“It wasn’t clear what rules were in or out”
The essential flakiness of F1’s governance system was laid bare last week in an embarrassing flurry of regulatory hokey-cokey, after which one could not be quite sure which rules were in, out, or simply shaken all about.
It’s fashionable in F1 media circles to say that the sport is over-regulated and that the rulebooks must be simplified. But if last week’s storm-in-a-teacup proves anything, it’s that simply tearing out, ignoring or “interpreting differently” rules you don’t like only leads to more argument and confusion.
When the Strategy Group met in Geneva last Thursday, the issues of cockpit protection, radio communication and the policing of track limits were jostling for top billing on the agenda. But what is the Strategy Group anyway? Just an unwieldy committee with 18 votes split three ways between representatives of the ‘top six’ teams (Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, Mclaren, Williams and Force India), the FIA and the commercial rights holder.
While this sounds democratic, in practice it results in horse-trading behind the scenes, with all the rancour that entails, and even when the group comes to a decision it isn’t binding. The recommendations are simply passed up the line to the F1 Commission and the FIA World Motor Sports Council.
So when news leaked out that the Strategy Group had agreed that cockpit protection should be put on hold until 2018, and that the interpretation of rules concerning track limits and radio communications should be relaxed, this was just another chapter in an ongoing story. The FIA then issued a curiously grudging press release confirming that cockpit protection would indeed be brought in for 2018, and that its much-maligned ‘halo’ system remains “the preferred option” – but “the consensus among the Strategy Group was that another year of development could result in an even more complete solution”. It is known that most teams and drivers – and F1 ‘ringmaster’, Bernie Ecclestone – loathe the halo’s ugliness but the FIA are determined to see it (or something like it) through. This is a fault line that will grind away over the next few months.
The FIA release also confirmed that it would relax its stance on radio communications between teams and drivers, having in effect faced a pincer movement from the teams and Ecclestone, both of whom hated it for different reasons. Again, you can sense the back-and-forth that went on behind the scenes during the Strategy Group meeting.
Of the supposed agreement to drop the strict policing of track limits there was no sign. On this issue – apparently tabled on the Strategy Group agenda by Ecclestone, who believes the general public doesn’t give a fig about whether drivers go over the white lines or not – the FIA simply would not budge. At a briefing between Friday’s practice sessions, the FIA race director Charlie Whiting said there had been 93 instances of cars going beyond the white line at Turn 1 in the first session alone.
He also pointed out that it was the Strategy Group, back in 2014, which had pushed for the ban on drivers being “coached” over the radio…
So we must await firm and binding rules on these matters as the FIA goes through due process. And as a rule of thumb, we should probably pay less heed to the wishy-washy Strategy Group pronouncements.