Tuesday, 1 November 2016

#F1 – Radio blah-blah

Last weekend's Mexican Grand Prix will be remembered more for what happened on the radio, and on the podium, than what happened on the track.

For those who didn't see it, in the closing laps of the race Sebastian Vettel in fourth place was closing down Max Verstappen in third, and in trying to keep the Ferrari driver behind him Verstappen pushed too hard and ran wide, cutting the corner.  Verstappen had clearly 'gained an advantage' by running outside the limits of the racetrack, and even his own team boss came on the radio advising him to give the place up to Vettel – but Verstappen did not yield the position, and no official instruction came from Race Control telling him to let Vettel through.

Verstappen crossed the line in third, but was retrospectively penalised, before he had a chance to stand on the podium.  Sebastian Vettel was belatedly award third place – but, by this point, Vettel himself was the subject of heavy criticism, for his angry outbursts over team radio after Verstappen had refused to give up third place to him on track, and particularly his use of foul language.

Personally, I have no problem with a driver swearing on the radio.  In the heat of battle, when you're giving everything to beat the next guy and bring home points for your team, your emotions pour out of you; when you are frustrated, you show it.  We've all done it.  I'm not a global superstar in a multi-million pound arena, but I compete in local sports leagues – and I do get exasperated when things aren't going my way, and in the heat of the moment I sometimes let those feelings out…

What I can honestly say I've never done, though, is to aim that at anyone in particular – be that a competitor, a teammate, or a match official.  Vettel was out-of-line in what he said; he went beyond simply venting his frustration, and he directed his tirade at both a rival driver and race director Charlie Whiting.  That's not on – and he, too, was rightly punished.

But for me, these events have thrust the issue of broadcasting team radio communications back into the spotlight once again.  It's a fascinating part of watching racing, and it lets us see another side of drivers who, in interviews, are always so composed and 'rehearsed'.  But it can also be a double-edged sword, in that respect…

I have remarked before on the difference between Lewis Hamilton's language in interviews and his demeanour over team radio.  Out of the car, Hamilton is always careful to say all the right things – always thanking his engineers, paying tribute to 'the team', and so on.  But in middle of racing, with a hundred other things going on around him at two hundred miles-per-hour, he isn't thinking of maintaining his carefully polished media image, and we sometimes hear him snap at his engineers on the pit wall, getting cross that they're either not giving him enough information, or that they are distracting him by talking when he's trying to race.

And it isn't just Hamilton.  I often feel that the way drivers speak to their engineers over the radio differs markedly from the pro forma lip service they pay the team in interviews and press conferences, when they know the eyes of the world are upon them.

One of the reasons I've not taken to the relatively recent development of having a 'celebrity' interviewing the drivers on the podium after the podium ceremony is how staged and 'fake' it all feels.  They don't talk about racing; they rattle off some prepared jokes, and repeat the same platitudes about 'atmosphere' and 'fans' that we've all heard a thousand times before.

But I, and many others, want to see real people and real racing.  And real people get angry.  Team radio has given us some memorable racing moments, and not just this last weekend – who remembers "Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!" for example? – but I do worry that maybe it results in putting drivers under a microscope a little too much.

In these situations, it is almost as if we are broadcasting the driver's internal monologue to the whole world.  Other sports don't do this – sportsmen might get angry, but their thoughts and words are not broadcast live, 'in the moment', like that.

I don't want to 'sterilise' drivers, in pursuit of the perfect image, or because teams are worried about offending people.  I don't want every last drop of passion and emotion wrung out of them, in case they say the wrong thing.  Bland automatons in shiny race suits are the last thing this sport needs.  I don't think that's what anyone wants – but too much scrutiny of radio communications could mean we end up there, all the same.

The stewards were right to punish Sebastian Vettel for his outburst.  He crossed the line, and that behaviour cannot be acceptable in F1.  But I very much hope this won't lead to yet another area of racing feeling too 'scripted'.  Let's keep racing – and drivers – real.

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