In depth Q&A with F1 director Charlie Whiting
Full transcript from the press briefing with the FIA’s Formula 1 director Charlie Whiting, at the Australian Grand Prix, on the opening day of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Melbourne.
Charlie, there have obviously been major changes at FOM, with Ross Brawn moving in. You had a very close relationship with Ross when he was at Ferrari etc. Ross is charged with improving the show from a FOM point of view, which could include technical or sporting changes. How do you see yourselves working with Ross going forward and what changes do you foresee?
CW: I don’t know what changes to foresee at the moment but I think we’re going to have a very good working relationship from what I’ve seen so far. I know Ross very well and I’m quite friendly with him so I think we’re going to have a very productive relationship.
There’s been a rule tweak about incidents on track between drivers. Can you explains about it, because it doesn’t seem too different to last year, and are there any incidents from last year that wouldn’t be handed over to the stewards this year for investigation with the new tweak in regulations?
CW: Yes I think there will be a small change to some incidents which we saw last year that would maybe be handled slightly differently simply because the so-called Verstappen rule has gone, to the effect that before, we said any move under braking will be investigated. Now we have a simple rule that says effectively that if a driver moves erratically or goes unnecessarily slowly or behaves in manner that could endanger another driver then he will be investigated. We have a broad rule now. What we did in Austin last year, if you remember, in response to comments from drivers is that we used the existing rules to put into the event notes we issue as how we were going to interpret the existing rules. And the interpretation simply was that drivers shouldn’t move under braking and that’s what gave rise to the penalty given to Seb in Mexico. That will be dealt with slightly differently in that the stewards will be invited to simply focus on every incident and judge it on its own merits. So each dealt with only on the basis of whether or not it was a dangerous manoeuvre, not necessarily because he moved under braking.
Charlie there was a lot of talk over the winter about suspension systems. I think the FIA were planning to evaluate all the teams over the Barcelona testing. Did the tests take place and is the FIA happy with all the designs on the cars?
CW: So far, so good, yes. Marcin [Budkowski, FIA Head of the Formula One Technical Department] and Jo [Bauer, FIA Formula One Technical Delegate] did a lot of work in Barcelona going through all the systems and the ones we’ve inspected so far have all been as we expected to be here, so we don’t anticipate any problems
Have you inspected all of them?
CW: Not all yet, but they’re working their way through it.
Have Pirelli met the requirements of the target letter, not just in terms of the exact clauses but also in the general intent of the drivers being able to push flat out or as much as possible?
CW: We think so at the moment, yes. It’s a little early to say. I think we need to judge it after a few races and if we feel they’ve fallen short somewhere then we will discuss it with them.
Charlie, without me trying to read through all of the regulations and getting confused – standing starts after a safety car in the wet. Does that just apply at the start of the race or will there be a standing start if the safety car comes out again?
CW: Only if we start the race with a safety car. There was talk and it was discussed about having standing starts after every safety car interventions but we haven’t gone that far yet.
There was a lot of talk about radio regulation last year and I wanted to know would there be any further tweaks to radio regulations because there is still that talk of too much instruction from the pit wall to the driver. But when it’s a mechanical issue or a safety issue would that be allowed?
CW: We freed it all up after lots of discussion last year, as you know. We put quite strict restrictions on the formation lap and that’s all. That’s really the only part where they have to comply with a certain set of messages they can send during that time, the rest of it is free. It’s exactly as it was towards the end of last year.
Charlie, can you clarify the things on the suspension, because in the regulations from last year to this year there didn’t change anything but the FIA changed how they judged whether a system is legal or not. We understand that some teams had to makes changes to make them legal. Can you explain that for us?
CW: Well, we’ve been aware of hydraulically operated suspension systems on cars for some time but it became clear they were being used for purposes other than suspension. So under the regulations where you are not allowed to have a suspension system that affects the aerodynamic performance of the car in anything other than an incidental way, we don’t allow it. So that’s the approach we have taken. We wanted to see whether suspension is genuinely suspension or whether it’s there predominantly to affect the aerodynamic performance of the car. That’s the change effectively. We have been focusing far more on that this year.
Now you have seen the new cars in testing and what they can do in terms of performance. I think the FIA was going to look at some of the circuit layouts and see if maybe any tweaks were needed for safety reasons. Have any been specifically targeted?
