- GP Week
The view from race control
One of the busiest men over a race weekend is the man with the longest job-title in the pit lane - the FIA's Race Director, Safety Delegate, Permanent Starter and Head of the F1 Technical Department, Charlie Whiting.
Charlie, who used to be Chief Mechanic at Brabham when Bernie Ecclestone ran the team, has worked for the FIA since 1988. Simply put, he is responsible for the flawless execution of a race weekend, which can mean anything from making the calls on last minute track changes, handling the drivers pre-race to heading up the team of people who follow the events from race control.
So what is race control? Visually, it is a room full of TV screens showing the FOM world feed as well as CCTV. The safety car and medical car are dispatched from race control, and marshals around the circuit receive instructions from RC about appropriate flag signals.
In the next room the stewards are ready to evaluate all situations, looking to the rule book to apply appropriate penalties. This year the FIA decided to turn the page and use former drivers to complete the stewards' panel. Alain Prost, Derek Warwick, Nigel Mansell, Alex Wurz, Damon Hill, Danny Sullivan and Johnny Herbert are among the former racing drivers who have taken seats next to the regular FIA stewards and there is little doubt that this has allowed the FIA to better evaluate significant incidents.
From the time a message appears on your TV screen until a decision is made about it, race control and the stewards' room is typified by non-stop action. Beside Charlie, there is also an observer, the race control operator, and the medical delegate, who liaises with the chief medical officer; he always comes from the local country in question. In total about 15-20 people work in race control. The messages that are coming to our TV screens are posted by FOM who take the initial messages written by the race control operator.
Communication between race control and all the on-track personnel is vital. The 'middle-man' is the clerk of the course. He is responsible for communication with all the marshalling posts and organises appropriate responses to an incident in close cooperation with and approval from the FIA race director. Bear in mind that many races take place in non-English speaking countries, and the importance of the clerk's role comes into focus.
Beside the official filming by FOM TV, the circuit is also covered in detail, as mentioned earlier, by a CCTV system. Race control also monitors a GPS system (which shows the exact positions of the cars on the circuit), the marshalling system (with the new light panels that are also duplicating messages to the drivers, along with the classic flags from the marshals), the radio transmission systems and also over 20 different TV pictures from around the track. This is the race control 'toolbox'.
Who looks into incidents and who judges if something is important enough to be looked at in the first place?
Both the race director and the stewards have the right to look at any incident. The stewards' position has been boosted this year by the presence of the ex-drivers, so if an incident occurs the race director sends for an investigation or the stewards will do this on their own volition. The penalty applied, if any, comes only from the stewards but the start of the procedure is instantaneous and the communication is via radio. The race director, stewards and clerk of the course are linked via radio transmission.
Many times, though, the whole procedure is under fire - most notably this year in the European GP when Hamilton passed the safety car and the penalty applied came late on the race.
What happened then? There was no TV evidence showing clearly enough that Hamilton had passed the SC and so race control asked for aerial shots from the helicopter which was filming the race (and acting as a satellite projector) for FOM. The case 'opened' when the evidence arrived and thus the penalty was given and applied.
Same thing in the Belgian GP, when Felipe Massa wasn't correctly positioned at the start. Race control as well as the grid marshals missed that and so Felipe, on this occasion, was not subsequently penalised.
In the next room, then, sit the stewards. They are selected at the start of each year and the FIA defines the logistics.
And so we have an incident! The race director or the stewards trigger an investigation. The race director sends out a notice to be evaluated with or without mentioning the violation or the penalty that should apply. The stewards look into an incident themselves. In the same room with the stewards there is also a technician, responsible for operating the technical equipment available to the stewards.
What can they see during the investigation? Very simple: everything. From cars' telemetry down to intra-team communications, and from a simple FOM replay down to all shots of the incident from all available cameras (onboard, track cameras and all FOM cameras). Everything they want, they "order". The investigation of an incident and a potential penalty could cost someone a championship, or a race win, so justice must be absolute.
In front of them are TV screens showing the FOM (or host) plus other camera feeds, live timing and a GPS view of the racing. The incidents are checked, one after another. All stewards are looking at the same incident and the majority of the decisions are unanimous. They look at the incidents as they are coming in, in chronological order. Some of them require deeper investigation, such the Lewis Hamilton's SC infringement in Valencia; and thus Nico Rosberg seemed to be penalised too late in Singapore in 2008.
Imagine now this whole procedure working during all the free practices, qualifying sessions and the race. Imagine the tension during race time, when teams ask for clarifications, race control oversees the race and the clerk of the course organises all the track personnel; imagine, finally, the stewards in the midst of all this, with the power to have the last word on all occasions.
Things go well…and these behind-the-scenes professionals are quickly forgotten. Things get complicated…and they are square in the eye of the hurricane. Applying justice, as fairly and unequivocally as the system allows.