During his tenure as FIA Race Director, Michael Masi sometimes took a different approach than his predecessor, Charlie Whiting. Likewise, new F1 race directors Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas have interpreted the regulations in their own way, which drivers and teams have not always understood before.
There has been a lot of frustration among drivers this season and many agreed Masi did a good job before being sacked following the Abu Dhabi controversy. Wittich and Freitas take turns in the lead or assistant roles and work as a team, although the WEC requires Freitas not to be present at all races.
Inevitably, the consistency of their decisions was questioned, not only compared to previous years, but compared to both. That frustration was muted for a while, but at the Austrian GP Max Verstappen decided to make his views public: “I don’t necessarily think it has to do with a race director. I think it’s mostly about collaborating more with the drivers instead of being stubborn and stubborn.”
“We want to improve the situation for everyone, it’s not like we’re fighting for ourselves. We have good conversations between us, the drivers, and at the end of the day we agree on most issues. Of course, everyone has their own opinion on certain things.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
At the French GP and at the request of the GPDA, the drivers’ association, Freitas and Wittich revisited the recent incidents during the drivers’ briefing. Using videos and various camera settings, the participants were asked whether or not a penalty should have been imposed by the stewards.
Incidents under investigation included the contact between George Russell and Sergio Pérez and that between Alexander Albon and Sebastian Vettel at the Austrian GP. The first had been punished, the second had not, making them interesting cases.
Most agreed that Russell was at fault and many chose punishment for the Albon/Vettel incident, although some watered down their wine by pointing out that FIA officials were not having an easy job.
The seriousness of this encounter was softened somewhat as attention turned to the Fernando Alonso incident at the Canadian GP, in which the Alpine rider was penalized for more than one lane change ahead of Valtteri Bottas. An unfair penalty according to Alonso, who had the chance to defend himself by viewing the scene from multiple angles. Apparently, Alonso’s zigzags were so rude that the room started laughing. Only the Spaniard and his teammate Esteban Ocon were against the penalty…
As usual at the drivers’ briefing, the four marshals who are responsible for awarding the penalties were also present. None of these were for the Austrian GP, although umpire Gerd Ennser was on duty in Canada on the Alonso case.
Bernd Maylander, safety car driver, and race director Eduardo Freitas.
It’s not the first time past incidents have been explored in detail during a briefing, it often happened under Whiting and Masi, but it was a first this season. It is also worth noting that the FIA, in direct response to Abu Dhabi 2021, kept Wittich and Freitas away from journalists to avoid giving them the same image as Masi.
It also means that drivers and teams will no longer receive additional information from the FIA about incidents via the media in the days following each Grand Prix.
In the currently rather tense environment, the cooperation of the race control in France was very much appreciated by the drivers. “I think we all want to sit down, watch these incidents together, take the driver’s perspective, try to understand the stewards’ mindset, so we’re all on the same page.”explained George Russell, Mercedes driver and President of the GPDA.
“Ultimately, that’s what we all want. We all want that consistency, but we need to understand the thought process for these incidents and they also need to understand how we’re feeling. I think it was constructive and we probably need it to do more.”
Russell was involved in one of the selected case studies, so he took a personal interest in what was discussed. “They followed the rules to the letter”he said of his penalty at the Austrian GP. “It was my fault, but sometimes you have to look at each case.”
“If outside there’s a car on the right line that’s in clean air and spinning and the driver inside has nowhere to go even if he’s in front, they’re going to make contact. It’s like a tackle in soccer, you can’t say ‘You don’t have to tackle like that’. is different for everyone. And you have to give the race that meaning.”
Albon, who escaped punishment in Austria but nonetheless apologized to Vettel for pulling him off the track, also spoke at the meeting. “I didn’t say I was wrong”he nuanced. “I explained the reasons for what the stewards said because I don’t think anyone in the room understood why I didn’t get a penalty and why George got one. So I explained the reasons why the stewards said that.”
