Why new race control directive leaves F1 drivers facing tough calls

Formula 1 drivers could have to make some difficult calls in Jeddah on Sunday and apply a self-imposed penalty if they use a run-off area to make a pass.

Why new race control directive leaves F1 drivers facing tough calls

Before last weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix, new FIA race director Niels Wittich laid out the ground rules for how he and his colleague Eduardo Freitas are going to operate this season.

Wittich made it clear that the track is defined by white lines, while also stressing that, when drivers run side-by-side round a corner, the car on the outside has to be left space.

The FIA's new philosophy will also see reduced radio traffic henceforth between race control and sporting directors on the pitwalls.

One specific case that Wittich cited is that the race director will no longer tell teams that a driver has to give a place pack if he's deemed to have left the track and gained an advantage while making a pass, something that happened regularly in the past.

In theory, any such statement was always advisory, as the final decision with applying a penalty always lay with the stewards.

However, if former race director Michael Masi or his predecessor Charlie Whiting sent such a message it meant that you could expect that a penalty will be coming, and thus teams invariably obliged and told an often reluctant driver to hand the place back.

Sometimes any discussion on the matter dragged on for several laps, by which time the driver concerned might have passed other cars, making handing a place back to the car he'd passed illegitimately that much harder.

If the place wasn't returned, it would lead to a five-second penalty, and a penalty point on the driver's licence, for the offence of "leaving the track and gaining an advantage".

The new directive is quite simple. From now on the race director won't tell teams to pass a message onto the driver, or enter into any debate on the matter – it's up to the driver to know that he's in the wrong, and to hand the place back.

He also has to do it within a lap of the offence, and if he doesn't, the stewards will investigate and a penalty is likely to result.

In many cases, drivers will indeed know that they have made a pass that will be deemed unfair. Inevitably there will be marginal cases, and a discussion within the team will follow.

However, given that any call on letting the other car back or not has to be made within a lap, there won't be much time.

Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-22, George Russell, Mercedes W13, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT03

Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-22, George Russell, Mercedes W13, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT03

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Should an internal decision be made not to hand the place back, the only thing a team manager/sporting director can do is tell race control, via the FIA team member who is filtering their messages for the race director, why that decision was made.

In effect they would be stating their case for the defence. Whether or not their views would then be passed onto the stewards while they are considering any penalty is another matter.

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A time advantage can also be gained by cutting a corner without actually passing anyone, and drivers will also now have to judge such situations themselves.

Drivers and teams are now in a difficult situation.

While many cases will be clear cut, some won't be, and if a driver is fighting for points, a podium, a win or even a world championship, voluntarily giving a place back when he is not sure if the stewards would have given a penalty could be a painful decision.

"I think is the right approach because it's more real racing," said Carlos Sainz Jr.

"There is no five-second penalty and it can happen more immediately, but it needs to happen immediately, if not you cannot lose three or four laps then have to give back to a position.

"That's why there was the rulebook, it needs to be super clear and needs to be applied in a moment that there's an infraction, you need to lose a position and then see."

Others believe that in marginal situations, for example when both drivers run off the road and the one who was behind ends up in front, there could still potentially be a directive from race control about one or the other driving being forced off track.

"I think we've had this discussion with Niels already at the first race," said Charles Leclerc. "And I think in some cases, it's very clear what the drivers will do. But there are also quite a bit of situations where it's not clear.

"If you look for example at my start last year in Mexico - I think it was a good example of things just being very messy, and you're gaining position, but you don't really know what you need to do.

"So in those cases I hope we still will have the support of the race director, because this is important, in the tricky situations especially.

"Then I agree that sometimes it's just a very easy situation to read and to understand, and in those cases a driver will be clever enough to give back the position on his own."

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75

Photo by: Erik Junius

Kevin Magnussen is also hopeful that the race director will continue to intervene.

"I still think they will tell the drivers to give it back," said the Haas driver."I think they are expecting more from the drivers in terms of giving back a position if you've gained an advantage.

"But there's going to be cases where it's like one guy will feel he got pushed off, the other one will feel he got the track. And so there'll be some discussions there."

It remains to be seen whether that proves to be wishful thinking and since the place has to be given back within a lap, for a team to wait to be told – or send a message to race control with a specific 'do we give it back?' request – could be a bit of a gamble.

Jeddah's Turns 1 and 2 complex was the scene of a lot of action in last year's race, including the famous incident where Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton off track just prior to a red flag. As Esteban Ocon had also passed the Mercedes driver, for the restart Verstappen was placed third, behind both Ocon and Hamilton.

Masi was very much involved in a discussion with Red Bull as a new grid had to be set, and in similar instances in the future race control will obviously again have to make a clear call on who starts where.

However, the teams concerned can no longer expect to engage in a debate about the rights and wrongs of the matter.

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