The Grand Prix of Europe in Baku raised a very serious issue about driver safety.

Ricciardo, Rosberg & Perez: Top 3 qualifiers at Baku with FIA Road Safety backdrop.

Ricciardo, Rosberg & Perez: Top 3 qualifiers at Baku with FIA Road Safety backdrop.

The FIA’s ‘Action for Road Safety’ campaign was launched in support of the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety in an attempt to improve the frightening statistics that on the road 1.3 million people are killed every year, which equates to 1 person every 30 seconds.

The campaign is heavily promoted by Jean Todt, the FIA President and it is now standard procedure after Formula One qualifying at every Grand Prix the top three drivers have to have their photograph taken against the the backdrop of FIA Action for Road Safety.

Jean Todt’s partner, the actress Michelle Yeoh, is a Global Road Safety Ambassador for the FIA endorsed Safe Steps campaign in Asia, which has the objective of raising awareness and providing clear, educational information on some of the leading causes of death to as many people as possible.

One of the central themes of the Road Safety campaigns is Deadly Distractions, meaning that the driver’s focus should be on watching the road ahead and not being distracted, such as the use of mobile phones, texting and playing with instruments or dials on the dashboard display.

The messages being presented to road users is very clear. You can’t multi-task as well as you think. Keep your eyes on the road, keep both hands on the steering wheel, and stay focused.

It is all very laudable and a very worthwhile cause to raise awareness of the dangers of driving on the road.

However, the FIA are sending out mixed messages, which became very real at the Grand Prix of Europe.

How can these messages be justified if an F1 driver is forced to make continual changes on the buttons of the steering wheel because the FIA forbids instructions from the pits?

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid.

The changes that an F1 driver has to make from the cockpit are quite remarkable.  Several years ago I questioned Valtteri Bottas on this and he said that even then drivers would be making up to six adjustments a lap. In fact there is a story that when Lewis Hamilton first raced in F1 he used to learn the settings on the steering wheel by feel, whilst watching TV!

At the Grand Prix of Europe in Baku, Lewis had an engine setting issue, which he was forced to try and resolve himself through the controls on his steering wheel. The engineers knew precisely the problem and how to fix it, but were not allowed to tell Lewis due to regulations introduced by the FIA to restrict the information the team could pass to the driver. Previously teams had been able to feed information to the driver and many believed that it had gone to far when often it sounded as if the engineers were telling the driver how to drive.  However many believe the clampdown has now gone too far.

Hamilton said after the race that the restrictions put the drivers’ safety at risk because they were constantly staring at the steering wheel.  At one stage he told his team: “This is ridiculous, guys. I’m looking at my dash every five seconds trying to find the switch in the wrong position.”

Asked how it had felt trying to find the right setting while racing on the challenging Baku street circuit, the world champion said: “Dangerous. I’m just there looking at my steering wheel for a large portion of the lap and all the way down the straights.”  This daunting when you consider that the straights at Baku recorded some of the fastest speeds of any Grand Prix track at around 220 mph!

Mercedes AMG F1 W06 steering wheel.

Mercedes AMG F1 W06 steering wheel.

After the race Fernando Alonso concurred: “They give us a spaceship to drive, with the technology we have, and now we have no information available. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what is happening with the car, and what solution to do.”

Lewis is right, it is a dangerous distraction – and in the cold light of day puts the FIA in a hypercritical situation.  If you are telling road drivers to keep their eyes on the road and not be distracted at 30 mph, then it makes a mockery of forcing drivers to be distracted at 220 mph – however good the F1 drivers are.

I posted a comment on this on Facebook and was surprised how much response it received, but the messages from fans of the sport were clear as can be seen from these comments:

“These radio bans are a complete farce and potentially dangerous, especially at a circuit like Baku.”

“The FIA Road Safety campaign says even using a hands free phone is like having a low blood alcohol content so maybe they should cut 100% of radio comms and let the driver focus on driving as you could see, he was also distracted by all the chat with his engineer.”

“Even with radio help allowed there are simply too many buttons, too many changeable settings. The cars should be more of a challenge to drive – not allowing diff/engine map/recovery/etc. settings changes would make them tougher to drive as the fuel load burns off, track conditions change, or tyres degrade.”

“What’s the use of the radio if not for comms? And the driver is for driving, not memorise all the hundreds of settings on the car!”

FIA- it is time for common sense to prevail, look at the big picture and stop sending out mixed messages!

Peter Burns

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