The 2021 Formula 1 season ended messily, to put it lightly, and the FIA is hoping technology will prevent a repeat. As part of a string of changes, Formula 1 is implementing a “Virtual Race Control Room” akin to the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) you see in soccer. The “backup” will sit outside the circuit and use a real-time link with the race director to enforce rules using the “most modern technological tools.”
The race director will also be cut off from direct radio communications to reduce pressure. It will still be possible to ask questions, but there will be a strict procedure for this.
The move comes after a controversial end to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December 2021. Lewis Hamilton was leading the race, with five lapped drivers sitting behind the safety car and preventing rival Max Verstappen from realistically contesting Hamilton’s position. However, race director Michael Masi made the controversial decision to let those trailing drivers “unlap” themselves by passing the safety car, giving Verstappen a much easier time of challenging Hamilton’s lead. With the help of fresh tires, Verstappen passed Hamilton (who was using worn tires) to win the race and, in turn, the Driver’s Championship.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team appealed Masi’s call by pointing to rules requiring all cars to unlap themselves, and for racing to resume the following lap, rather than immediately. The team also claimed Verstappen’s front wing briefly passed Hamilton while behind the safety car. Race stewards rejected the appeal.
There are no guarantees the virtual control room will improve F1 rule enforcement. This and VAR represent a shift in officiating techniques, however. Sports leagues appear less and less content to rely solely on human judgment — technology isn’t replacing race directors or referees, but it might ensure their calls hold up under scrutiny.