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GP Week : Issue 210
22 GPWEEK.com // 22 GPWEEK.com // PARTNERS: All the palaver about this clampdown on radio transmission is becoming a bit embarrassing, isn't it? First, the FIA gets all self-righteous after Monza two weeks ago and issues long lists of precisely what the teams may or may not tell their drivers over their radio links. Cut and dried, eh? But no! Next moment, the Federation's long-standing Race Director Charlie Whiting is facing a phalanx of puzzled pressmen in Singapore and blushingly having to admit that he'd acted a bit hastily because he'd discovered that some of the teams have smaller screens installed in their cars and that the drivers with bigger screens would have an advantage under the new arrangements (apparently switching to the bigger screens entails a virtual redesign of the car). Okay, so Charlie and the FIA backed down. But you'd have thought that the vastly experienced Mr Whiting, of all people, would have genned up on basic stuff like the screens dilemma before laying down such a draconian law without any notice at all. Especially when his old boss Bernie Ecclestone blunders into town and reveals that the whole clampdown thingie had been dreamed up by none other than himself. Bernie then blithely declared that "the drivers are all happy it's gone," a claim which rapidly proved to be wide of the mark (translation: totally untrue). This in turn raised a question about the wisdom, or even the ethical logic, of the FIA jumping obediently to attention when the Commercial Rights Holder arbitrarily strong-arms his former minion into enforcing a change in the rules which falls under the heading of Sport rather than Money, and is therefore entirely outside his legal competence. I can understand Bernie's concerns, of course. It certainly doesn't look good over the international TV feed when even the best drivers in the world appear to need coaching about brake settings, or ask to know whatever gear their team mates are using through Turn 5. It diminishes the awe in which we (well, most of us) hold these extravagantly-paid supermen. On the other hand, our sport has saddled itself since the beginning of this year with an engine (sorry, Power Unit) formula that is made up of the internal-combustion V6 (ICE) coupled to four other units which harvest and manage the heat and kinetic energy dissipated by the ICE and the car's brakes. Not only are these complex units required to operate in a harsh environment, but they are controlled by computers over which the driver has no control. For an enlightening example of how helpless the driver is, let's look at the rear brakes, which provide a substantial share of the above- mentioned recycled kinetic energy using a cutting-edge converter mechanism. Because the delivery of the energy to the battery which stores it is required to be smooth, the system is designed to oscillate as it chooses when to do the converting. No human being could possibly control all the resulting juddering, especially not when braking for a hairpin bend from 300km/h to 50km/h in an F1 car. This task is threfore delegated to a computer. This doesn't always work out as neatly as it should. You may remember that in the Canadian GP back in June, both Mercedes drivers ran into difficulties when their rear brake energy harvesting systems overheated. Lewis Hamilton had to retire after leading, when the gizmo burned out, while Nico Rosberg limped home in second place after receiving advice from the pit wall on how best to avoid a similar fate. I am pretty sure that Nico would not have made it home in Montreal without that advice. Out alone on the circuit, all he knew was that using the brakes felt like pushing his foot into a bagful of coat hangers. Meanwhile, on the pit wall, half a dozen engineers could see on their screens exactly what had failed. As things stand right now, I think (though I'm not sure, because Charlie keeps changing his mind) that advising him how best to get the car home would no longer be permitted. If the FIA's target of ensuring good racing in F1 is to be achieved, it seems counter-productive to me to introduce a rule which would prevent a car from finishing a race by, in effect, prohibiting its army of specialised engineers from telling the driver how to mitigate whatever may have gone wrong. What I'm suggesting here is that the more sophisticated the technology introduced to F1, the less the engineers can rely on the driver to sense what's going on and to use his skills to compensate for any momentary shortcomings in the clockwork. It's all very well demanding that the driver should 'remain in control' at all times, but things have moved on a bit since a racing car consisted of a chassis, a gearbox and an engine, all firmly under the command of its driver and the computer located between his ears. The clue is on the pit wall, on which you will see a dozen chaps and chapesses per team, all possessed of PhDs and rather better remunerated than the three or four honest but grubby spanner-wielding geniuses who tended to the likes of Juan Fangio's Maserati 250F back in 1957. Race-winning F1 drivers are a rare breed indeed, and we hold them in the deep reverence that they surely deserve. But even the best of them have human shortcomings. I'm reminded of my good friend Brian Hart (RIP), an engine wizard who had also been a top-class single-seater driver. I was present in his workshop one afternoon as he disassembled an F2 Cosworth engine that had failed under the bold Frenchman Henri Pescarolo. When the sump cover was unbolted, a million bits of shattered pistons, valves and con-rods crashed to the floor. "Henri said he felt it misfiring, so hegaveitabitofarevtoclear it," muttered Brian despondently. "Bloody drivers. They always know better than the engineers, don't they?" Not these days they don't. RIGHT When is a steering wheel not just a steering wheel? In F1 of course. ... radio clampdown goes out of tune OPINION OPINION MIKE DOODSON