Albon also found the use of video useful when assessing an incident: “I think it shows first of all that it is not that easy [les commissaires]. We know it’s not an easy job for the FIA, but it’s more about understanding why, for example, George got a penalty and not me, and being able to learn how the marshals do their job with that we pilots also know how to fight [en piste]. That’s what it was all about.”
The discussion between the drivers and the FIA was constructive.
Alonso, who had never shied away from criticizing the stewards after a penalty, also appreciated the opportunity offered by the debate. “I think it’s supposed to make things better by showing us some incidents and [en nous expliquant] why they give penalties and why not. I think it’s to everyone’s advantage if they try to better understand their approach.”he said.
“We’ll have to see for the next few races because it can have a double effect. If we look at a video and it should be penalized, then we might think the exact same thing happened.” [en course] and why they didn’t award a penalty. So we could analyze a series of videos that might be interesting. At least there is an approach from the FIA that shows that they want to improve things, do everything possible and think outside the box, because we have never done that in the past. I’m pretty happy with it.”
The discussion at Paul Ricard also touched on other sensitive issues. Sebastian Vettel, who received a suspended fine of €25,000 for leaving the Austrian GP briefing early, spoke specifically about the “sausage” type curbs, which are particularly dangerous when climbed at high speed.
It wasn’t the first time the German had pointed out that several pilots in the junior categories had injured their backs after starting on similar curbs and he felt it was unnecessary to install them at Circuit Paul Ricard. But the FIA justified their presence by commemorating the round of the Porsche Supercup in support of F1.
Freitas nevertheless checked Vettel’s request overnight and the next day, the Portuguese confirmed in an update of his notes that the curbs in the affected corners had been removed. “At least they were removed”said Vettel after the Grand Prix. “It’s just an unnecessary risk. We’ve seen so many incidents involving these sausages in the past, so I don’t think they should ever come back.”
Vettel acknowledged that the var briefing was useful: “We just want to talk to each other, we want to open a dialogue and I think we can improve. It’s always helpful. It’s not that we make the rules, it’s just so we understand what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do. It’s always good to have a discussion.”
The drivers take the grid at the French GP.
It must be remembered that the penalties will be distributed by the four marshals and not by the race director. It would have been helpful for Russell to get Paul Ricard at least one of the commissioners who punished him in Austria to offer an inside view.
“We have the stewards of the current weekend”explained the Mercedes driver in France. “But I think we need a bit more consistency here, probably at least one of the stewards will have to go from the previous GP to the next GP to make explanations. We received explanations from the race director. It’s still a work in progress, that’s for sure.”
The fact that marshals change from one race to another is something that drivers regularly raise. When they’re subpoenaed for an alleged crime, they never know who they’re dealing with. It is fascinating to imagine that out of the 12 Grands Prix that have already been staged this season, a total of 27 men and women have held the office of commissaire.
Among them are four permanent chairmen (Ennser has competed in four races this year, Garry Connelly in four, Nish Shetty in three and Tim Mayer in one) and six different pilot stewards, with the posts alternating between Enrique Bernoldi, Danny Sullivan and Emanuele Pirro, Mika Salo, Derek Warwick and Tonio Liuzzi.
For consistency, the Permanent Chairs share and review information between Grands Prix on a massive scale, with their notes shared with others as well. However, it is inevitable that 27 people will not always have the same reaction to an incident.
In the past, there was a single, permanent president, but teams rejected that approach. In your opinion, a person could be biased. Still, it might be time to downsize the group of commissioners.
“I think we would all benefit from having the same marshals race after race”‘ said Russel. “And even spectators or people in the paddock realize that when an incident occurs, not everyone always has the same opinion. If it’s always one person’s perspective at all times, at least over time you learn the train of thought process into those decisions, and it’ll make everyone’s life a little bit easier.”
It should also be remembered that about ten years ago the FIA organized what is called a meeting “extremely productive” one day in Geneva away from the pressure of the race, where the marshals and some drivers and team members exchanged ideas. Maybe it’s time for another.
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