Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2019

How the FIA is working to ensure stewarding is fair and consistent

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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 The stewards – often called ‘blazers’, though that out-moded item of dress was long superseded by white shirts and blue slacks – hold a status and level of responsibility that exceeds that of even race directors, chief marshals or chief scrutineers,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.

While race directors ensure that prevailing rules, regulations, protocols and codes are adhered to, they have limited executive authority. Whereas the stewards are, if you like, best likened to referees in other sports. They call the shots (within the regulations), ensure that safety provisions are adhered to and decide the extent of penalties (usually within prescribed tariff tables) in the event of breaches.

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.

 FIA International Stewards programme 2020
The FIA held its annual stewards seminar last week
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.

Michael Masi, FIA International Stewards programme 2020
F1 race director Masi addressed the delegates
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.

Start, Red Bull Ring, 2017
Bottas’s start looked too good to be true in Austria
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.

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Monza, 2019
Track limits are a regular bone of contention
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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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 21 comments on “How the FIA is working to ensure stewarding is fair and consistent”

    1. Very interesting seminar, thank you for your coverage of it Dieter.

      It always felt a bit odd that an incident had to be referred by the race director to the stewards for them to look at, and – IIRC – that is now being changed to stewards can proactively pick up on an incident.

      The point about TV signal compression painting a confusing picture of Bottas’ start is an intriguing one. Seeing as the stewards are located at the circuit, is there the possibility of them being given access to as raw a feed as possible for cases like this with fine tolerances? Also, the explanation given seems to stretch credulity, but it’s not the first time compression has caused problems in the optical domain.

      While it is good to have members of the legal community bring their standards to the stewards room, it does feel like it would take a lawyer to come up with the reasoning that the tyre’s bulge didn’t exceed the track limit, so it wasn’t penalty worthy! (Yes, track limits are a personal bugbear of mine)

      1. I think it would be better if they re-wrote some of the rules so they made more sense, as in this case of track limits. insist that the whole of the tyres on one side of the car must be within the track limits.

        Or to put it another way, “Stay on the black stuff, always”.

    2. The stewards can be (and are) pro-active, but bear in mind that teams and chief marshals are in contact with the race director and don’t have lines into the stewards, hence most incidents are reported by the race director. The incident room has various screens, and the stewards can check there as well.

      1. Ah ok, thank you Dieter. So it’s more a consequence of the way information (i.e. complaints) flows, than a formal structure that prevents stewards from opening an investigation on their own.

    3. Its quite odd that FOM have to conduct seminars like this to show how “fair” stewarding is in F1. So I guess inventing new penalties out of rearside or letting endangering lives of drivers(unsafe releases and other incidents seen last year) meant nothing to them.

      1. May I suggest you read the article properly. At no stage did I say that FOM convened it, nor did I say they set how to prove how ‘fair’ stewarding is – in fact I said exactly the opposite, in that they simply demonstrated to stewards in lower categories via case studies how decisions are reached. The seminar actually showed how seriously they take their tasks – another point you seem to have overlooked…

        1. Chaitanya does raise one interesting point – unsafe releases.

          Was any unsafe release part of the case studies covered? And, in general, was there any discussion around the level of penalty being given for unsafe releases, whether it was too lenient or appropriate?

          I know that there are a number of us here who are alarmed by what amounts to a slap on the wrist for pitlane infractions that could have had much worse consequences. I understand that the stewards implement the law (and don’t write it) but this still seems a good forum for such input to be sought.

          1. No they weren’t, but the seminar was aimed at the principles of good stewarding, not specifics per se. The case studies highlighted the more challenging cases they faced, which unsafe releases do not fall under.

            1. Thank you, Dieter.

            2. Thanks for update, the unsafe releases we saw in Monaco(pushing another car into wall), and Hokenheim(under wet conditions drivers having to take avoiding action in pit lane) should have been part of this case study. They were quite extreme cases we have seen in recent years. Last year stewards did make a lot of decisions that were a joke at worst.

