Did you know that the very first Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix, the 1950 British Grand Prix, was also called The European Grand Prix? Probably not, but once upon a time the European Grand Prix wasn’t actually a stand-alone event, but a title attributed to an existing race. It stopped in 1977 when James Hunt won at Silverstone, the last British Grand Prix that was also the European Grand Prix. Hopefully, you’re not too confused by that little history lesson!
The name carried on and this weekend the Azerbaijan capital Baku became the 6th different venue to host the European Grand Prix and the ‘Land of Fire’ welcomed Formula 1® for the first time. You could argue that Azerbaijan isn’t in Europe but I think that technically 60% of the country belongs to South-East Europe and 40% to North-West Asia. They could have called this race the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but after hosting the European Song Contest and European Games, you get the impression that being more European is a big thing in these parts.
And Formula 1® is clearly very important to this country to. It has to be, given the money that has been spent bringing it to Baku. Top class facilities and a high speed track which promised a brilliant spectacle given what we’d witnessed in the support races. Sadly it didn’t quite work out as expected for the Grand Prix itself, maybe the drivers had all been watching GP2 and realised that they needed to reign it in a bit. So the Safety Car sat idle for 51 laps whilst Nico Rosberg, faultless throughout, extended his Championship lead at a canter and his teammate suffered a spot of high speed “Computer Says No!” with his engine modes.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but once upon a time, last season in fact, the FIA decided that it was time for the drivers to stand on their own two feet a little more and not rely on the umbilical cord of support and guidance from the pit wall. So instead of a race full of instruction from the engineers, drivers could have contact with the team, but there wasn’t an awful lot the team could tell them.
The fans, the FIA insisted, wanted to see the skill of those racing, put to the test and in the process, bringing in a little more unpredictability to the sport. And it was a noble idea, which on paper, I don’t have a problem with. The starts for instance, down to the driver now, as they should be. Get it right and you’re the hero, get it wrong and you could be down to zero.
What the fans wanted was less coaching from the sidelines and more of the drivers working things out for themselves.
But the trouble is, Formula 1® is a team sport and the driver is always reliant on their team to provide a car that enables them to do the job they do. Just as the team is reliant on the driver to display their skills to the maximum and go out, and race, and hopefully bring home the trophy. The two factors are interlinked and it’s difficult to separate them.
Was it getting a little bit silly to hear over the team radio in practice sessions that a driver needed to carry less speed into an apex in order to get a better exit and save a tenth of a second? Well, according to some fans at the time, it was. The trouble is, that sort of conversation carries on in the garage or in team briefings all the time and getting rid of it over the team radio whilst a driver is on track, would never stop the driver coaching. The only way you do that is to take away the people on the pit wall and back at the factory analysing the data and providing the assistance.
And as far as practice sessions go, what was the problem with that anyway? They’re practice sessions, no different to a football teams training session, except that a football team wouldn’t train every week with TV companies broadcasting the action and fans sat in the Grandstands.
But when it came to qualifying and the race, that was a different story and I think it was right to reign back the coaching and let the drivers get on with it. However what looks like a good idea on paper, isn’t always practical in reality and this weekend we saw two clear examples of why not.
It wasn’t just Lewis Hamilton that struggled to solve a high speed computer glitch, Kimi Raikkonen was having his own issues. Nico Rosberg too, although he managed to solve the problem because he had made a setting change and knew what he’d done wrong. Hamilton was running a car that was losing speed on the straights because the engine mode was deploying less power by the end of the straights because it thought it hadn’t got the energy to keep going. It was an automated process that was disrupted because of the setting that the car was running. Not set up by the driver and thus, he wouldn’t be fully aware of how to fix it straight away.
In an ideal world, the team would say to the driver “We’ve got a problem, you’re in mode A and you need to switch it to mode B” but the new world of team radio restriction forbids that. So you have for 12 laps, Lewis Hamilton getting more and more frustrated, not being able to fix the issues and eventually conceding that 5th place is as far as he’s going to get and thus, in effect, he stops racing.
Kimi to would have been faced with the same problem, and to be honest it all looked and sounded a bit silly really. Incidentally the team couldn’t have put anything on the drivers pit board either, because that is governed by the same restrictions as team radio.
We, as fans of the sport, want to see racing right? So if something is quite clearly amiss and is disrupting the racing, why can’t the teams just tell the driver what’s gone wrong and let him fix it and carry on? The restrictions in this case, albeit brought in for sound reasons, aren’t adding anything to the show.
I asked Paul Di Resta during the race whether Lewis should have done his homework better to figure out the problem, as his team mate had managed to rectify his issues? To be honest, now the facts have come out, any amount of homework probably wouldn’t have solved the problem. Lewis’s race engineer was helpless and trying desperately not to say anything that could be construed as code or blatantly assisting the driver, Lewis himself was getting more and more flummoxed. All in all, it wasn’t making the race any better from the point of view of the overall Grand Prix spectacle.
So, let’s have a bit of common sense and revise the regulations, stop the coaching when it isn’t necessary. But allow the drivers to fix issues that are out of their control and get back on with the racing. F1’s equivalent of the magic sponge. A quick visit from the trainer and the footballer springs back to life again. A quick fix from the pit wall and the race is back on, as it should have been in Baku.