Analysis: Schumacher to be Seen but Not Heard

The opening race of the Formula One season marks the point where the talking stops and the racing starts.

Analysis: Schumacher to be Seen but Not Heard

The opening race of the Formula One season marks the point where the talking stops and the racing starts.

Never more so than this year.

When the start lights go out for the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 9, Ferrari's World Champion Michael Schumacher and his rivals will be on their own.

Formula One's governing body has effectively decreed, in a package of measures introduced by International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Max Mosley this week to cut costs and bring back real racing, that drivers should be seen and not heard during races.

The clampdown includes a ban on team-to-car radio as well as the two-way telemetry systems that enable engineers to tweak a car's settings while it is racing.

That means that five-times champion Schumacher, used to talking tactics with technical director Ross Brawn and team boss Jean Todt during a race as well as getting occasional World Cup soccer updates last year, will hear nothing.

He is not very happy about it.

"If there is an oil problem in a certain corner or an accident or a rain situation mixed on the track, then on the radio you can discuss that," said the German. "If you don't have a radio, you cannot."

Far Reaching

Ordinary fans, unable to listen in to the dialogue on regular terrestrial television or to see the legions of data engineers at work behind the scenes, will not notice any difference of course.

"We have 300 million people who want our sport on TV and who really don't care about electronics or how many cylinders the engines have," says Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone.

But the impact of the changes will be far-reaching and should not be underestimated. Last season could have been very different.

David Coulthard, the only driver so far to have beaten Ferrari's F2002, might not have won the Monaco Grand Prix had his McLaren engineers not fixed his engine by two-way telemetry after it began to smoke.

Brazilian Rubens Barrichello might even have won the Austrian Grand Prix rather than hearing a firm voice from the Ferrari pit wall crackle over his radio to order him to slow down for Schumacher.

"Virtual Ross" could not have existed.

That was the name the recuperating Brawn gave himself when he talked to Schumacher and Barrichello in their cars at the final race in Japan last year via a radio link-up with his home in Europe.

Despite Ferrari being sponsored by telecoms giant Vodafone, Brawn and Todt may have a problem in communicating clearly from now on.

Todt voiced his opposition to the radio ban on Thursday, saying it was not a cost, therefore getting rid of it would not save any money, adding that there were important safety factors to be considered.

But Mosley explained that the radio had to go primarily to ensure the ban on telemetry stood up.

"We realised that the systems could be used to send telemetry commands. We have avoided any suspicion," he said.

Other important and equally controversial changes could take Formula One a little closer to the golden days when cloth-capped mechanics worked openly on cars in the paddock, watched by bystanders.

To ensure that no teams build special cars for the new one-lap qualifying format, the FIA has decreed that vehicles must be immobilised in the supervised 'Parc Ferme' area between final qualifying and the race.

Teams will be unable to work on them except under strict supervision.

That means, in theory, that if a driver were to blow an engine or skid off and damage his car on a slowing down lap after qualifying, his team of mechanics will have to do the work out in the open --rain or shine.

Given the fiery nature of some of those involved in the business, perhaps it is just as well that the radios will not be working.

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