The F1 terminology glossary defines a steward as “One of the three high-ranking officials at each Grand Prix appointed to make decisions.” In short, stewards are appointed by the FIA and its affiliated associations to see that the race is conducted as per the regulations of the FIA. Stewards will also make sure that the principles of fair play, as set down by the FIA, are adhered to. If anyone errs the stewards are tasked with reprimanding or the team or driver.
Stewards keep a close eye on the goings-on on the racecourse throughout the race weekend. They have hundreds of television screens with various camera angles to assist them in their decision-making. They also have to teams’ radio chatter and to live data. The race starter and the race marshals also keep the stewards at all times. With all this data input, stewards make decisions in a relatively short time.
The steward’s job, like that of a soccer referee or a tennis match umpire, is a thankless job. Whatever decision they take, particularly during the race, there will be one or more aggrieved parties. That is why stewards’ decisions often make headlines and they will bear the brunt of criticism from fans.
It is however the duty of the stewards to hand down penalties to erring drivers and teams. They have to put their foot down whenever the rules and regulations are breached. It would be better for all concerned if racing battles were settled on the racecourse. But there has to be someone who supervises the conduct of the race. That is where the stewards come in and many a time they have to make some hard decisions.
What is race control in Formula 1?
Race control is the main concept of monitoring and supervising the practice and qualifying sessions and the race. The purpose is to make sure that the race is run according to the rules and regulations of the FIA., The objective is to make sure that the race is conducted to the highest and that the officials, drivers and spectators are safe.
There are several officials in race control. This enables the Race Director, a permanent appointee of the FIA, and his staff to take take the right decision to keep the race legal, safe and within the schedule. Problem detected from the input of the staff are quickly spotted and resolved with the help of multiple screens and angles. Inputs from the race marshals are also noted constantly.
The other people on the race control staff include the Race Clerk, Permanent Starter and the Stewards. While the Permanent Starter is an FIA appointee, the names of the other appointees are usually not known. Even if the public hears the name of an official, it might not ring a bell in their minds. They are all picked from among experienced motorsports officials and staff.
What do the officials of race control do?
The race director has the ultimate authority on the conduct of the practice and qualification sessions and the race. He is in constant touch with the race clerk, decides and issues the orders to be implemented. He is the one who ensures that the weekend goes as per the stipulated schedule. It is he who decides if a race is to be delayed because of inclement weather or it goes ahead.
The race director’s responsibilities also include deciding whether the red flag has to be displayed to stop a race. He can deploy a safety car or a virtual safety car as he deems fit. While the race clerk is in touch with all the race marshals, the race director can instruct drivers to overtake lapped cars. The race clerk also keeps the race director informed at all times. He is the focal point of race control. He updates the race marshals and other track workers on the race director’s decisions.
The permanent starter is a permanent employee of the FIA. He manages the lights out, a sequence of an elaborate starting procedure. All the cars in a race should start from a standstill on the grid. The permanent starter ensures that this requirement is complied with. If there is a problem with any cars the Race starter talks to the race clerk who initiates action.
How are stewards appointed for F1 races?
A new panel of stewards is appointed for every Grand Prix weekend. Their responsibility is to deliberate on the events that happen on the racecourse and make decisions based on the F1 rules and regulations and the FIA’s Sporting Code. The names of the stewards are also not announced publicly. Three stewards are appointed by the FIA and one among the three is nominated as the chairman of the panel.
A fourth steward is appointed by the local national governing body affiliated to the FIA. The local body also nominates the race clerk. Of the three stewards appointed by the FIA, one of them will have previous racing experience. He is included so that he can help the panel see the case from the drivers’ point of view. Al stewards must hold an FIA super license that is different from a drivers’ super license.
In effect, stewards are the policemen of a racing weekend. If any driver or team steps out of line, it is the stewards’ job to reprimand or penalise them. Whenever stewards award a penalty, one or the other side is not happy with the decision. That is why stewards make the headlines very often. But steward have job to do. They have to make sure that all players and spectators are safe during the weekend and help the race director finish a race on the schedule.
What controversial decisions were taken by stewards?
No one likes decisions after the chequered flag has fallen, least of all the fans. But the stewards are forced to make some post-race decisions to resolve an incident. They have to either let both the drivers go, penalise one driver or penalise both. In either case, the aggrieved party is bound to protest. But some of these incidents, the decisions have been bold, race-defining and even championship defining moments.
1984 Monaco Grand Prix
The rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost has been legendary in Formula 1. They were always competing against each other, whether they were in the same team or different teams. In 1984, the Monaco Grand Prix was delayed by 45 minutes due to a heavy downpour. Alain Prost was the pole sitter while Senna started in the 13th position. Ayrton Senna was rapidly gaining on Prost and looked certain to win the race.
