The voice of experience
In 2010, the FIA further improved the standard of Formula One stewarding with the introduction of driver Stewards, a radical move designed to add the weight of racing experience to the panels’ decisions. The move has widely been viewed as a resounding success.
“This has been in my view one of the most revolutionary and outstanding initiatives taken in the sport for years,” Garry Connelly, deputy President of the FIA Institute and a regular Chair of the Stewards, told the FIA’s AUTO magazine. “It brings a depth of experience and knowledge to the Stewards’ Room that is irreplaceable. The drivers take it seriously too. They are constructive and they are, in some cases, tougher than the toughest Stewards I’ve ever worked with.”
The ex-racers who have served as Stewards are aware of the pressures they’re under, trying to explain incidents from a drivers’ point of view while interpreting reams of incoming data, as Tom Kristensen, eight-time Le Mans winner and the first driver steward to be appointed by the FIA explained.
“I take it as a big responsibility, because I just don’t want to make a mistake,” said Kristensen. “I want to have all the facts in front of me in a very short time and make the right decision. And this is the pressure of being in that room. You need to gather all the information possible in as short a time as possible and make the right decision in a short space of time too.”
“It was quite a baptism of fire, because while I’d spoken to Tom [Kristensen] and Alex Wurz about how it works, when you get there you realise that there’s a huge responsibility not just on your shoulders but on all the Stewards’ shoulders,” two-time Le Mans winner and former F1 racer Allan McNish told AUTO.
“The decisions you make can effectively turn a race weekend or a season, if you’re working at an end-of-year race as Tom [Kristensen] did in Brazil. In that respect, you have to be very professional about it, you also have to be aware of the part you can potentially play in proceedings.”
Helping the Stewards make their decisions is a wealth of information – and sometimes that data will contradict initial assumptions of an incident.
“I feel that in some ways it’s my job to be there almost as the lawyer for the driver,” Kristensen added. “But nowadays there is so much information at hand — all the onboard, the real-time data, radio transmissions — that while you can quite easily justify an action, the question is: does that justification match the data? Sometimes the answer is no.”
But whether or not the justification matches the data, drivers have proved invaluable at helping the rest of the Stewards put incidents into context. There is simply no substitute for racing experience.
“They have a common sense approach to incidents that helps the process enormously,” Charlie Whiting said. “Guys like Tom Kristensen will be able to look at an incident and immediately say, ‘I understand why he did that’. That speed of analysis is invaluable to the other guys in the room. The input from people like Tom, Allan McNish, Mika Salo, Nigel Mansell… all of them, is fantastic. It also adds credibility to decisions in the eyes of the drivers.”
Allan McNish agreed. “I do think driver involvement has given a little bit of extra credibility to the process,” he said. “It’s a face and a name that the other drivers know. It’s someone who has lived their experience and it’s someone the drivers can speak to in a slightly different way.
“Unless you’ve experienced going through Eau Rouge at 175mph, experienced the G build-up on the steering wheel, the reaction of the car going up and over the top of Radillon, then it’s very hard to understand what happens when an incident occurs in that environment.”
But the push for consistency doesn’t end with the introduction of driver Stewards and the improved credibility. Formula One is a sport without a static benchmark, one in which the common goal is that of improvement. And as it is on track, so it is in race control.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Connelly concluded. “I don’t think the system will ever be perfect because we’re all human beings. But we are striving for improvement all the time. We’re getting very good feedback from some of the teams, very constructive feedback and that’s really helpful. We also now have an internal communication that goes from each set of race Stewards to all the Stewards in the championship after each race, and that goes into all the decisions and why they were taken. That’s very helpful and, again, a lot of good ideas come out of that.”