“It’s very rare that in our conversations anything I say is taken any notice of,” Lewis Hamilton said in Australia last weekend. “There’s no point in me being there. At the top end there is way too many people making decisions who don’t understand what it is like in the car. And all the people who make decisions have different opinions. The decisions that have been made haven’t made the racing any better.”
F1’s decision-making structure has been in the dock for a good while, but in our season-opener meeting in Melbourne just passed the evidence for the prosecution got rather stronger. With the excruciating new qualifying system that we all had to sit through, that which we all now know about. When it was framed at short notice it sounded to some reasonable in theory (including to one author who should know better), but in practice it reckoned without F1 as it is.
And at the end of proceedings the world champion noted that even with there being too many cooks trying to concoct an appetising sport out of F1, one cook is conspicuous by their absence. “I feel it is only a benefit to the hierarchy who are making the decisions to at least ask a driver ‘what is your issue in the car? Does making it one paddle off the line [for the switch to a one-clutch start introduced in Australia] make it harder?’ because it is no harder for me” he said.
“They’ve never asked us about the struggles of trying to follow another car, but they can rely on us for those things.”
Team bosses after the egregious quali session were quick to criticise and audibly, but while what they said was justified it also was a mite disingenuous. “It is hard to decide which was the more unedifying spectacle” said an observing James Allen, “no cars on track for several minutes at the end of the session, where normally the session builds to a thrilling climax; or the key stakeholders who voted for it, reversing out and taking no responsibility for what is clearly a disastrous idea.”
I feel it is only a benefit to the hierarchy who are making the decisions to at least ask a driver ‘what is your issue in the car? – Lewis Hamilton
But there was one group that one way or another got it bang on in advance. That group being those who sit in the cockpits.
“I don’t see the point why everyone is surprised” said Sebastian Vettel in the press conference that followed the ‘action’ indeed. “We [the drivers] all said what is going to happen. It happened…We were told to wait and see. Now we saw and I don’t think it was very exciting.”
Quite – the F1 drivers unlike their bosses can claim credibly that they told us so. This much was clear when the system was being mooted in pre-season, such as in the second Barcelona test when Sergio Perez emerged from a meeting with FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting that drivers were summoned to in order to have the plans for qualifying outlined to them, Checo stated that “we’re obviously not very happy with the new rules that they want to implement. Let’s see if they can change it”. And while his compatriot Esteban Gutierrez believed that the fact the meeting happened at all was a “very good step” for driver power, as far as we can tell the drivers’ views were nevertheless simply ignored.
Indeed judging by Lewis’s words back in Barcelona, this also was not entirely unforeseen. “I think there have been some meetings to which we’ve [the drivers] been invited over the last couple of years. I think they are being more and more open to ideas, but the ones that have been implemented now are nothing to do with us.”
We [the drivers] all said what is going to happen. It happened…We were told to wait and see. Now we saw and I don’t think it was very exciting – Sebastian Vettel
There’s a lot to be said for bringing the drivers’ view into the sport’s governance. Whatever you think of the drivers, their view on two of the sport’s biggest recent bones of contention have been spot on. Here too is Hamilton late last year on the drawn-out and then wrong-headed attempts to come up with revised chassis regulations for 2017, when at the time the teams’ solution apparently was to dump more downforce on the cars. “For me it’s the worst idea” he said, “it just shows for me that they don’t really know what they’re trying to solve. From the drivers’ point of view we want more grip from our tyres, we want less wake coming from the car in front so therefore we can get closer…we need more mechanical grip”.
As for why the drivers can offer an almost Cassandra-like perspective, well Lewis when asked in pre-season testing had a few theories.
“We do have a feeling in the car, some ideas of what could be better. We do know what is not good.
“For those who have been driving 10 to 15 years and have been through all the different rule changes, they know which ones worked and which ones didn’t. So I would say it [the lack of consultation] is a bad thing.”