On laps 29 and 31, Alain Prost started waving furiously at the stewards suggesting that the race be stopped because of the rain. Prost was also having a problem of imbalance with his brakes which had also caused Niki Lauda to crash out of the race. The red flag finally came out at the end of lap 32. Senna crossed Prost’s McLaren before the finish line. But F1 rules dictate that in the event a race is stopped midway, the positions at the end of the penultimate lap, in this case lap 31, count in deciding the winner.
The race was stopped by Jacky Ickx, the race clerk, without consulting the stewards. Ickx was promptly relieved of his race official duties and Prost was awarded half the points of a winner. Had the race been allowed to continue for 75 per cent of the laps, Prost would have earned full points due to the winner. At the end of the season, Prost lost the championship title to Niki Lauda by just half a point. But had the race been allowed to go on Prost would have earned full points but would he have won the race?
1989 Japanese Grand Prix
This incident is a case wherein a post-race decision by the stewards awarded the championship with one race to spare. Ayrton Senna was the defending champion and was on the pole. Prost took the lead at the start and held on to it. Senna caught up with Prost on lap 40 and both of them raced in that position for the next five laps. On lap 47 Senna tried a daring pass and was blocked by Prost. The two cars collided.
Alexandro Nannini took the lead and Prost was out of the race. Senna’s car had suffered damage and Senna, with the help of the marshals took the escape route to get to the pit. The McLaren team managed to repair the car and get it back on track. Senna soon overtook Nannini and won the race. But after the race, the stewards decided to disqualify Senna because he bypassed the chicane after the crash with Senna. Alexandro Nannini had won the only race of his career and Alain Prost had won the championship with a race to spare.
Ayrton Senna was livid with the decision. He claimed that the FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre had intervened to give the championship to his compatriot, Alain Prost. The stewards denied this claiming that Balestre was not present when the decision to disqualify Senna was made. McLaren and Senna appealed the decision but to no avail.
1998 British Grand Prix
On a rain-soaked Silverstone track, Mika Hakkinen was leading by a good margin when he spun and damaged his McLaren. The ensuing safety car meant that Hakkinen had lost his lead when the race resumed, Michael Schumacher assumed the lead and continued to do so. Just two laps before the end of the race, Michael Schumacher was handed a ten-second penalty by the stewards for overtaking behind a safety car.
Unsure of what to do, the Ferrari team called Schumacher back to the pits on the last lap. Ferrari’s pit box was after the finish line and Schumacher was still in the pitlane when the chequered flag went down. Schumacher was awarded the race but McLaren protested vehemently. Ferrari contended that the penalty was awarded too late and the team was not sure if the time was to be served or will be deducted from Schumacher’s time at the end of the race.
The FIA’s International Court of Appeals, in a full hearing, decided that the stewards had made several mistakes that day. Michael Schumacher was allowed to retain his British Grand Prix title, his fourth of the season.
2019 Canadian Grand Prix
Sebastian Vettel was leading the race in his Ferrari and defending his lead from Lewis Hamilton. A bit of oversteer on Turn 4 four caused Vettel’s Ferrari to go onto the grass. When he rejoined the track, Lewis Hamilton protested that he was obstructed and pushed off the track. Vettel was put under investigation by the stewards.
To most onlookers and former race drivers, it was a routine racing incident. The race stewards deliberated and decided to award Vettel a 5-second penalty. Sebastian Vettel was still leading the race and Hamilton was chasing closely. However, the 5-second penalty meant that Hamilton had to just stay on Vettel’s tail to win the race. Hamilton did just that and won that Canadian Grand Prix.
Vettel was livid and it looked as though he was going to boycott the podium ceremonies. His personal manager intervened and Sebastian Vettel walked out. On his way to the podium, Vettel showed his displeasure at the stewards’ decision in an enterprising way. He took the No. 1 sign from in front of Hamilton’s car and placed it where his car would have been. He did likewise with the No. 2 sign and placed it in front of Hamilton’s car.
Stewards are appointed to do a job and they do it to the best of their ability. They have the best of facilities with multiple screens and angles. They also listen to the chatter of the racing teams as well as the marshals. About a decade back the FIA included a steward having the driving experience to give the stewards a driver’s perspective of the incident. Spectators only have the arena screens to go to. Even drivers and team officials have only the car video as an additional advantage.
It is best to let the stewards do their jobs. They are bound to err as, like us, they are also human. But they are necessary to keep the sport, drivers, officials and the spectators safe. If a decision by the stewards goes against you today, another one will be in your favour tomorrow. Like in all sports, the drivers, the teams and we the fans have to take the decisions in our stride and get on with the sport.