    4. No rules = chaos. There is nothing simpler and easier to understand. No matter what from of sport you look at, there are rules and regulations that govern the event so that all is fair and square. No doubt race “fans” are just that, race fans. I always maintain that a “fan” has the tendancy to overlook what may hurt his/her hero in question and would go to lengths to find “evidence” to prove his/her case in point as much as a “non-fan” of a particular hero would put the opposite on the table.
      Like marshals, stewards are not taken into account for anything until something happens that involve them. Only then is the good or bad highlighted and are they brought into discussions.

      Thanks once again Dieter for the info, may we hear lots from you during 2020

    5. I’ve always felt the biggest problem with maintaining the look of fairness & consistency is the problem that no 2 incidents are every the same even if they look somewhat similar & it’s often the tiny differences that result in different decisions that will get some complaining about inconsistency.

      This is why I honestly feel that they need to start releasing the details of how they came to the decisions they did. Put up a short video on social media with a stewards representative playing back all the angles of an incident the stewards viewed along with the telemetry data etc… & then explain in some detail why they felt it was/wasn’t a penalty.

      I’m thinking something along these lines but more in-depth with more angles/data.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mslGpxAV2wg

      1. @stefmeister – I’m not sure if you’re from a cricketing nation (the “meister” makes me think not), but in cricket they do something along those lines during the game.

        Of course, that sport benefits from the ability to stop play, but that difference aside, the replays are similar to what you’re referring to – they show all the angles available to the umpire, they have good simulations and visualizations to predict the path taken. In specific cases, we in the audience can also hear the umpire vocalizing what he sees as he reviews the evidence to arrive at a decision.

        When such evidence and decisions are put out front and center, it becomes much harder to raise accusations of inconsistency or bias, although it still happens among some fans.

        Caveat: I don’t follow cricket that much. Once in four years when the cricket world cup rolls around, a sudden swelling of national pride makes me watch just those games (and be surprised by innovations in the interim such as bails that light up!) So I totally expect the more dedicated fans to probably jump at me asking “Do you really think the X decision in the Y match was the right one even with all the fancy technology?”

        1. @phylyp

          I’m not sure if you’re from a cricketing nation

          I’m from the UK although don’t watch any cricket, I am familiar with some of the analysis tools they use though.

          My screen name is just a name a friend randomly started calling me when I was a kid. My actual name is Steven, When we were in French class somebody said that in French i’d be called Stefan so that got friends calling me Stef & then somebody added the Meister part for some reason & it just stuck so I started using it online, in games etc..

          1. @stefmeister – ah, ok, the Meister made me think you were German. So, all grown up, and yet you go by the rough equivalent of “Master Steven” :)

      2. Yeah, the Monza incidents were a step forward compared to Canada, i sure hope that the FIA keeps on this path to offering more opennenss because it helps a lot to undersand the how and why.

    6. Bit about the television compression is fascinating. Can’t always believe what you “see”

      1. @knewman – I know, that was something that caught my eye, and I would be fascinated to see more detail around it.

        I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this interesting case which is what I was reminded of, where Xerox photocopiers were found to be replacing/swapping numbers in documents with other numbers. e.g. scan a document that has a ‘54.60’ and it would come out as ‘54.80’.

        The printer firmware has a lookup table of symbols/patterns that it tries to reuse, and in the process, ends up reusing the wrong symbols in some cases.

    7. this is why RaceFans is the No1 go to for F1 fans. What a great and informative article.

      Great work @dieterrencken

    8. It’s exasperating. They are most happy there are lots of new stewards and that there is diversity when that speaks against the quality.

      It’s like it’s some hobby club and not that they are an integral part of an ultimate sport and massive investments.

      The FIA and ultimately Jean Todt are failing in a massive way for maintaining this charade and not improving the situation with fixed and highly competent stewards.

      1. Having diversity doesn’t speak against quality, to the same extent that an absence of diversity speaks for quality. What the diversity does seem to indicate is an increase in either the number of women following motorsport, or the number of women going beyond spectating the sport to being actively involved, or both. None of that sounds at all negative to me.

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