Analysis: Will F1’s refereeing reforms succeed, and do they go far enough?

2022 F1 season

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The FIA originally seemed to view the controversy over the conclusion to last year’s world championship in Abu Dhabi as being largely a matter of perception.

“The circumstances surrounding the use of the Safety Car following the incident of driver Nicholas Latifi, and the related communications between the FIA race direction team and the Formula 1 teams, have notably generated significant misunderstanding and reactions from Formula 1 teams, drivers and fans, an argument that is currently tarnishing the image of the championship and the due celebration of the first drivers’ world championship title won by Max Verstappen and the eighth consecutive constructors’ world championship title won by Mercedes,” noted a statement from the World Motor Sport Council on the Wednesday after the race.

Then-FIA president Jean Todt agreed to a “detailed analysis and clarification exercise for the future” in order to “draw any lessons from this situation and [for] clarity to be provided to the participants, media, and fans about the current regulations to preserve the competitive nature of our sport while ensuring the safety of the drivers and officials.”

The new FIA president announced the changes
Over two months later, with Todt’s successor Mohammed Ben Sulayem now in place, the outcome of the “exercise” was presented. But far from clarifying any of the details of the Abu Dhabi debacle, it instead outlined a series of drastic changes, including the replacement of FIA F1 race director Michael Masi.

“The structural changes are crucial in a context of strong development and the legitimate expectations of drivers, teams, manufacturers, organisers, and of course, the fans,” said Ben Sulayem.

Many of the changes, including Masi’s exit, were indicated in an interview given by Ben Sulayem’s deputy Peter Bayer last month, and therefore did not come as an immediate surprise. But it remains to be seen how effective each of them will be, and whether the sport’s governing body has gone far enough with its reaction to a fiasco which spoiled the conclusion to terrific season of racing.

Virtual Race Control Room

Teams have their own remote support facilities
“To assist the race director in the decision-making process, a Virtual Race Control Room will be created,” Ben Sulayem explained.

“Like the video assistance referee (VAR) in football, it will be positioned in one of the FIA offices as a back-up outside the circuit. In real-time connection with the FIA F1 race director, it will help to apply the sporting regulations using the most modern technological tools.”

Ben Sulayem’s reference to VAR immediately caught the eye as it is not universally liked by football fans, to put it mildly. But its F1 equivalent sounds like a very different beast indeed – a separate dedicated operations centre to share the burden of running track sessions.

As a step towards easing the pressure on the race director, this seems like a sensible move in a series which is governed by increasingly labyrinthine regulations.

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No broadcasting of race communications

Rival team bosses lobbied Masi in Abu Dhabi
A key aspect of the Abu Dhabi controversy involved the manner in which Red Bull and Mercedes lobbied Masi during the race to make calls which suited their interests. This appeared to prove pivotal when Masi made the unprecedented decision to only allow a portion of the lapped cars to regain the lead lap.

That followed a message from Red Bull’s sporting director Jonathan Wheatley in which he remarked to Masi: “You only need to let them go and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.” When Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff objected to the decision after the race, Masi used a tellingly similar phrase: “Toto, it’s called a motor race.”

F1 only began broadcasting communications between the race director and team personnel early in 2021. In the immediate aftermath of Abu Dhabi, many were quick to call for the communications to be outlawed.

Ben Sulayem confirmed the broadcasting of the messages will no longer take place but the discussions will be permitted in a limited form.

“Direct radio communications during the race, currently broadcast live by all TVs, will be removed in order to protect the race director from any pressure and allow him to take decisions peacefully,” he said. “It will still be possible to ask questions to the race director, according to a well-defined and non-intrusive process.”

While it’s one thing for teams to put their side of an incident they are involved in to the race director, it’s quite another for them to instruct him on how to handle a Safety Car or VSC period (something both title-contending teams were guilty of in Abu Dhabi). Restricting what they are allowed to discuss is therefore sensible.

