Up until this season Formula 1 fans weren’t privy to radio communications between teams and race control — only chat between drivers and their personnel on the pit wall. Radio has become such a staple of the F1 broadcast experience that opening up the line to the FIA and sharing that with viewers proved a clever move for 2021. F1 fans like their drama, and let’s be real — when you’ve got races as boring as last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix, you’re desperate for any nugget of information, sarcastic comment or heated inquiry to spark your attention.
However, the decision to air radio snippets between the teams and FIA may have caused an amusing yet totally unsurprising side effect. Crews are becoming hesitant and a bit more choosy about when they contact race control, FIA race director Michael Masi recently told Autosport in an interview.
“I think, to be fair, each sporting team, and it’s no different in F1, will utilise the radio knowing that it’s there,” Masi said.
“It’s been there for many years. Obviously it’s just broadcast now.
“If anything, knowing now that the teams know that it’s broadcast, it’s actually probably reduced the radio traffic in race control.
“From the team’s perspective, [it’s] making them probably think twice before they ask a question.”
Now teams know exactly when and how they’ve been narc’d on by their rivals, even when it’s totally justified. Take, for example, what went down during Friday practice for the previous race, when Valtteri Bottas spun leaving his pit stall, testing a new second-gear procedure for starts.
Bottas’ Mercedes immediately swapped ends and was left facing the McLaren garage and all its personnel. McLaren’s Paul James immediately ringed Masi to share his displeasure, saying “Michael, that’s ridiculous — he literally could have taken our guys out there, and the pit wall.” Masi agreed, and Bottas was ultimately penalized three grid spots.
Wouldn’t you know, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff didn’t see it that way. “[It’s] highly entertaining how quickly some sporting directors jump on the channel to Masi and come with Armageddon scenarios,” Wolff said after the incident. “It’s good that these channels are now opened up so we can all have a laugh.” At the same time, Wolff conceded that his driver “could have hurt somebody” and that he understood the penalty. Which is it, guy?
McLaren isn’t fighting Mercedes for the championship, obviously. Hell — Lando Norris leaving the door wide open for Bottas to overtake him heading into Turn 3 at one point during the race at the Red Bull Ring was proof enough that McLaren doesn’t have any misguided preconceptions about its speed in comparison to the top two squads. Bottas made a mistake, yes, but it was a dangerous mistake, within the part of the circuit where he could’ve actually hurt a bunch of people at once. Wolff dismissing McLaren’s response as tattling to gain a competitive advantage is disingenuous, but it’s also completely F1.
So there you have a scenario where the comms were justified, even if competitors inevitably moaned about them anyway. On the other hand, the fact this change has made teams a bit more judicious about why they’re pinging race control is probably for the best, as it creates a small roadblock every time one considers making a tenuous argument to eke out an advantage.