Radio silence to add new dimension to the Formula One show

The new regulations which limits what drivers can discuss with their team mid-race will make things more challenging.

Lewis Hamilton, left, will get less information from his Mercedes-GP race engineer Pete Bonnington from now on in races. Clive Mason / Getty Images
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The first five stagings of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have been full of great racing, but one of the most memorable moments in the event’s history came in 2012, during an incident that did not transpire on the track, but over the pit-radio airwaves.

To set the scene, Kimi Raikkonen had just moved into first place at Yas Marina Circuit when his race engineer began channeling information on the situation going on behind him.

It went like this:

Lotus engineer: “OK, Kimi, the next car behind you is Alonso. Alonso five seconds behind you. I will keep you updated on the gap. I will keep you updated on the pace.”

Raikkonen: “Just leave me alone, I know what I’m doing!”

Later in the race, during a safety-car exchange, there was another exchange.

Lotus engineer: “We need to keep working all four tyres please. Keep working ...”

Raikkonen: “Yes, yes, yes, I’m doing all of that. You don’t have to remind me every 10 seconds.”

The incident created much mirth among Formula One fans as the exasperated Finn went on to win, but thanks to a new ruling from the FIA, motorsport’s ruling body, on the use of pit radios, those types of conversations will all but disappear, starting with this weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix meeting.

Concerned that drivers were getting too much information over the pit wall, FIA has banned a number of topics from being discussed over the pit radio.

They have done this by emphasising Rule 20.1 of the F1 bylaws, which states, “The driver must drive the car alone and unaided.”

No longer can a driver ask about where he is losing time to a rival, how much fuel is left in their car, or discuss various technical changes and alterations to the car’s set-up during the race.

The idea, on paper, is to make the driver work harder and take more responsibility for his own car and performance.

At Monaco, in May, Nico Rosberg was warned from the pit wall by the Mercedes-GP team that he would not make it to the end of the race unless he went into fuel-saving mode for a number of laps.

Each car starts a race with 100kgs of fuel which they must make last the distance.

Now he will have to work it out himself from within the car.

Number crunching, while driving at speeds close to 300 kilometres per hour, racing against other cars, does not sound easy, does it?

In the FIA’s view, and quite rightly so, tough.

This is F1, the top echelon of motorsport, and it should be difficult. An immediate consequence for drivers is that they will likely have to spend even more time eyeing telemetry readings.

In practice this season, the Mercedes-GP pair of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton have regularly asked, via radio, where they are losing time to each other, and where the other is gaining time.

In the second practice session at the Italian Grand Prix earlier this month, Rosberg asked over the radio, “driving advice?” as he sought information on where he could find time, and was told to take a higher gear through part of the track.

Now such interaction is banned and Rosberg would either have to go back to the pits and get out of his car, or wait till the end of the session for such guidance.

A likely consequence is that a struggling driver will spend more time in the pits than on the track trying to drive around a problem, instead talking to his mechanics in his garage, which he is still allowed to do.

Only time will tell what impact this will have on racing. It may cause more reliability issues, if items such as batteries and gearboxes are not dealt with correctly.

A car or two might splutter to a halt, out of fuel, before the end of the year, too.

Radio discussion is not completely banned, of course. A driver can still be told of his performance, just not in comparison to another driver. The driver may be made aware of any damage by his crew, and tyre choices can be addressed via radio.

There may be some confusion, since it is not a blanket ban, and it would not be a surprise if there is an accidental infringement in Singapore, which would lead to a time penalty for the driver. But anything that adds another element of unpredictability while equally challenging the drivers is not a bad thing.

It is hard to know how it will affect the championship rivals at Mercedes. As TV viewers have overheard in many pit radio excerpts used in the F1 broadcasts this year during races, both have used their radios regularly.

Hamilton has a reputation for overreliance on radio instructions, unfair in retrospect, since it is based on his inexperience during his rookie year in 2007, when he allowed McLaren-Mercedes chiefs to keep him out on track in China on bald tyres, causing him to slide into a gravel trap when he inevitably found he had no grip.

But he has probably the more natural raw pace compared to Rosberg, and the German may find it harder to perfect his race set-ups quickly and without help in practice.

Sunday’s race will tell the initial story of who this will hurt. Given their car’s pace advantage, this should be another weekend of Mercedes dominance, with Rosberg looking to extend his 22-point lead over Hamilton in the standings with six races of the season to go.

The tight nature of the street circuit at Marina Bay should allow Red Bull Racing to be closer than usual to the pace, but Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel will do well to get within a half-second of the Mercedes cars in qualifying, unless the German team have more reliability issues.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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