However removing those conversations from public broadcast seems like a retrograde step: How will we be able to judge if teams have overstepped the mark in their discussions if we can no longer hear them?

Change to un-lapping procedures

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2021
Rules on un-lapping cars were not correctly followed
The question of whether lapped drivers should be allowed to regain the lead lap at the end of Safety Cars is one F1 has gone back and forth on over the years. The procedure was originally introduced in 2007, then dropped in 2009, then reintroduced in 2012 since when it has remained.

Can F1 justify clinging to the rule after the damage caused by its incorrect application? For now Ben Sulayem has said only that “un-lapping procedures behind the Safety Car will be reassessed by the F1 Sporting Advisory Committee and presented to the next F1 Commission prior to the start of the season.”

Some alternatives have previously been considered and rejected, such as sending lapped cars to the back of the field instead of waving them past the Safety Car.

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Masi out, Wittich and Freitas in and Blash back

Masi’s time as F1 race director is over
The FIA’s decision to replace Masi with not one but two choices of director for the upcoming season, and add a permanent senior advisor into the mix, is a profound change to the structure of this demanding job.

It sends a clear signal one outcome of the inquiry was that Masi had too much on his plate. That’s not hard to imagine: Over the final six weeks of last season he oversaw five races on three continents, while crossing oceans in between to oversee work on two new additions to the calendar and one drastically altered layout.

Masi’s reassignment to an as-yet unspecified role will have shocked few as it was indicated by Bayer previously. Mercedes were obviously furious at his handling of Abu Dhabi, but there had been earlier indications of discontent as well: Following the previous race Red Bull team principal Christian Horner remarked F1 “missed Charlie Whiting”, Masi’s predecessor.

In his place come two veteran race directors from the World Endurance Championship and the DTM, Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich respectively. Dividing the role between two people will inevitably prompt questions over whether they will make consistent decisions between them.

This is where a familiar name from F1’s past fits in. Herbie Blash, who worked alongside Whiting as deputy race director for more than two decades, will lend his massive experience in the new role of permanent senior advisor to the FIA race directors. He will bring instant credibility to the new structure, but at 73 years old, he is unlikely to want to remain in the post for the long-term.

What’s missing?

Andreas Seidl, McLaren, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, 2021
Mistakes will happen, Seidl pointed out
The FIA’s response to the Abu Dhabi fiasco is detailed and far-reaching. But did it need to go further?

The changes are aimed at preventing a repeat of the errors of Abu Dhabi in the future. But last week McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl argued the FIA needed to put a system in place which allows for errors to be corrected.

“We need to accept mistakes can happen, on the team’s side but also on the FIA’s side,” he said. “So these things can happen again, for example.

“For me it’s very important as well that we also discuss a racing mechanism where you have, let’s say that we’re in a position that if mistakes happen, where should you raise your hand and admit them and have a mechanism in place in order to correct those mistakes also, or correct the consequences that such mistakes or controversies could have. That is as important as trying to avoid similar controversies in the first place.”

This is where the FIA’s response to Abu Dhabi appears to fall short. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said the reason they did not appeal against the outcome of the race was not because they didn’t think they would win, but because they expected that even if they did win, there was no mechanism by which the outcome of the race could be changed, and Lewis Hamilton’s lost championship regained.

The FIA has taken many steps to help race control avoid errors in future. But it does not appear to have addressed the tricky question of what it will do if, or when, similar mistakes are made again.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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19 comments on “Analysis: Will F1’s refereeing reforms succeed, and do they go far enough?”

  1. Some alternatives have previously been considered and rejected, such as sending lapped cars to the back of the field instead of waving them past the Safety Car.

    You see, this option is just as worrying, to me, as allowing them to overtake. It effectively penalises everyone who is not on the lead lap, and that would often been a heavy penalty, where anyone on the lead lap (except the leader) gets a bonus.

