is only a sticking plaster when the problems with the way the sport is run are so deep. For the time being, the drivers are a piece of decorative tinsel.

It is unfortunate for them that, due to their high profile, the spotlight is unfairly focussed on the drivers. We have often seen, during the race coverage produced by FOM, pictures of the driver in the stewards’ room. In Valencia it was Heinz-Harald Frentzen. But no-one is interested in the other three stewards.

That is a shame because it would be useful to know more. I happened to recognise the name of one of the other stewards at Valencia. Radovan Novak was the controversial person who, in 2008, claimed that McLaren were “responsible” for the Max Mosley sex scandal.

Mr Novak was also reported to have spoken against the prospect of Jean Todt becoming FIA President. On paper, he doesn’t seem like the sort of person who might like to be part of a Jean Todt-led conspiracy in favour of McLaren. Then again, maybe things change easily when the new boss enters his office.

The real problem: The rules are too complex

Mike Gascoyne hit the nail bang on the head:

I think since we started changing the safety car rules, every time you change something you get all these scenarios thrown up, and I think it is just that.

Charlie [Whiting, FIA race director] is trying to do the job as he sees it, calls it as he sees it, and he has as difficult a job as everyone. I think it is just one of those things.

The real issue is that the rules of Formula 1 are too complex. As such, the regulations are filled with loopholes within grey areas. This makes the sport difficult to follow and impossible to fairly officiate.

In recent years, the Safety Car rules have become particularly complex. The FIA has struggled to get this quite right, with the result being ad-hoc changes tacked on to amendments. It reminds me a lot of the constant tinkering the FIA made to the qualifying format in the mid-noughties until it finally settled on the current knockout system.

Already this year, following the farcical finish to the Monaco Grand Prix, a badly written rule has been hastily re-written. It looks like more clarifications will have to come after nine drivers were ended up unintentionally breaking the letter of the law after the Safety Car was deployed towards the end of the lap for many drivers.

On this week’s Radio 5 Live Chequered Flag podcast, Lewis Hamilton described the confusion that the current Safety Car rules create. You can hear it from around 9:40 in:

When the Safety Car comes out, you get all these beeps in your ear, and you get all this different information on your dashboard and lights flashing at you. And you’ve got to have a certain time between the Safety Car 1 line and the Safety Car 2 line. Then between the two Safety Car lines you can go fast. It’s just all so confusing.

In Valencia, the stewards had to make sure they made the right decision. But this meant taking the time to find the evidence and come to a decision in the proper way, which lessened the impact of the penalty. Exactly the same thing happened quite memorably to Nico Rosberg during the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.

While it’s understandable that the stewards would want to get their decision right, Formula 1 now needs to look urgently at ways of making these decisions more quickly and more efficiently. Formula 1 is a sport with a lot of technology at its finger tips.

There are lots of cameras (the FIA has access to more than we ever see on television), and GPS data, team radio recordings, telemetry and timing systems. Not all of this can be analysed on the spot, but a lot of it can. This ought to be utilised much more.

The words “will be investigated after the race” — which used to be almost unheard of but is now a regular occurrence — should only be used in extreme circumstances. Television viewers and fans at the racetrack need to have confidence that what they have seen play out on the track is the real result.

Most of all, there needs to be a mass simplification of the F1 rules in order to avoid as much this as much as possible. F1 is a complex sport, and it is clearly not easy to regulate. But action needs to be taken, because right now the FIA rule book is more useful as a doorstop than a way to effectively run a motor race.

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  1. Agreed. Specially if you consider that FiA can apparently switch from the Sporting Regulations to the Sporting Code at their will when they give a penalty. And with no explanations at all.

    Even considering that it took too long to the stewards to impose the penalty, if they would have chosen a more severe one because of that (like a stop & go), it would have still been unfair, since that delay on taking the decission would not have been the driver’s fault.

    Good picture of the situation, Duncan. Cheers from Spain.

  2. For me, something that it’s astonishing is that they have had 60 years for developing the rules and even so, they still have grey areas…

    Or may be the Safety Car is something new they have introduced just last year 😉 (sarcasm mode off)

    It’s so difficult?

    Great post Duncan, as usual 🙂


  3. “It is unusual for Ferrari to jump up and down and complain about unfair treatment at the hands of the FIA. This is the team that brought us farcical events like Austria 2002 and the “manufactured dead heat” at Indianapolis the same year — yet now they complain about manipulated race results. Never mind, I suppose eight years have passed…”

    People remember stuff like that because it was Ferrari doing it. No-one minded when David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen manipulated race results through a “gentlemen’s agreement” in 1998 eh?

    Back on the main topic, I think it’s time for the stewarding system to change. I’m not so sure Driver-Stewards are a good idea if they give us situations like Monaco where a minor offence is penalised harshly AND Quickly (in my opinion, a FAIR punishment would have been to swap the positions back) but then other far more dangerous offences which could result in people getting hurt and endangering pitlane personnel results in nothing more than a slap on the wrist (Webber/Kovalainen’s crash in Valencia was a good display of what can happen when cars are as close as Petrov and Hamilton were when Hamilton was weaving). Sometimes it seems like the Stewards are almost scared to give a penalty (although some of the situations resulting in Reprimands this year have resulted in sudden rule changes and ‘clarifications’) yet in others like the Monaco situation they are quick to crack the whip. I think the Valencia situation, the data COULD have been made available far more quickly, after all, it was available VERY quickly in Monaco, right? Therefore I fail to see where this argument about all the data being hard to pull together comes from.

  4. The Monaco incident was clearly against the rules (it took me less than 5 minutes to figure out Michael would get a penalty), it was simply that the rules in question could have been signposted a bit better. The lightest penalty that could have been applied according to the regulations was 20 seconds and it was duly applied. They’ve never made allowances for ignorance of the regulations before and they’re hardly going to start 60 years into the championship.

    Valencia was a horrible weekend for stewarding standards for a number of reasons. Either the delta times for the “Speedy Nine” were reasonable (in which case they should have received the full 20-second penalty to ensure they learn from their mistakes) or they were too harsh, as suspected by some teams with drivers very close to the Safety Car line (in which case the FIA, not the drivers or teams, is at fault and no penalties at all should have been issued for those with bad delta times).

    The GPS data combined with basic scrutineering data should have sufficed to indicate whether Hamilton had passed the Safety Car. It wouldn’t have changed Lewis’ result but it might have made Ferrari a bit happier.

    Oh, and people did mind when DC and Hakkinen didn’t race for the Melbourne 1998. Simply because the controversy was overtaken by the “brake-steer” pedal within a week doesn’t mean no controversy happened. It led to a temporary ban on team orders (lifted at the end of 2000), so it must have had some effect on the powers-that-be.