What now for F1’s radio ban rules?

Formula 1’s decision to implement significant restrictions on the information that drivers are allowed to receive over the radio during races has created controversy of late, with some apparent uncertainty concerning what can and cannot be said on the radio.

In the European Grand Prix at Baku a few weeks ago, Lewis Hamilton found himself growing more frustrated by the lap as his Mercedes W07 entered an incorrect engine mode, costing him a significant chunk of performance. Despite the World Champion’s frustrated pleading over the radio, an obviously pained Peter Bonnington was forced to respond that he couldn’t help his driver fix the problem. Similarly, Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen asked for clarification concerning an ERS issue on his SF16-H, only to receive an equally unhelpful response from the pitwall.

The latest controversial incident surrounding the radio ban occurred last weekend at Silverstone, with championship leader Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes suffering from gearbox problems that appeared to threaten his chances of finishing the race.

The Mercedes pitwall wasted little time in barking instructions over the radio to the German, who promptly pushed the right buttons, allowing his W07 to make it to the end of the race. The team also informed Rosberg that he had a problem with seventh gear, and that he should simply shift rapidly through the gear without “using” it, so to speak. While the FIA race stewards deemed the first message (concerning which buttons to push in order to allow the faulty gearbox sensor to reset) to be legal, the instruction to Rosberg to shift through seventh gear was deemed illegal, as it meant that the German was no longer “driving the car alone and unaided” as the rules dictate.

In the end, Rosberg was handed a ten-second time penalty, which demoted him from P2 to P3, thus losing him three championship points. However, in light of these recent controversies, there are a few questions regarding the radio ban that need addressing.


Why does F1 have a radio ban?

The decision to tighten up radio communications for 2016 came as a result of a growing perception among fans that the drivers were simply puppets who executed the orders of the pitwall.

In 2015, drivers were constantly being instructed how and where to save fuel, how to look after the brakes, which engine mode to select and where and when to make changes to the braking bias, among other things.

The idea behind the radio ban was that the driver should be left to cope with any issues that arise during the race, using their own initiative. In other words, if, for example, the brakes are too hot, or the engine isn’t delivering full power while in second gear, the onus is on the pilot at the wheel to adapt accordingly. The aim of the ban was thus to put control back into the hands of the drivers by forcing them to drive the car “alone and unaided” rather than allowing the pitwall to dictate their actions.

The overarching idea is certainly a sensible one. After all, if Formula 1 drivers are the best in the world, shouldn’t they be the ones making the decisions at the wheel?

Why is the radio ban controversial?

In addition to the incidents discussed above, the radio ban is controversial because of the surrounding uncertainty about what can and cannot be said over the radio. The rules make provision for the sharing of information when the safety of the driver is in jeopardy (such as when the brakes are about to fail) or if there is a potentially terminal problem affecting the car. Of course, when these criteria are fulfilled is open to some level of subjective interpretation.

Mercedes are likely to have argued feverishly that every word of its communication to Rosberg was necessary and warranted, while the stewards were only partially convinced by the German team’s case. The ten-second penalty applied to Rosberg is best described as indifferent, or indecisive. The FIA had promised to be strict when it came to policing the radio ban, yet chose to apply a relatively moderate penalty for the offence, rather than handing Rosberg a 25-second penalty (which is far more severe) or disqualifying the car altogether.

This creates a dangerous precedent. Listening carefully to the communications between Rosberg and his team, the engineer did not share the information in the calm, unemotional way that race engineers are usually known for. Instead, there was a slight pause from the team’s side, followed by a rapid and desperate barrage of instructions concerning which buttons needed pushing. To be frank, that does not sound like the actions of a team that were entirely convinced of the legality of their actions.

However, for Mercedes, it was a risk worth taking. The issue appeared to threaten Rosberg’s chances of finishing the race. By breaking the rules, the team faced a likely penalty, but also guaranteed that the German would make it to the finish line in second place, thus securing a valuable 1-2 finish for Mercedes. In future, the precedent of a 10-second penalty may lead teams to simply disregard the rule and to accept the penalty. After all, which leads to the better result: obeying the rule and failing to finish the race, or disregarding the rule and losing a few points due to a relatively minor penalty? The choice for Mercedes was obvious: the benefits far outweighed the costs.


On a broader note, the controversies the sport has seen also lead to questions about where the driver’s job ends and where the pitwall’s job begins. It is entirely reasonable to expect the best racing drivers in the world to adapt to problems that they may encounter from time to time. However, in the case of Hamilton, the World Champion found himself needing to correct an engine mode setting that he hadn’t even known was incorrect to begin with.

Similarly, is it reasonable to expect that Rosberg should have known which instructions to feed his car in order to address his gearbox problem? In other words, the question is: how much does the driver need to know about the inner workings of his car? Problems relating to over-heated brakes or understeer fall firmly in the driver’s area of expertise. However, given the complexity of modern F1 cars, it seems a little wishful to expect that the drivers should be able to anticipate any problems that may arise on the variety of systems that the cars possess, and to correct them promptly by feeding the car’s software the correct codes.

What should F1 do?

In light of recent events, some prominent members of the F1 paddock have called for the radio ban to be scrapped entirely. This is certainly an option, but perhaps it is too hasty a decision. What is, however, definitely necessary is clarification on what is allowed and what is not; what the driver’s job is and what the pitwall’s job is.

Then, having clarified this, the sport should implement a harsher penalty for breaking the rules. The infringement of a rule that is clearly defined should result in a substantial penalty to the team in question, not a relatively minor penalty that is of little real consequence.

The idea of the drivers racing “alone and unaided” is not a bad one. However, as is too often the case in the complex world of F1, too few of the possible scenarios that may arise have been considered. As with most of the sport’s rules, however, constructive discussion and the objective of refinement should come before any dramatic knee-jerk decisions.

Adriaan Slabbert