They are the largely faceless members of the international motorsport community. The stewards – often called ‘blazers’, though that out-moded item of dress was long superseded by white shirts and blue slacks – hold a status and level of responsibility that exceeds that of even race directors, chief marshals or chief scrutineers, whether in Formula 1, WEC, WRC or lower categories.
In the same vein, armies of marshals, without whose thankless volunteer efforts no events could be organised, usually officiate trackside or huddle in forests in all weather. These can be likened to linesmen in other sports: reacting to instructions from chief/post marshals, and flagging breaches but doing so without executive authority.
There was a time when all you needed to be a steward was years of experience at race director (or similar) level plus an extensive list of contacts in whichever series. But back then F1’s regulations covered just a few sheets of paper, with most prescriptions being optional.
Today the International Sporting Code runs to 90 pages. The technical and sporting regulations add another 182. The new financial regulations due for introduction next year will add another 41 pages to the rule book. Clearly, a network of ‘blazers’ plus a year or three in the Formula Ford paddock would not suffice for 21st century stewarding.
The role of stewards has evolved over the years particularly after some high-profile incidents, such as the notorious call at the 1998 British Grand Prix which allowed Michael Schumacher to take a penalty in the pit lane after winning the race. These and other controversial and sometimes title-deciding incidents put stewards under scrutiny.
A significant change came in 2017 when Garry Connelly – whose motorsport CV stretches back 40 years in all categories and at various levels – convened the first International Stewards Seminar near the FIA’s offices in Geneva with input provided by the now-much-missed Charlie Whiting and the sport department. A seminar has convened annually since then, combining elements with a Race Director Seminar, which was held last week.
“The 2020 edition of the International Stewards Programme has been very intensive,” explained Connelly. This year we use more practical examples, a lot of case studies and less theory. It’s great to see a lot of new stewards here, new people participating at international level competition. It’s also great to see more women attending.
“It was very interesting to hear from the competitors from different disciplines on how they perceive the job that we do,” he added.
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Topics discussed during the opening day of the first seminar included the ‘job description’ of race directors, how-tos of conducting driver briefings and neutralising races, and the ever-thorny question of track limits. F1 Race Director Michael Masi, who replaced Whiting in the role a little under a year ago, opened and closed the event.
All delegates – race directors and stewards alike – received ‘tool kits’ containing applicable templates and reference works, with either prepared “lectures” or forum-type sessions imparting the information. The second day saw FIA race directors run through safety car procedures before decision-taking training brought the race director module to a close, after which they plugged into the opening of the steward seminar.
The FIA created an award in memory of Whiting to be presented annually to an up-and-coming race director after exhaustive online assessments plus evaluation of two submitted case studies. FIA president Jean Todt presented the inaugural award to Janette Tan, the senior race control manager for the Singapore Grand Prix. She will receive training and mentoring by FIA world championship race directors, with the programme supported by bespoke development plans.
“Motor sport stewarding is a tremendously complex challenge, and we must continue to target excellence in this area in order to ensure safe and fair competition,” said Todt.
“This is the reason the FIA decided to host the International Stewards Programme on an annual basis. I’m confident that through this interactive approach we will keep to set the benchmark of international stewarding.”
The ‘meat’ of the seminar commenced with an explanation of the roles of stewards, their authority and responsibilities. While delegates may be stewards in their own countries and/or have officiated at club or regional levels, the primary aim of the seminars is to raise the levels to full international standards of consistency.
Protest and appeals were explained by a joint circuit and rally panel – due to logistics and specifics of each genre, processes may vary although fundamentals remain the same – with FIA Safety Director Adam Baker thereafter updating delegates on the latest advances in safety and the global accident data base, which tracks serious injuries and fatalities. Real world examples of advances in safety were provided.
Other sessions included regulatory updates, alcohol and anti-doping testing, and the FIA judicial and disciplinary system . Intriguingly, the latter noted the ISC now makes provision for increased fines and race suspensions in the event of repeated abuse of officials, so Sebastian Vettel and Guenther Steiner need to rein in their tongues.
