During the 2014 F1 season the FIA began toying with a radio ban that would limit the information that teams could communicate to drivers during a race. This was to more accurately incorporate the sentiment that drivers should have to manage their own races, as reflected in Article 27.1 of the Sporting Regulations, which states that “the driver must drive the car alone and unaided”.
After tinkering with this for 18 months, a comprehensive ban was introduced for the 2016 F1 season. Teams have been given several races “grace period” to come to terms with the rules, during which time they have merely received warnings from race control. They were told that from the British GP onwards potential breaches would be referred to the stewards.
In the closing stages of the race at Silverstone, the following exchange occurred between Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg and his engineer, Tony Ross, after Rosberg reported a gearbox problem.
Tony Ross: Driver default 1-0-1, chassis default 0-1, chassis default 0-1. Avoid 7th gear, Nico, avoid 7th gear.
Nico Rosberg: What does that mean? I have to shift through it?
Tony Ross: Affirm, Nico, you have to shift through it. Affirm you have to shift through it.
Rosberg and Mercedes are now under investigation by the stewards for this exchange being in breach of the radio ban rule.
The part of the exchange that is likely to fall foul of the rule is the final statement where Rosberg’s engineer confirms for him the way in which the problem should be managed.
Unlike most of the Regulations, the radio ban rule is very specific. The FIA did not provide a series of generalized statements about what type of communication is acceptable or even provide a list of what is ruled out; rather they provided a comprehensive list of the ONLY communication that IS allowed. This means the rule is designed to be strictly enforced and there is no room for maneuvering: something is either on the list or it’s not.
Point 2 deals with circumstances where a driver has a problem and allows “indication of a critical problem with the car, any message of this sort may only be used if failure of a component is imminent and potentially terminal”. This means Mercedes were entitled to tell Rosberg he had the problem, assuming their claim that it was likely to imminenty fail is accurate, but that should be easy to prove. Point 4 allows teams to provide “instructions to select driver defaults for the sole purpose of mitigating loss of function of a sensor, actuator or controller”. So the initial part of Mercedes message is also OK.
However, there is nothing anywhere in the list that allows Mercedes to support Rosberg in managing the problem, whether it be express instructions or confirmation of driver suggestion. Further, that confirmation is not allowed is supported by two exchanges broadcast at the Azerbaijan GP. Lewis Hamilton’s car had ended up in the wrong mode, leaving him down on power. Whenever he made a suggestion about what he could do, and despite his pleas, Mercedes repeatedly said they could not affirm or dismiss anything. Similarly, when Kimi Raikkonen barked at Ferrari that “surely you can answer me yes or no!” about an issue, the team said that they couldn’t.
Given this, it is surprising that the engineer gave the confirmation in the first place. It is possible – perhaps likely – that he slipped up and affirmed Rosberg’s suggestion out of habit and now Mercedes are simply trying to battle their corner. However it is even more surprising that Mercedes think they have a chance of defending their position and avoiding a penalty.
Regardless of what happened it would seem more sensible to admit and acknowledge the mistake and plead for mercy from the stewards. This is a rule the FIA has indicated wil be strongly enforced and, because this is the first time the stewards have addressed the rule, any penalty will become the reference point for future transgressions. By testing the rule Mercedes are risking a harsh penalty such as a 10 second stop/go penalty (converted into 30s additional time after the race) or a grid drop at the next race.