Formula E's right radio mix

Formula One’s ticklish accord over driver-to-pit radio restrictions took another turn over the Silverstone weekend with Nico Rosberg falling foul of radio rules when his crew instructed him to upshift through a gear to finish a race.

Of course in ‘critical’ situations, radio communication is allowed, but I guess it depends on which side of the semantic divide you reside on.

The Austrian Grand Prix weekend however was a different story, with Force India’s top brass demanding the restrictions be reviewed in light of Sergio Perez’s brake issues that spawned his penultimate lap crash.

Force India Deputy team Principal Bob Fernley alleged that race control told his team not to pass on vital information to drivers Perez and Nico Hulkenberg concerning their respective brake conditions.
“We’ve got to look at the radio communication bit because we were not allowed to tell the drivers their brakes were critical,”

“It’s a bit worrying. It seems a bit silly putting a halo on a car but not being able to tell a driver his brakes are about to go.”

Fernley’s comments do highlight a dichotomy of wisdom in the approach to safety and putting the emphasis of workload back on the driver, but it’s hardly surprising given the sport has spent decades finding new ways to pick it’s nose through its backside – if there’s a simple solution, Formula One always finds the line of most resistance.

A victim of its own progress if you will. On any Formula One weekend you’ll find backrooms filled engineers capable of navigating the radiation belts of Jupiter, but instead choosing to dedicate their talents to the more benevolent pursuit of making cars go fast on asphalt.

This is when a little perspective is required. And whenever you’re faced with less options, there is always clarity. In Formula E, there is a similar objective to Formula One – get to the finish with nothing left on the table – but have taken an antipodal approach to its aureate cousin by stripping down the data available to engineers, but allowing them to communicate with their drivers.

“We have limited telemetry” says DS Virgin Racing Data Engineer, Christopher Brown.

“The FIA allow us to see what they deem to be safety measures. We have the isolation battery so we know the battery’s OK. We have the minimum and maximum cell voltage across the battery. We have the temperatures and the water pressure coolant system for the battery. Other than that there’s not much else.”

“But we get more information from our driver and our strategy software so we know if we’re going to be on target or not.”

At the European Grand Prix this year, Lewis Hamilton was hamstrung by not being able to be instructed by his team on how to reset his dash. It made for embarrassing viewing watching a three-time World Champion pressing every dial like a panicked power-plant intern at Fukushima.
In Formula E, the drama stems from the challenge of engineers attempting to decipher information from their driver about what the car’s doing and finding solutions on the fly – a high speed version of charades if you will.

“It’s almost the exact opposite” says DS Virgin Performance Engineer, Alan Cocks.

“In Lewis’s case, the engineers could see exactly what settings he was in and what needed to change, but they weren’t allowed to tell him how to change it. In our case, we can’t see any of the settings, but we are allowed to tell the driver. So we would just have to get him to tell us what settings he has and then we could correct him using that information.”

It’s not just the engineers that froth for the technical challenge, it’s a major feature of the championship that enhances drama; whether a driver will make it to his pit-stop or not. The strategies play out in 35 minute real-time, rather than being revealed at the end of a two hour race with Peter Falk conducting podium interviews.

“The driver has more information than we do” says Brown. “It’s up to him to relay it to us, which I think is how it should be.”

“It’s part of the excitement!” he enthuses.

“What effects strategy is a driver’s ability to think. How much spare capacity he has to think about the strategy and think about what they’re doing with the energy. If something hasn’t quite gone to plan, our driver is very good at adjusting on the fly. Some drivers are weaker than that and need to stick to the plan when things go awry.”

Bringing the emphasis back on the driver, which is pretty much back where we started this conversation.