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Formula 1 Qatar GP

Why F1 drivers were annoyed by FIA communications over Pirelli Qatar saga

The Formula 1 Qatar Grand Prix weekend was turned on its head on Saturday by a communication from the FIA that revealed that there was an issue with Pirelli’s tyres.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, the rest of the field at the start

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The governing body also explained that remedial steps had already been taken, and that in effect what could have been a crisis was already under control.

There were in fact two messages. One was a letter written by FIA single-seater director Nikolas Tombazis, and addressed to both the sporting and technical directors of the 10 teams. The fact that both groups were copied in, rather than one or the other, was a reflection of the scope of the issue.

At almost the same time the FIA sent out a press release to the media, explaining the situation and cutting and pasting some, but not all, of the Tombazis letter.

Naturally, journalists started reporting what was happening, and that meant that drivers and team members learned about the situation before their sporting or technical directors had a chance to absorb the Tombazis letter and pass on its contents.

In some ways it was a logical strategy from the FIA. Rather than create uncertainty or panic, it took advantage of the night race timing of the Qatar weekend and the fact that the key players were off duty and absent from the paddock due to the curfew to quietly get on and address the issue overnight and into Saturday morning.

Communicating the outcome to everyone at the same time was a commendable attempt at clarity and transparency.

It was a process that probably wouldn’t have happened so efficiently a few years ago, before the FIA’s F1 team was strengthened by the addition of experienced and hands-on members such as Tombazis and sporting director Steve Nielsen.

Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Nikolas Tombazis, FIA Single Seater Director

Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Nikolas Tombazis, FIA Single Seater Director

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Had the FIA waited until the morning and canvassed views up and down the paddock, with teams inevitably looking after their own interests, the discussions could have dragged on towards the scheduled 4pm start of the shootout. Instead they made decisions, took action, and attacked the problem.

It all happened so quickly that even the FIA stewards, who have ultimate responsibility for the weekend schedule, learned quite late of the plan to squeeze in an extra practice session.

The downside of the fast work by the FIA was that the aforementioned key players – the drivers and their teams – usually like to be kept abreast of ongoing developments, and if possible play an active role in the outcome, especially when safety matters are involved.

In this case the remedial action involved changes to the schedule, to track limits, and to the way teams approached their strategy for Saturday and Sunday, especially in terms of tyre usage. A lot of the sim work they’d been doing back home, especially with an eye to the Grand Prix itself, had now been overtaken by events.

There was a lot to take in, and especially for the drivers, who learned about the situation either directly from the media, or via WhatsApp from peers who had seen the stories. Not being in the loop on a safety issue was a little disorientating.

“We have to learn things from the press which is clearly not what or how things should be done,” said Carlos Sainz.

“As GPDA we were not happy with the situation, and we hope that the collaboration starts getting better because reading things from the press when safety is involved then our input should be considered, that is not good enough.”

Alexander Wurz

Alexander Wurz

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

That’s why shortly after the news first broke, GPDA chairman Alex Wurz called a meeting, which was not attended by the full field as some were still making their way to the track.

"I think we just wanted to understand the situation a little better,” said Kevin Magnussen, who along with Haas team-mate Nico Hulkenberg was the first to show up for the gathering.

“We weren't told until this morning, not even this morning, this afternoon actually. And that's a bit frustrating. We need to drive the cars, we want to know what's going on.

“I think we really do need to communicate better, we need to work together as a group. The drivers are an integral part of the sport. We drive the cars, we take the risks, so we want to be involved."

GPDA director George Russell was also disappointed that the drivers weren’t part of any discussions.

“I found out from a text on WhatsApp from another driver, I can't remember who it was now, in our in our group chat, which is obviously not ideal,” he said.

“I think Nicholas Tombazis and Steve Nielsen are aware and recognise the communication line between the FIA and the drivers isn't strong enough. And it needs to have a better co-operation, because a lot of these things directly impact us.

“And we can also give our first-hand view from the cockpit, which can help aid some of these decisions. They truly recognise that, and I think this was a good example for them that we need to make some improvements in that communication process.”

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Valtteri Bottas agreed that lessons had been learned: "They’ve admitted that it's their bad, they didn't communicate."

After clinching his third title in the sprint, Max Verstappen had an interesting take on how quickly the FIA had reacted in repainting the white lines and moving the margins for track limits, contrasting it with previous discussions with the drivers that didn’t result in such immediate action.

“Of course, they already changed two corners, in the high-speed corners, which I find quite interesting, like how quickly these things can be changed,” he said.

“When we speak about it, that we want to have track limits changed here and there with a white line or whatever, it's all very hard.

“So I think that's also something for the future that we need to speak about, because I think we need to be heard a bit more. And in general, I think tomorrow it's important, of course, that safety is foremost, and that we don't get any punctures or even worse accidents.”

Like his colleagues, Lewis Hamilton was surprised by how the situation was handled, but he also saw the bigger picture of tyres and what he perceives as some fundamental issues with the 2023 cars that the whole episode appeared to highlight.

“We need some improvements on organisations skills, for sure, and those procedures,” said the seven-time world champion.

Pirelli tyres

Pirelli tyres

Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images

“We ultimately need a better product, the tyre. I don’t feel like it is solely the manufacturer’s problem or fault, I mean, we have such limited testing, and we don’t test at a track that has hardcore high-speed corners like this.

“I even suggested in a meeting that the three days we get at the beginning of the year we should do it here, because this is the most hardcore on the tyres all year.

“Then, whoever is making the decision in the FIA, [these are the] heaviest cars ever, more downforce than ever, high fuel, and then you have these tyre issues, which is to be expected.

“If you think back in the day they were just as fast with half of the downforce but way more grip on the tyres when we had Bridgestone or Michelins. They have definitely got to look at that, as I think next year is going heavier again.”

The fact that there were tyre issues in Qatar in 2021, addressed in a report that Pirelli sent to the FIA a few weeks later, also concerned the drivers.

Why had a similar situation happened again, albeit with a different size tyre, and revised kerbs?

“Obviously I don’t appreciate and I don’t like that we were here in 2021 and in the meantime there has been two years to react to these bad kerbs,” said Sainz.

“There has been a resurface, a redoing of the kerbs and for some reason the FIA persisted with this design of kerb that is killing Pirelli tyres. I am not blaming Pirelli, but at the same time clearly there is something going on there.

We won’t know until after Sunday evening’s race what the ultimate impact of the changes was, but at least we’ll have a proper race.

Don’t forget the 2005 US GP, when no one could steer us away from impending doom, and only six cars competed after the Michelin runners pulled out. The current example might not be so extreme in terms of the potential risks, but it shows that the FIA can move a lot faster than it used to.

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