    Let’s take a hypothetical situation (which is not far off some we’ve seen in the past). Let’s say a lead driver is involved in an incident, takes some damage and ends up a lap down, maybe lapped by 3 cars. He stays making progress quickly, ending up right behind the leader within a couple of laps, albeit a lap down. Safety car comes out: BAM! Suddenly, instead of having only one car to pass before getting back on the lead lap, he has everyone on the lead lap. He was still in the race after his incident, but now has even more work to do than he did before.

    Now, this is probably the most extreme way such a change could affect a driver, but it does illustrate the massive potential effect such a change could have on a driver’s race. You can take someone who was just behind the leader, one lap down, but suddenly allow every car to lap them. That’s a massive penalty, given at a time where most are being given a significant bonus. It strikes me as the least fair options available (though in a situation which is always going to be highly unfair to some).

    1. @drmouse I understood the suggestion as sending them backward behind the safety car rather than releasing in front but still resetting the lap count and making them on lead lap. This still sets question about them having effectively less distance to cover and impact on fuel/tyre but it speeds up the process of unlapping cars.

      Safety cars will never be completely fair by construction, same for VSC even if it is closer.

      However, they should consider changing the red flag restart with having interval start based on lap prior to red flag. People making change to the car during the red flag period get a default time added to determine new position (ie. +21sec, might be dependent on race track). Teams can still make change for safety reason but no unfair advantage gained during red flags.
      From sporting perspective, I really don’t like the standing restart after red flag as it gives unrealistic opportunities and is too big disruption to racing conditions.

    2. @drmouse I suppose the retort to that scenario would be, “don’t get lapped.” Although you might end up with a scenario similar to what happens in Indycar, where drivers try disproportionately hard not to be lapped by the leader (albeit in F1 you would have the constraints of blue flags).

      I think the outcome of a review will probably just be a limit on when unlapping can take place, e.g. no unlapping within the last 10 laps of a race. I know some people would prefer the rule to disappear entirely but I don’t think that is likely.

    3. by this logic, why have blue flags? let them race?

      the problems with the unlap were more evident in recent years because of the huge difference in perf of the best cars vs the worse.

      there’s no easy fix and whatever rules are in place are gonna favor either the best of cars or the worse of them.

      the proper fix is to not have a best team able to gain 2 laps on the worse over the course of a race. and they’re hoping this happens this year with the gap estimated to drop from 2-3 seconds/lap to 1.

    4. There have been occasions where the lapped cars have gained an advantage by the un-lapping procedure. In cold conditions the lapped cars have an unrestricted chance to warm their tyres. Then, under the next full lap re-start rule, they are just behind cars that are still on cold tyres. Thereby having a good chance of passing some of the cars that didn’t get lapped.

  2. I think one of the more practical approaches would be to determine ‘dangerous’ and ‘safe’ sections of track while under safety car. Once the majority of an incident has been cleared up, allow back markers to overtake the safety car while in the ‘safe’ area but require them to do VSC speeds (or slower) while in ‘dangerous’ sections. The idea would be to allow the re-arranging of back markers while the incident is in the latter stages of being cleared away.
    I’ll grant this idea has issues (marshals would have multiple packs of cars to be aware of) but it’s a potential idea.

  3. If the lapped cars are dropped to the back of the field BUT considered to be un-lapped (one lap credit). This would speed up the re-start of the race. The only benefit the lapped cars would have is saving one lap of fuel.

    1. …and tyres plus if they have a problem and may well DNF if required to do full distance.

  4. My personal opinions:
    The Virtual Race Control, if utilised correctly, could be a great addition. The comparison to VAR in football does, as the article says, seem a little far fetched, but if managed to correctly, this could very much be a good improvement.

    Banning the broadcast of communications is a no brainer, as is changing the process in how the teams make inquiries to the FIA. I think broadcasting them went the same way as the driver briefing videos they put on YouTube a few years back (thanks to GT Racer for mentioning this), in that the broadcast changed the way the people involved used those opportunities, and it sometimes became more of an appeal to “the audience” than to the Race Director as originally intended.