CW: Yes, most circuits will need a little tweak. This circuit here has had tyre barriers improved in four places; we’re finding similar things probably more on the older circuits, whereas Shanghai, Bahrain and those sort of places haven’t needed anything doing to them. But obviously the quite old circuits will need a bit of work and we’re going through that circuit by circuit, running simulations and seeing exactly what’s needed and where. We’re working our way through that.
Does FIA plan to investigate so-called oil burning in engines as raised by Red Bull and Renault? Is it an area you’re concerned about?
CW: I wouldn’t say it’s an area of concern; it’s an area of interest. We’re monitoring it. We did quite a lot of work on that in Barcelona. We’re going to inspect all the oil systems here and we’re going to randomly check oil consumption to make sure it’s not being used as fuel.
You seem pretty certain that the teams are not using suspension for aerodynamic gain. How can you be so sure?
CW: Two basic things, really. We think that if a suspension system behaves asymmetrically there is not a very justifiable reason for behaving like that. So if a suspension system goes down at one speed and comes back at a different speed, there really shouldn’t be any reason for that. Also, if there is any attempt to store any of the energy for later deployment, then we feel that’s not really part of a proper suspension system and it is being done for other reasons. The onus is being put on the teams to demonstrate that their system has an incidental effect only. If they are not able to convince us of that then they can’t use it.
Also, if these cars turn out to be perhaps the fastest Formula One cars ever, or close to, doesn’t that mean that sooner or later they will have to be reined in, because we have seen several times over the last couple of decades that the speeds have had to be contained, as the circuits can’t contain them?
CW: We’ll see is the answer to that one. It was one of the briefs the Strategy Group gave us, that they should be the fastest cars ever. As I said just now in answer to the other question about circuits we’ve done a lot of work with all of the tracks but we’re also future-proofing them so we don’t have to keep coming back year after year, because we know the cars will get incrementally faster; it’s always happened that way. But we’re trying to make sure we don’t need to go back every year, so we are adding an element of future-proofing so we don’t need to do that.
The new owners say they want to have more of a show. Would you say there is a risk that someone might come up to you and ask ‘oh, the easiest way to do that is have more safety cars’? How would you feel about that?
CW: If such a request was made our answer would have to be that we will only use a safety car for the right reasons. I don’t think we would deviate from that approach.
The way that I understand it the deadline for any rule changes for 2018 has come and gone and although the Halo or any cockpit protection could be introduced on safety grounds, is everyone still on track for 2018 introduction and what sort of concept would it be?
CW: Yes, it is still on track. It was agreed by the Strategy Group and the Formula One Commission that there would be additional frontal protection for 2018. So far, the Halo is the only candidate solution that fits the bill. We are working on other solutions, for review, and after the 30th of April, which is the cut-off point for regulation changes, we’ll just have to see. If something better comes up after that we’ll have to look as how we approach it.
Could you please talk us through the procedure for a standing start after a safety car, when it comes to a rain situation on Sunday. I would imagine that full wets are still mandatory but will you have a pre-warning? How long will you have to decide?
CW: It will be done exactly the same way as we’ve always done SC start, so at the 10-minute point, 10 minutes before the start of the formation lap the decision is taken to start with safety car. Everything will remain exactly the same at that point, until the start. Previously, at the start of what would have been the formation lap, that became the first lap of the race, so the race started at the start of the formation lap. What’s going to happen now, however, is we are going to do more than one formation lap, and then when we decide to bring the safety car in, say you’ve done five formation laps behind the safety car, the safety car will come in and instead of released, the cars will come back to the grid, all the grid boards will come out and the marshals will be there ready to do exactly as they do for a standing start and the race will start when the lights go out. The race shortened by the number of laps behind the safety car minus one – because that would be the number of laps we do, one formation lap plus the four or five or whatever it turns out to be. Then we will just do a standing start. It sounds very easy, and it is very simple in that respect, but there are a couple of little issues – if you have a car starting from the pit lane or required to start from the pit lane for example, they can take part in the formation laps, but they have to come back in. They can’t change tyres. In case the track’s drying out, if anyone comes in when the safety car comes in then they get penalised, they have to do at least one lap before they think about changing tyres. Lot of little bits and pieces that have emerged during all the conversations with the teams. That’s it in a nutshell.
