Formula One's Radio Ga Ga

By Ubaid Parkar, 8 November 2013
© AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

“Just leave me alone, I know what to do,” replied a seemingly irritated Kimi Raikkonen after Lotus fed him information over the team radio at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“You don't have to remind me every second,” the 2007 world champion retorted after being advised to look after his tyres later in the race.

It was a comical response from the mumbling Finn who in recent years has blurted out arguably the most amusing response over the team radio, a facet that has now become an integral part of racing in Formula 1.

Besides Ferrari’s Rob Smedley baby-ing Felipe Massa and Juan Pablo Montoya wise-cracking a deer pun providing ample entertainment, communication between the driver and the pit wall have chalked up wiser plans to win Grands Prix.

For instance, Raikkonen stood victorious at the Monaco GP in 2005 after he was radioed to stay out when the safety car had emerged on the track following an incident. The call, made by the team’s strategist from McLaren’s base in England by email to the dilemma-laden pit wall, worked in the Finn’s favour.

More often than not, its strategy that decides the outcome of the race. Before and during the Grand Prix weekend, complex operations and models determine what steps are to be taken should a certain scenario arise. It covers multiple parameters and evolves as the weekend or even the season progresses. And as the race unfolds, drivers are fed with myriad instructions while they pedal along.

But does it mean that drivers would behave like headless chickens and make the race more electrifying without being wired to the pit wall?

© Andrew Ferraro/Lotus

“I am not sure about that, honestly. I don't know how it is going to get more exciting,” says Lotus' trackside operations director Alan Permane. “Certainly for safety purposes we use a huge amount (of team radio) in qualifying to warn drivers when other drivers are coming behind them, to help get cars out of the way and things like that. There's lots of information being passed down to the drivers during the race... (but) I don't think that would improve the show, no.”

And despite all the algorithms that are logged into a team's database, it doesn’t necessarily account for everything. For instance, at the Australian GP in 2010 held in changing conditions, McLaren left the door open for Jenson Button to choose when he would prefer to switch to dry tyres. But his teammate Lewis Hamilton wasn’t given a similar liberty much later in the race.

"Whose call was it to bring me in?" he spat over the team radio questioning the decision after McLaren called him in for a second set of dry tyres. “Freaking terrible idea!”

While Button went on to win that race, his first for the team in only his second outing with the British squad, Hamilton finished sixth.

It wasn’t an isolated occasion when a live communication between the driver and his team grabbed headlines. This season, the ‘Multi-21’ team orders saga in Malaysia gave plenty to write about and more recently the colourfully-candid exchange between Raikkonen and Permane in India gave an insight between the relationship of the two parties.

Formula 1 ran largely without team radios in the first four decades and consequently led to a lot less spur-of-the-moment debates, which mostly erupted after the race principally behind closed doors.

The origins of team radio are hazy; some claim that it was the innovative Lotus team boss Colin Chapman who first experimented with it in the late 1970s but other sources point out to 1984, more precisely at Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team. Its use gradually spread across the field and by the ‘90s it became a standard system in the car.

© AP Photo

Niki Lauda, who can be safely presumed to have won two of his three titles without the assistance of sweet nothings in his ears, considered his era dull in that regard.

“Because now they can choose anything they talk,” Lauda reasoned. “It was not like this in the past... it was boring. That's the rule and I think it's better to be open to it than have nothing.”

Its absence could, however, potentially liven up races a bit. Although most drivers will stick to pre-determined strategies, some could step out of the line a bit to grab that putative additional advantage; the failure of which could lead to a chaotic outing for the guilty party.

“Potentially, it would be more confusing that's for sure,” Permane admits. “The drivers are giving us information about the tyres, it's not us giving them information. They are telling us information about how the tyres are on the car at the moment and that's helping us devise our pit stop strategy. There's potential for more confusion, whether that improves the show or not, I honestly don't know. It's a hypothetical question because we are never going to see it, honestly.

“It's very unlikely to ever happen because it's such a good device from a safety point of view. For example, if there's a car in the middle of the circuit and there are yellow flags, you can quickly warn the driver that there's something happening. Without the radio, the driver is going to turn up and not know what to expect. From a safety point alone, I think we should have them.”

Without it, the onus would have been more on the drivers – in theory. But that too is no reason for them to falter.

“All the drivers, when you are coming up through the junior formula, don't have a radio,” argues David Coulthard, a veteran of 246 Grand Prix starts who has retired from racing. “It's only when you get to the higher formulas that you have it. The Vettels, Alonsos and Hamiltons were winning without radios when they were in karting and the earlier formula.

“We had traction control and then you took traction control away. We all keep racing. So what do I think about it? It's the same for everyone, it doesn't change anything. It doesn't change the speed of the car.”

© AP Photo Diego Azubel, Pool

Formula 1 has become so advanced in determining strategies, taking into account several parameters like a safety car period, the threat of rain and even assessing rivals’ impending plans, that it leaves little room for the driver to go with his gut instinct.

"It's a team sport," explains Martin Brundle, a former F1 driver and now a television pundit for a British broadcaster. "You can't unlearn what you know. You've got a pit board anyway. The drivers are busy driving the cars. The strategy is run by a lot of clever people. I just think that banning team radios would take away something that is quite unique to F1. Maybe we go back to wooden wheels as well if you want.”

Sure enough, radio communication has become a very instrumental part of running a high-technology business that is Formula 1.

“If you look at the business model of what Grand Prix racing is now, I think banning radios would be like going back to the '50s and '60s,” says McLaren sporting director Sam Michael, whose team has been supplied with radio communications equipment by Kenwood since 1991. “And I am afraid that those years have gone. It's a high-technology business and radio communication with the driver and across the engineering groups is part of what we do.”

But won’t it leave a lot more onus on the driver to make decisions?

“Maybe... but it's 2013 not 1965. I love the '60s as well but it's for the past,” smiled Michael.

We’ll never know.


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