The first time Silverstone used The Wing pit complex for the British Grand Prix in 2011, journalists covering the race received the smallest hint of what it must be like to work in a team’s mission control miles from anywhere.
For reasons that won’t detain us here, the new media centre has no windows. With pens and notebooks at the ready, we were waiting for the race start, glancing occasionally at the small (as opposed to wide-screen) TV monitors hanging from the ceiling and noting how badly a few of our national newspaper colleagues faked nonchalance while manoeuvring behind Martin Brundle in range of the Sky TV camera. There was no commentary; no sound in this insulated barrack other than chatter as the latest piece of paddock gossip was discussed and dissected.
Suddenly someone shouted: “Goodness me! (Except, he didn’t quite say that.) It’s started!” And there, on the movie playing before us, was the field silently jostling through the first two corners and fanning out towards Village.
In more than 40 years, it was the most desperately anticlimactic start to a motor race I have ever experienced. There had not been a sound nor a single vibration. It was both numb and dumb; like living in a vacuum completely devoid of atmosphere. We would have been better off watching on the widescreen at home.
F1 technicians staring intently at computer screens in F1 bunkers will not be interested in silly stuff such as ambiance. Their brains are hard-wired to algorithms and processes rather than the skirmishing and raw sound of competition people pay to watch and experience.
Spectators want to see drivers make instant decisions at 300km/h rather than have them controlled by computerised diktat winging in at a zillion gigabytes an hour. That’s what it’s fast becoming when, halfway through a race, the driver asks: “What do you want me to do, guys?” Rather rather than urging, “Pull your finger out and go racing!” the monotone response is something like “Strat six, purple three, copy that, king-size deg, plus French fries, minus coleslaw.”
That’s why a proposed ban on a team’s mission control (with more people present in the bunker than ran an entire race team a few decades ago) surely has to be mandated in 2021. Or sooner.
Sure, this would be a very small contribution to cost saving that can be achieved through more complex changes to power unit specifications. But it would also restore emphasis to the racing brain in the cockpit and at the pit wall rather than within a programme somewhere that commands ‘Keep him out’ when the race engineer doesn’t know exactly why, but a sixth sense is shouting ‘Pit! Now!’
I’ve no idea how such a tricky ban would be imposed. But surely it can’t be beyond the wit of F1’s wizards to use the same technological brilliance to find a way of blocking this flow of information from a far-off field. Which reminds me: I must have unwittingly witnessed one of the first crude examples of this at Magny-Cours in 1999.
Rain had been forecast to arrive during the French Grand Prix but no one could be certain exactly when or for how long. Jordan directed ‘Big Dave’, their odd job and security man, to take an umbrella and mobile phone and position himself in a field some distance from the circuit, but in line with the prevailing wind blowing towards the track.
About 15 laps in, team manager Andy Stevenson’s phone rang. It was Big Dave: “It’s pissing down – and there’s no likelihood of a let-up.”
That last bit of information was crucial. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was lying fourth and in touch with the leaders Rubens Barrichello (Stewart), Jean Alesi (Sauber) and Mika Häkkinen (McLaren). When the rain eventually arrived and they dived into the pits for wets and more fuel at the end of lap 22, Frentzen was stationary longest as Jordan filled his car to the brim.
Acting on the report from their man in the field, the gamble was to run non-stop in the hope a safety car would reduce fuel consumption and the rain would continue long enough to rule out a change back to slicks.
And that's exactly what happened. Jordan took win number two through outside assistance that was far removed in every sense from going racing in a sealed grey room with no windows.