Over dinner I met a number of judges from courts in their own countries and high-ranking lawyers, and it was obvious how seriously they took stewarding. One remarked there could be considerably more at stake in a motorsport protest in terms of glory and commercial terms than in a run-of-the-mill civil court case.
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“Plus,” he added, “there is far greater global interest in world championship decisions than in the average court case, which seldom arouses passions to the same degree.”
Saturday’s opening address was by FIA Deputy President Graham Stoker, effectively the top office sporting office bearer after Todt. This was followed by an intriguing case study: “Seeing is Believing, or is it?”, delivered by Tim Mayer, son of McLaren co-founder Teddy and a respected steward in his own right.
Mayer’s focus was the alleged jump start by Valtteri Bottas during the 2017 Austrian Grand Prix. The Mercedes driver, who admitted his start had been “on the risky side”, was found to have reacted to the lights changing in just 0.201 seconds, but rival Vettel was deeply sceptical about his getaway.
Vettel seemingly had good reason to be suspicious, as television replays appeared to show Bottas’s right front wheel moving while the lights were red. Mayer, also a former motorsport TV producer, revealed a surprising reason for this. He ascertained the compression software used to transmit the television signals had created an optical illusion, concentrating on the larger car and not smaller lights, giving the impression that Bottas’s “perfect start” had been something else.
The stewards were taken through a course on hearing protests and writing decisions, with four real event case studies being presented from rallying, F1, Formula E and F2. Therein lies the true value of such seminars, for delegates were grouped by table, and worked through each protest, with the original stewards presenting the verdicts and penalties.
All were well-known incidents, and it was fascinating to observe how stewards reached their original verdicts and the processes followed. Within motorsport there is an element of scepticism about the partiality and consistency of stewards – no more obviously than the call which cost Vettel victory in the Canadian Grand Prix last year – and thus explanations are too often viewed as retrospective justification.
At the seminar, though, the facts were laid bare and background information provided that may not be readily available to fans, and once the processes were explained, the verdicts were utterly logical regardless of how they were seen at the time. It shows the need for thorough and painstaking communication of all decisions.
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Connolly expanded on the reasoning behind the stewards’ decision to clear Vettel in another incident, when he appeared to stray beyond the boundaries of the track with four wheels of his Ferrari during qualifying at Monza last year. At first sight it seemed a slam-dunk penalty.
But the race director note’s stated the cars’ “four wheels” must not cross the white track line, not their contact patches. Vettel’s lap was therefore deemed to be legal by no more than the width of his tyres’ sidewall bulges. Tenuous, but technically correct, and thus no penalty.
A forum convened by Masi and featuring Alan McNish (Le Mans winner, WEC champion and current Audi FE team boss), Jonathan Wheatley (Red Bull sporting director), Richard Millener (M-Sport rally sporting director) and Timmy Hansen (World Rallycross champion, whose 2019 title victory was decided by a protest) were quizzed on the fairness and consistency of penalties.
All could relate tales of woe and, of course, jested that verdicts of penalties that go in their favour are invariably correct while the opposite holds true where they lose. But all agreed that upon reflection they had no major complaints once the dust had settled.
Other case studies under the microscope included collisions in the DTM and protests over technical infringements. One taxing case concerned a rally car which was supplied by the manufacturer without a chassis plate: The crew were fined but permitted to compete provided the manufacturer supplied and welded in the official plate before the finish. It happened…
[smr2020test]Motor racing is little different to other sports in terms of the criticism it can face over how it is policed. Just look at the controversy football’s ‘video assistant referee’ has caused in a sport where the scope for rule-breaking is much more limited than the more varied and complicated world of motor sport.
Despite this complexity, anybody can work their way up the officiating ladder, regardless of domicile or demographic. Of course not every person will get to be chairman of the stewards or officiate at a grand prix, but a lot of fun can be had at club events.
Where verdicts hinge on legal technicalities or unintended loopholes, the stewards have an open door to the regulators to push for changes. Thus, grey areas are continuously eradicated.
The fact that senior legal eagles – Stoker is a London barrister – commit increasing amounts of time to the sport illustrates exactly how challenging it can be at the top level of stewarding. And while the decisions they arrive at are always going to be the focus of criticism when passions run high, do not doubt the level of serious discussion which goes into reaching them.
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