Poacher turns Gamekeeper!

This article first appeared in the January 2013 edition of Motor Sport magazine – For more on Motor Sport please click here – www.motorsportmagazine.com

Very few places are completely sacred in the Formula One paddock. Bernie’s sinister lair, with its blacked-out windows is simply a no-go area for all but the very few who are summoned. The team’s pretentiously-named hospitality ‘monoliths’ are where deals and paddock politics are thrashed out. But at each Grand Prix, it’s the stewards room and race control where the power really lies. If the people that work here, in ‘Charlie’s World’ don’t get it right, the race isn’t happening.

Martin with fellow FIA officals at Yeongam last month – Photo: SnifferMedia

Since the start of 2010 at least one ex-F1 driver has joined the permanent race stewards and at Korea last month it was Martin Donnelly’s turn. It’s a third such appointment for the former Arrows and Lotus driver who also officiated at the corresponding race in 2011 and at Montreal this year. Since his own highly-promising F1 career was so cruelly and violently cut short at Jerez in the early autumn of 1990, Donnelly has turned from poacher to game-keeper. Motor Sport got exclusive access to Martin at the Korean Grand Prix, obtaining a rare insight in to the secretive world of what the driver’s steward brings to the table in Formula One and what the drivers are like away from their corporate straightjackets.

“The Korean GP is much more relaxed than at other Grand Prix as there is not as much corporate and sponsor activity as at other races, so the drivers relax more and kick-back a bit,” says Donnelly. “Last year, Michael (Schumacher) even had a card school going which seemed to be good fun. He doesn’t like losing at that though, either!”

Camaraderie among the drivers is rarely seen but it does exist, although not all take to group therapy F1-style and the days of drivers socialising between races are long since over.

“On the Thursday, all the drivers got together and had a meal. Daniel Ricciardo tweeted a photo from the meeting, which Charlie helped organise. It was very interesting seeing them together and how they relaxed, that hardly ever happens and subsequently you are very privileged to see it take place.

Being that close to the drivers on and off-track gave Donnelly plenty of scope for seeing what their demeanours are like, especially when contracts are discussed and the rush for seats in 2013 hots up. “Eric Boullier was having a heart to heart with Romain Grosjean in the Hyundai hotel lounge which is where most of the teams stay. It looked quite intense and no doubt a lot of the discussion was about his starts and recent incidents, particularly Suzuka. He looked a little chastised to say the least which is not surprising, really, considering how many constructors points he has lost for the team this year.”

Can you spot the Essex boy? Photo: ‘Yer Maaan Donnelly’

When the action starts, Donnelly is as professional as he was in the cockpit and prepares well for the job in hand. Gloves and helmet have been replaced with notepad and dictaphone. Whiting gives each steward a detailed report sent by email before each race which is essentially a re-cap on the penalties that have been handed out during the season, and it is a reminder that a variety of offences need to be looked out for once the track goes green.

“You have to go in to the weekend with a clear head in terms of what may have happened at the previous race,” says Donnelly. “It’s all about consistency and fairness. That is what we are aiming for throughout the race weekend.

“I attend the drivers briefing. I can add points if I feel it necessary, but actually at Yeongam I saved it for the team managers’meeting instead because last year at Korea there was an incident where Nico Rosberg hit Jaime Alguesuari leaving the pit lane, which certainly isn’t the best exit I have ever seen, because it is almost completely blind for the drivers.”

The stewards office is separate from race control but Donnelly is available to Whiting should his expertise be needed for an incident. Sat alongside Martin is Paul Gutjahr, the chief steward from Switzerland, and Dr Enzo Spano who is another FIA steward from Venezuala.  The stewards also have a technical expert with them at all times and they manage the communications, ensuring the stewards get immediate access to replays and pits to car conversations.

“We have the same feed that everyone sees on TV but we also have all the communications channels that the drivers have so all conversations are available, as is data, graphs and all the other information that can assist in understanding an incident. The conversations on the radios can get quite tasty and often the language needs to be edited, so it gets checked before it is released to the broadcasters.”