    Unlapping procedures: to be honest, I don’t mind if this stays or goes, as long as it’s applied consistently.

    In terms of RDs, Freitas should be excellent. His track record from WEC, in my opinion, is very strong. Don’t know enough about Wittich or Blash to comment.

    And I agree with Seidl. Mistakes can, and will, be made, and there needs to be a way of rectifying them when they are.

  5. Additionally, on the radio comm portion:
    My understanding is TPs can’t contact RD anymore (something Brawn implied earlier in the off-season), i.e., only sporting directors/team managers.

    I hope the Freitas-Wittich duo would eventually (if not immediately) go for a more lenient TL enforcement level like pre-2020. Even more that they’d be less eager towards red for things manageable under SC neutralization, also pre-2020.

  6. I don’t know if these things go far enough because the FIA hasn’t released their report! To me, the main issue in Abu Dhabi seems to have been contradictory rules and how cars are meant to unlap behind the safety car. The FIA hasn’t revisited the rulebook to remove such contradictions or decided how unlapping should work behind the safety car.

  7. WDC is too overrated F1 is a CC. Now it is championship of rules. Driver actions to be scrutinized by a VAR. All that for just one man. BLM.

  8. I’m in two minds about the “dropping to the back” solution, the second chance of being offered the lead lap back during a safety car leasds to some great naratives… Winning after being a lap down is great feeling in motorsport, Ok, it comes up a lot more in Indy Car than F1 due to the prevelance of Full Cuurse Yellows and Safety Cars, but I feel the opportunity would be a loss. Unless sending them to the back but crediting them with a lap is the intent, but that’s fraught with trouble for fuel usage arguments.

    I also feel with the whole Abhu Dahbi contraversy that a lot of the F1 bigwigs and F1 pundits need to stop this “improve the show” nonsense, it feels like a lot of Massi’s floored decision making was fed by this mantra , we don’t need to “improve the show” we need stable and consistent regulations and the best drivers regardless of how much money daddy has and the show will be good on it’s own. I hope Brundle, Croft, Domenicali and all the other “improve the show” muppets at least apreciate their role in this and tone it down.

  9. If they are going to continue the ‘race must finish under green flag’ philosophy, then there needs to be some very tight rules for the procedure and to ensure that no driver gets an unfair advantage.

    I personally have no problems with the race ending ending under safety car conditions.

    1. Likewise. Ending under yellow reflects the results of all the prior laps.

      If you want to end under green, red flag any crash requiring safety car within 5 laps of end of race, then have a restart. Every car, or no cars, would be allowed new tires. Rolling start would be my preference.

  10. Wittich and Freitas?
    Speaking about 2 names that aren’t free of controversy.
    What happened at the DTM finale under the lead of Wittich was probably far more controversial than Abu Dhabi.
    And Freitas has the WEC Bahrain race as his last year controversy.

    The controversy won’t go away, that’s for sure.

  11. There are parts of the rules which need to be edited simply for clarity not to change the rule as intended.

    – Then apply the rules and only the rules consistently.
    – Make RD and stewards explain their actions after a race.
    – Remove the Omertà tendency of the FIA where they behave as if they can do nothing wrong.

    Job Done

  12. I have always wondered why is it not possible to restore the gaps as it were at the time of safety car deployment. It’s easy enough to record the gaps at that time. After the safety car goes back in, they could line up the cars on the grid in running order and flash the green light to each car after their respective gaps from the car in front. Drivers could attempt to roll up to the line if they think they can time the lights correctly (penalty if they cross the line too soon).
    I’m sure there is something wrong with this idea; but I’m struggling to see what it is.

    1. Fair point, as with all the tech I fail to understand why, under SC, the race leader who has built-up a gap, not only has the closest competitor suddenly up his exhaust pipe, does not have to negotiate lapped cars, as opposed to the leader who had to, in doing so.

      Also reiterate – totally against any form of unlapping – so-o-o unfair.

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