At the US round of Formula 1 a few weekends ago, Max Verstappen was given a five second time penalty after the race for overtaking Kimi Raikonnen on the final lap by driving outside of the white lines that denote track limits, ultimately costing him a position. The ruling states that drivers will receive a penalty if they gain a lasting advantage by leaving track limits. However, in the wake of this incident, many people (including 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg) are still arguing that Verstappen did nothing wrong, especially when compared with other drivers driving outside of the marked track limits, citing an inconsistent enforcement of the rule as evidence that the Dutch driver should be reinstated with his position. This is not, however, the first example of people complaining about the inconsistency of rule enforcement in F1, which begs two questions: are the rules being enforced correctly, and if not, why?
In 2016 at Suzuka in Japan, Lewis Hamilton argued “I don’t see the rules being an issue, it’s just the rules being very grey”. This was after Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo lined up on the grid with half his car outside of his specified grid slot to avoid a damp patch, which failed to draw a penalty, despite Mercedes being told this was contravening the rules by the stewards at the previous race. This seems to highlight the key issue in the debate; the stewards/officials.
There are seven key officials at each race, five of which are nominated to the position indefinitely by the sport’s governing body, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), the other two being chosen by the national sporting authority of the country holding the race. In theory, this is supposed to stop two key issues: 1) favouritism, by having the same seven individuals every race, they might start to treat some drivers more favourably than others based on previous actions, 2) inconsistency, by nominating seven new officials for every race it is likely to cause some inconsistency over rule interpretation from race to race. However, it appears both issues still exist despite the system that the officials are chosen in.
This, in part, may be explained by the fact that the five nominated officials tend to hold their positions for an extensive period of time; Charlie Whiting, the Race Director (most powerful officiating position) has been in the role since 1997, for example. While this does make the five key officials experts in their roles, it also means that they build a set of values for each driver; all of the drivers currently active in F1 have only ever had Mr Whiting as their race director, and he, alongside the other officials, will have personal opinions of drivers which may impact bias in decision-making.
This is not to say that F1 should instead elect five-seven new officials every year; this could cause an inexperienced line-up, which has its own negative implications. Instead, the only real way to counteract any potential bias might be to automate as many of the rules as possible; for example, using all the analytics and data collected from the cars and the track to help inform decisions. This is already being done to an extent, however in the case of obeying track limits, a transponder locating a car’s position on track, and relative time gained or lost to a previous lap, might be better able to consistently report violations of track limits than a group of seven individuals looking at it subjectively.
This is a huge subject of debate, and favouritism has long been a theme in the Formula 1 sphere. While it may not be possible without extensive research to tell whether or not the officials have biases impacting their decision-making, it is possible to suggest that ultimately, a move towards data-driven, objective rule enforcement will lead to better consistency than seven individuals, vulnerable to subjectivity and human error.