One man whose fruity language has been edited out this season is Michael Schumacher. Martin raced against the seven-times World Champion only in Group C in 1990, never in F1, but the Ulsterman saw plenty of the freshly-retired German during the Korean Grand Prix weekend after the German was reprimanded in Free Practice for blocking and was also, albeit at the whim of his team, released in to the path of Lewis Hamilton while leaving his ‘box’.

When there is an incident, FIA Race Director, Charlie Whiting asks the stewards to investigate. They only look at it if asked directly by Whiting. Martin and the stewards watch multiple replays and also view on-board cameras of those involved. Everything is taken in to account. It may look black and white but it’s like piecing together every shred of evidence to solve a crime and it can take quite some time to resolve.

“It’s so different from when I was in F1,” says the Ulsterman, now firmly speaking with his ‘racing driver’ hat on. “You can’t get away with anything now. There are cameras and telemetry everywhere and there really is no hiding place. I have some sympathy for the drivers as they have so much going on in the cockpit and I think one of the reasons for more incidents in the last few years is because there is so much the drivers have to take in. Then again, when I was in F1 we had to change gear manually so maybe its horses for courses in terms of what goes on in the cockpit from one generation to another.”

The start of the race is always tense and for the drivers they must get to an almost serene level so that when the last red light goes out everything is in control and ready to go. Some drivers still get help from their teams via the radio. Remember Takuma Sato and Jock Clear in 2004 when the latter talked the former in detail through his launch off the grid and down to the first corner? Well it still happens now but not to such a detailed level, but now it’s more about the teams instructing the drivers on tyre temperature and ensuring the brakes are bedded in properly. “The start gets the old adrenelin pumping that’s for sure,” says Martin. “You can’t compare it to actually starting a Grand Prix as a driver, but I always say that if you don’t get a tingle at the start of a Grand Prix you shouldn’t be involved in it, in whatever capacity.”

What we at home, watching on TV, often don’t immediately appreciate is that when there is an accident and a penalty is given, it sometimes becomes a double whammy for victims of a shunt.

If you have a two car accident and one retires then it could be argued that a drive-through or a stop/go for the perpetrator doesn’t really fit the crime because a penalty such as this doesn’t alter the fact that the driver at fault is still in the race! And if there is a safety car he gains all that time back anyway. This is a point of view that has been raised and scrutinised many times by many F1 insiders.

As well as other drivers to be wary of during the Korean Grand Prix, Donnelly and the stewards also had to deal with the potential hazard of some loose astro-turf on the circuit.

“When Lewis got hooked up with some astro-turf in the late stages the safety car was on standby. It was considered and there would have been a hell of a finish to the flag but in the end Charlie advised McLaren to make Lewis aware he had that extra cargo on board via a radio message.”

Donnelly breathed a sigh of relief. A mad four-lap sprint to the flag would likely have meant spooling through more on board camera footage for quite a while!

It was a relatively quiet race in the steward’s office. A first lap incident triggered by Kamui Kobayashi accounted for Jenson Button’s McLaren and Rosberg’s Mercedes . Donnelly was required to view the replays immediately. The Japanese firebrand got a stop/go penalty which considering that it ended two protagonists races could be considered somewhat lenient. Donnelly’s old Arrows engineer, R. Brawn esquire surely concurred. He had lost not only one of his cars but also had to resign himself to Rosberg taking a 10-place grid drop, as Kobayashi had swiped a radiator, which necessitated an engine change for one of the final Grand Prix of the year.

Donnelly is bound by FIA agreements not to discuss penalties dished out but the Ulsterman was forthright earlier in the weekend when it came to first lap incidents; “What I can’t get my head around is the chances some of the drivers take on the first lap of a race, especially at a place like Korea where overtaking is relatively easy. When I had my own team there were several key rules, one of which was ‘to finish first, first you have to finish.’ There aren’t really any excuses for going out of a race on the first lap to be honest.”

What if he were a driver now? How would he respond to the FIA drivers steward? “You have to be respectful but maybe that comes more with older age, who knows? I think the 28-year-old Martin Donnelly might have had a few run-ins with the 48-year-old version. But the key word is respect and I feel that most of the drivers have it, especially for those like me who’ve been there in the cockpit and know exactly where they are coming from.”

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