A Radio Geek’s Thoughts on Formula 1’s Radio Regulations

For those not familiar, over the last few seasons, Formula 1 has set regulations which have drastically limited the information that the engineers and crew on the pit wall can give their drivers during the race. Key among those restrictions are information on strategy and car system settings; according to Formula 1 these regulations are supposed to put more of the race in the hands of the drivers and make the racing better for the fans. As both a radio geek and a motor sports fan, I think I have a bit of different perspective on Formula 1’s radio regulations than some other fans do and a couple of pieces of radio traffic presented during yesterday’s race from Baku solidified my thoughts on the regulations.

The sport, teams, and drivers like to point out that modern Formula 1 (F1) race cars are more like jet fighters than race cars and in a sense they’re right. In addition to their incredible acceleration and handling and the G-forces they create, the systems in modern F1 race cars are incredibly complex. Almost every surface on a F1 race cars’ steering wheel except for where the hand grips are is covered by a dial, switch, or display. It has to be difficult for anyone to remember what all of these controls do, much less drive on the limit while first figuring out which setting you need to switch to and then making that change. The current radio regulations, however, prevent the teams from helping the driver out with decisions and suggestion on which system settings to select and use.

Twice during yesterday’s race drivers were having performance issues with the car that in one instance were eventually fixed by a driver making the correct system settings (Lewis Hamilton) and one in which a fix could have been possible by a driver making system setting changes (Kimi Raikkonen). In both instances, the drivers radioed their team for help and in both instances were told they weren’t allowed to help them.  After 10 plus laps, Hamilton eventually found a system setting that fixed his performance issues and as far as I know Raikkonen’s were never fixed. The problem with Hamilton’s issue is that took him out of a fight for a podium (top 3) finishing position and prevented the fans from seeing him fight with the third place driver for that position. Depriving the fans of seeing a battle for position is making the racing better?

As mentioned, F1 likes to compare the race cars to jet fighters; if this is the case, then the drivers could likewise be compared to fighter pilots. Well,  one of my interests in radio is military monitoring. I listen to jet fighters and fighter pilots on the radio. Based on my observations of both, I think that if that if F1 wants to make the jet fighter comparison then we should also make a comparison with fighter pilot radio communications. Just like F1 drivers, fighter pilots occasionally have issues with their aircraft and systems. When that happens, they usually use the radio to talk to their wingman about it; the wingman will pull out a book on the aircraft and they’ll discuss the problem and find a fix. If that doesn’t work and they’re close enough to their home base the next step is to radio their squadron Base or Ops and work with them to find a solution. When they do so, they’re not told “We can’t answer that” like F1 drivers are now told by their engineers and teams. Sometimes fighters are controlled by radar operators on the ground or in airborne warning and control aircraft during fights. If a F1 driver asks about strategy or race tactics, he isn’t given guidance like a fighter pilot receives from a controller, he’s told by the team that they can’t give him an answer.

Both the F1 driver and fighter pilot are controlling complex, high-speed machines equipped with radios in a high stress environment. Fighter pilots are allowed to make use of their radios to solve problems with their aircraft and to get information that improves their performance, and make tactical and strategic decisions. F1 drivers are denied the ability to use their radios for the same purpose. In my opinion, making adjustments that improve a car’s performance, changing race strategy/tactics based on other teams’ and drivers’ actions, and changing strategy/tactics based on changing conditions only make the racing better for the fans, not worse. It’s time for F1 to relax their radio rules and give their drivers back some of the same tools that fighter pilots have available.


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