He could have included too that it seems drivers are not nearly so prone to vested interest as their employer teams are, and instead seem motivated by a general desire to improve the quality of the racing, possibly on the grounds that it would be more fun for them too. In other words, they have the same motivation as the fans watching on.
We witnessed that in the post podium drivers’ press conference after the Brazil race last year. As the top three finishers you’d think they’d be happy to keep things as they were thanks very much. The teams they drive for almost certainly are. But no, after a tepid race Hamilton and Vettel in particular tore strips off the current sport, and lamented that it is the paying punter that is missing out the most.
Unlike their employers they haven’t invested vast sums in aero departments either, which if you were to be cynical might encourage teams to not agree to reduce the dread downforce, despite its dire consequences for the racing.
Perhaps though it’s all so simple that the sport’s dysfunction is such that almost anyone could see better solutions than those that F1’s power brokers come up with
Perhaps in the peculiar case of the revised qualifying session it reflected that drivers spend a lot of time in conversation with engineers and strategists, and they knew that the most beneficial approach to the new system was going to be one not thrilling for onlookers.
Perhaps though it’s all so simple that the sport’s dysfunction is such that almost anyone could see better solutions than those that F1’s power brokers come up with.
There appears on the face of it movement in the direction of greater driver say too, with the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association (GPDA) being increasingly vocal and active over the past year or so, and topping it latterly by making a highly critical statement of F1’s governance in the days after the Melbourne race, which ventured into new territories for the group such as the sport’s “business directions”.
Yet when asked in Australia why drivers aren’t listened to, Lewis was at a loss. And to understand we need to delve a little into the sport’s past.
Time was that F1 drivers as a collective had considerable clout. The 1969 Belgian Grand Prix didn’t happen at all as the drivers via the GPDA wouldn’t let it, unhappy as they were with the safety arrangements at the original Spa. Same went for the 1970 German Grand Prix being moved to Hockenheim from the Nurburgring, and before that in 1963 at Monza when the drivers refused to use the banking section after several suspension failures in the opening practice session that part of the track was ditched pretty much immediately.
But in the course of a late April weekend in 1975 it all changed. Again, drivers had right on their side as all turned up to the Spanish Grand Prix at the undulating Montjuic street track to find the crash barriers in woeful condition. They could point too at several recent deaths of drivers in action – such as Peter Revson, François Cevert and Helmuth Koinigg – in which poorly fitted barriers were a direct contributor. But in effect the drivers’ bosses, spooked by the threat of legal action from the organisers and with the CSI (as the sporting arm of the FIA was then known) absurdly declaring the circuit OK, barged in on where the drivers were assembled and ordered them into their cars. And almost all of them did as told. That was the day that the constructors and the organisers won, and driver power was never the same again. Suddenly there was a blueprint for heading off their ultimate threat of withdrawing their labour, which has since been used again and again.
Time was that F1 drivers as a collective had considerable clout….But in the course of a late April weekend in 1975 it all changed
Even in the half decade between the German race in 1970 and then in 1975 there had of course been a big change – a certain Bernie Ecclestone organising the constructors and forming a formidable bloc of power that vastly exceeded that of the drivers, with commercial wedge added. “The Constructors had loaded themselves up with appearance contracts they couldn’t break,” said Peter Windsor at the time, “and they had sufficient power to make the GPDA feel obliged to race. That wouldn’t have happened at Nurburgring back in 1970. But, it says here, Formula 1 then was merely a pale imitation of today’s extravaganza…”
Before the drivers had power because in large part they were the only ones that wielded it – the CSI was weak; the teams pre-Bernie fragmented and ramshackle. Yet events in Montjuic showed that with pressure applied the drivers were too easily divided, too minded of number one, and too easily convinced to bend to the will of their employers. And that’s roughly how it’s been ever since – 1976 in Japan, 1984 in Dallas, 1989 in Australia, it was almost like a short film being played on a loop. In advance the air was thick with boycott talk; in the end almost everyone raced. Similar happened in Monza in 2001 when some drivers were concerned about the safety of a couple of chicanes. The idea to have no overtaking there on the opening lap evaporated almost instantly with contact with the outside world. Or rather with contact with their bosses.