About five minutes ago you talked about simulations on the circuits – can you explain a little bit more about how it works?
CW: How the simulation works? It’s a fairly straightforward thing. We generate a speed profile based on – in this particular case – information from teams, then we try and match it up… We create our own speed profile within the simulation, and that calculates the speed of the car every 3m, then you draw a tangent to the racing line, see how long that is, how quickly a car will decelerate over that distance and at what speed it will hit the barrier. At that point you then decide what sort of barrier you need. It’s as simple as that, really. We’ve tested many arrays of Tecpro and tyre barriers, and we can say that if a car’s going to hit at 65kph then we need three rows of tyres and a bit of Tecpro, or something like that. It’s very, very simple; it’s not complex at all.
Where do we stand regarding engines beyond 2020? What is the procedure for that?
CW: We are discussing this and we have a meeting next week in fact with a number manufacturers to discuss what they see as the need for F1 beyond 2020. We have no specific plans at the moment but we would like to see what the manufacturers think first.
I think part of the engine rule is that you do an evaluation on performance of the engines after four or five races; you expect them to be within a certain range. If one of the four manufacturers stays as bad as shown in winter testing does it mean that you have to rewrite the engine rules for next year?
CW: That’s a bit of a tricky one, that one! I think we’ll just have to wait and see how we assess the engines first, before we tackle something as serious as that. But you’re absolutely right – we did undertake to assess the relative performance of the engines after three races; we will do that.
With regards to the standing start after the formation lap, or safety car, if you do more than one lap of formation lap, when does the fuel restriction come in? I mean, the amount of fuel you can use.
CW: As now, at the end of the formation lap under a normal start, the fuel quantity is calculated from the point that the race start is given. So the fuel meters are reset at the start. The same will happen; they will have a bit more fuel because the formation laps will presumably be slower, so it will still get reset at the time the race is started.
I’m sure that in Barcelona you checked the efficiency of DRS under the new regulations, but here you have the same distance – the same length of the DRS areas. Does this mean you are expecting the same effect, or are you going to inspect what’s going on here and change at future races?
CW: It’s a little difficult in testing to fully assess the DRS, so we have some information of course. We don’t see a significant difference at the moment; that’s why we should assess it over the first two races. As it happens, here in Melbourne you can’t go any longer. It’s actually not long enough for our needs, which is why a couple of years ago we introduced a second activation zone based on one detection point. In other words, you try and get the cars closer to the car in front on the first bit, then do something better in the second bit. It seems to have worked reasonably well; can’t actually make it any longer here anyway. We’ve undertaken to assess it after the second race.
Teams must explain to you why their [suspension] system is legal. Is it possible that two teams who have exactly the same suspension, but one of them is capable of explaining to you why their system is legal and the other one can’t?
CW: Potentially, yes. Unless we’re satisfied that a suspension system isn’t capable of doing… We don’t want to hear that it’s not being operated like it should be; if we think that it can be used to do something we don’t want it to then they can’t use it.
Can you tell me about the Technical Directive you issued between the two Barcelona tests with regard to the clutch? Can you still use clutch bite point? Clutch map and bite point finger or something?
CW: This is the one about driver aids, isn’t it? We put some restrictions on how much travel the clutch lever can have and how far away from any adjacent levers it can be. The simple point is that now with the torque being mapped against paddle distances instead of position, it’s got to be linear and the drivers have got to find it themselves, without help from any additional reference point. In fact, we’ve got a meeting this afternoon to inspect everybody’s steering wheel to make sure no one is doing what he shouldn’t. They’ve got to go to a position where they think the optimum torque for the start is by themselves.
Back to the circuits. You said added barriers, especially at the old circuits. I’m thinking about Suzuka specifically, because there’s no room for more run-off areas. Are you going to ask them to put some tarmac there, or some other material is used in the run-off area?
CW: Not specifically in Suzuka, no. I was actually there on Monday, and I went through it all with them, in order to try and come up with a good solution for them; we’re still discussing it. You’re right, it is one of the more challenging circuits.
What can you tell us about the situation with the Halo? Will we see more in Free Practices, and when will you make a decision about 2018?
