The 2016 Australian Grand Prix saw the first race in which the FIA mandated restrictions around team to driver radio communications were implemented. The restrictions, whilst dramatically watered down on the eve of the race itself, left drivers with far less support behind the wheel and almost entirely unaware of the performance of rivals and team mates. This leads to such situations as that in which Ferrari were unable to inform Vettel of the reason for his teammate’s retirement.
Whilst purists may argue this simplified approach to racing places the onus of responsibility back towards the driver, is it actually damaging the racing we see on the track and the narrative commentators provide to an event?
One particular story emerging in the aftermath of the Australian Grand Prix was that race winner Nico Rosberg was actually nursing a critical front brake issue which in ordinary situations the team may have considered retiring the car over.
Mercedes AMG Petronas explain the issue here:
Owing to the restrictions in radio communication the team were unable to communicate with Nico on the problem and unable to assist in remedying the situation. Whilst it is hugely commendable that Nico was able to manage the issue and go on to win the race, the true excellence of this performance went largely unnoticed. With the team not communicating with Nico over the issue, the broadcasting world feed had no opportunity to learn of the issue and discuss the challenge. Had commentators been aware of the issue there can be no doubt Nico’s achievement would have received far more praise. As the narrators of sport, commentators build drivers into legends not knowing what a driver is having to deal with, leaves the commentators and as a consequence fans somewhat blind.
In addition to the team not being able to inform Nico Rosberg of the issue and assist in finding a solution, they were of course also unable to inform his teammate Lewis Hamilton. The lack of radio communication, also means this element is absent from the World Feed and so Ferrari and other teams were also unaware the race leader had a problem. It would be unfair to suggest their knowing may have changed the overall race result since Nico was able to lap at the same pace as his teammate despite the issues, but had Lewis and Sebastian been aware of the issue they may have taken a different approach to the closing stages of the race. There are vast differences in the mentality of a driver knowing the car in front is managing a performance issue compared to believing it is capable of the same performance as your own car. By removing this level of communication drivers had little incentive to risk their existing position.
It was reassuring to see that the FIA are in constant dialogue with teams over this and other issues, as demonstrated with the softening of the regulations before the race itself. With the regulations having now been tested in a race situation perhaps it is time to revisit the rules once again.