The direction that F1 matters of dispute moved into counted against the drivers too. In the GPDA’s zenith of the 1960s and early 1970s most F1 debate that there was concerned safety only. The sporting regulations hardly changed while technical regulations tended to apply to the engine and indeed F1 didn’t even introduce car dimension limits until 1976. These days, as outlined, the sport wrestles over many things besides safety, both technical and sporting. And when the sport’s issues at stake moved into the technical area drivers had the problem that, with rare exceptions, they were not experts on the matter. This was something the GPDA discovered quickly. When later in 1975 it offered its own contribution to an FIA-led debate on how to make F1 cars safer it was met with scarcely concealed contempt. One designer encapsulated the view. “There’s probably only one member of the GPDA who had any form of engineering or technical know-how at all”, he said. “The drivers really don’t know what they’re talking about”.
Driver power had a last hurrah of sorts in South Africa in 1982, when they camped out at a nearby hotel for some of the weekend protesting over terms of their licences. But that was that. By the end of that year the GPDA had fizzled out altogether indeed, and only was re-established after Roland Ratzenberger’s death in Imola 1994.
While the GPDA in its modern form has been an authoritative voice on safety matters, it’s never been clear what its actual clout is
The GPDA in its modern form has been an authoritative voice on safety matters, and as mentioned in the past season or so has been more obviously active such as with its fans’ survey last year. Yet it’s never been clear what its actual clout is. We had a recent demonstration before the German race of 2013, which followed the notorious Silverstone round with its repeated Pirelli tyre failures. The GPDA expressed in a statement “deepest concerns” and that “if similar problems manifest themselves at the German GP, we”, i.e. the drivers, “shall immediately withdraw”.
Sure enough almost exactly the same thing happened as in Montjuic almost four decades earlier. Within hours of the GPDA statement Bernie was threatening recourse, and Sebastian Vettel was pouring cold water on the boycott idea. Then by race morning the GPDA confirmed that only race control could affect a race stop. There also was the unanswered question of what the three drivers not in the GPDA would do (just as in Montjuic when Jacky Ickx, not in the GPDA, undermined those seeking to make a stand by getting behind the wheel as if nothing untoward was happening). And if it did come to it, during a race especially, it was hard to imagine any of the drivers being the one to take the initiative in downing tools. As Alain Prost discovered in the Australian race mentioned the risk is that no one will follow your lead.
For all that Lewis in Australia last weekend was nonplussed at the drivers not being brought into discussions, he rather without realising it went some way to answering his own question as to why they are largely left in the cold. “The problem is for us drivers, half of us will say one thing and half will say another” he noted. “Most likely if I do go Sebastian is the only one who is going to be doing the talking so there is no point in me being there, I can just read about it later.
“He [Whiting] has called some meetings, but I didn’t go as at the time I was really just focussed on doing my work with my engineers.”
As we have noted, drivers are too easily divided; too minded of number one.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but there needs to be less people making the decisions, and hopefully making the right ones” Lewis concluded, perhaps touching on another problem. The main issue with F1’s governance is too many people involved. Adding more to the mix therefore doesn’t strike as the best route out.
And for all the excitement around about the GPDA’s recent statement really it still doesn’t contain any further hint at clout. It seeks to persuade with words only, underlining that the organisation only has only the power of pulpit. Will Buxton noted “as with all politics, words can only do so much. One wonders how far drivers will actually be willing to go if their request goes unheeded.”
As we’ve seen, about the only thing in their armoury is refusing as a collective to drive, which has got a far from encouraging previous. In other words, while the drivers’ view is a good thing to bring in, it’s hard to see how it can happen.