CW: There won’t be any more use in Free Practice. The purpose of doing it last year was to allow every team and every driver to assess it, which we did all bar one driver. There are no plans to run it any more this year. An announcement is expected at the end of April, we hope.
Just to go back to the so-called Verstappen rule, for clarity why did you remove the specific language? Was that to give more room for manoeuvre? Will that sort of manoeuvre – moving under braking – will that automatically trigger an investigation even though I realise you’ve got more space with the wider definition that remains in the rules?
CW: It probably would automatically trigger an investigation or a request to stewards to have a look at it, as with any incident. The way we interpreted the regulations last year was to simply use the rules that we had to say moving under braking was potentially dangerous and hence would be reported to the stewards every time. But what we were requested to do, and which we think is a more general way of approaching things is to give the stewards one rule to work with. It’s an all-encompassing rule; you can do more or less anything with that. That was the request from teams, they wanted less investigation and only in cases when something was clearly dangerous would they take action. We had a meeting yesterday with all the stewards, and we reviewed the controversial incidents from last year to see how they would be dealt with this year under the so-called new rules, and it was quite interesting. I won’t go into it now, but it was quite interesting.
So were there changes to 2016 decisions?
CW: Things would have been interpreted slightly differently, yes, in some cases. We will probably talk to the drivers about it tomorrow.
Saying that every incident will be judged on its own merits – does that mean that they can now move more than once if they want to?
CW: No, that’s a different rule. That’s defending, and what we’re talking about is moving in the braking zone. Obviously some drivers were more annoyed about it than others last year; it does give some drivers a bit of a problem. Defending is different – if you move more than once to defend a position, that’s a separate rule. There is a rule against that; it’s still illegal.
Is there any limit of time now for you to give us a solution of this investigation, a result of this investigation? Especially for TV, we have to wait and postpone our satellite service.
CW: No, no specific limit. We have told all the stewards that we want to try and speed things up a little bit. We’ve taken some measures to get post-race checks done more quickly to get results out quicker than has been done in the past. It’s a little difficult, but what we’ve done to try and help the stewards by introducing what we call a video archive. It’s an archiving system, which allows them to instantly refer to similar incidents. Without having to trawl through and remember what happened to so-and-so, they’ll be able to pull up any similar incident. They’ll be sorted by type of incident, for example, causing a collision – click, click, click, for the last six, see what the decisions were because they’re tagged to the incident; that should give the stewards more chance to be consistent but also to do things faster. I’m optimistic we can do things quickly, and I do understand how this works for you guys. It must be very tedious hanging around for hours waiting for the stewards to decide things.
There were some photos from the Barcelona test of T-wings flexing in corners. Has that come onto the FIA’s radar and is there any flexibility test for them?
CW: Jo will be checking those during the course of the weekend.
To go back to the question earlier: does this mean that the penalties will now be a little more severe when they do get decided on by the stewards?
CW: Not necessarily. That’s not something the stewards normally do, try and be consistent in application of the penalty whatever the outcome, whatever the effect of that penalty. What they are being encouraged to do is to look at the consequences of accident. I don’t know if any of you remember a little incident in T2 in Malaysia last year, where Nico was penalised for banging into the side of Kimi. Both drivers continued, and it could be argued there was no harm done, just let them get on with it, but if Kimi had had to retire or pit for a new wing, you may have thought about it slightly differently. The actual penalty and the effect of the penalty would not be taken into account, for reasons of consistency.
Shark-fins and even the T-wings for that matter. Would you say they are unintended consequences of the new rules? Are you hoping to close off that loophole going forward next year and beyond?
CW: Next year, I think there’s quite a strong chance that would be done; there appears to be quite a few people think they’re a bit of an unsightly thing. I personally don’t have anything against them. It was something that was always going to be possible, yes. I think the reaction of everybody against them was unexpected, to be honest with you.
I understand the tyre supplier was expected to come up with certain parameters for the tyres this year, and in testing it appears that they weren’t exactly to that, but obviously that’s just testing. Is that something you’re monitoring? And if they don’t meet that requirement, will you be taking further action?
CW: I did answer this question earlier, if I remember. It’s the so-called ‘target letter’ that we sent Pirelli. I think it’s a little too early to judge whether they’ve achieved the targets; we’ll discuss it once we’ve been able to fully assess it.