Are You Sleeping? Radio Communications In Formula One

by Rae Castillon

If you have watched a Formula One Grand Prix or caught clips on social media or YouTube, you’ve likely seen and heard the voice of a Formula One driver and race engineer communicating. Watching these clips makes it clear that radio communications are critical to managing a Formula 1 car and for a driver’s safety and success. In fact, Red Bull Racing, the team on pace to win the 2022 Constructors’ Championship as of publication, states that “a team that doesn’t communicate well doesn’t win. Whether you are looking at NFL odds or Formula One future bets, communication is key to winning championships in any sport.

Since communication and communication systems are vital aspects of a Formula One car, Race Team, and race operations, we will explore Formula One radio communication systems. Before exploring the systems, uses, and abuses of Formula One radio communication systems, we will explore when and where radio communications are unavailable to the Formula One teams and drivers.

Please Turn Off Your Radios! No Formula One Radio Communications Allowed

After watching any Formula One media, it is quickly apparent that the drivers have access to a radio. We’ve heard seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton and race engineer Peter Bonnington chat about tires and timing gaps while also hearing drivers scold each other openly over the radio. The information transmitted from the driver on track to the team in the paddock and back to their home base of operations is used to engineer the car to be faster and more efficient in every manner while giving the driver as much information as needed (or the driver wants).

Many of you are probably wondering if the Formula One drivers can talk to each other over the radio during a race or an official Formula One session. Despite clearly communicating with each other in various ways and many avenues, the 20 Formula One drivers cannot speak directly to each other over the radio system at all. While it would be entertaining to hear the drivers talk trash to each other, Formula One cars are too fast and complex to jeopardize safety because two drivers are engaging in conversation rather than controlling and maximizing the potential of their machinery.

When a Formula One car enters the pit lane, the radio remains open until the car is back in the garage. Once parked in the garage, the two-way link between the car and the team is closed and private to the team. While teams have a two-way direct link between the driver and the team, the teams have far more communication options outside of that, being able to communicate with various members of the race day team, along with race operations.

However, direct access to the FIA Race Director has been eliminated in the 2022 season. The teams used to have a direct link to the Race Director, which sporting directors and team principals used to actively complain, campaign, and express their dissatisfaction with race operations or race happenings directly to the person in charge. After the dramatic, last-lap conclusion to the 2021 Formula One season, it was decided that the teams could no longer have direct access to the Race Director via radio and that conversations between the teams and the FIA would no longer be broadcast for the role they played in the outcome of the 2021 World Championship.

The Basics You Need To Know About Formula One Radio Communications

So, how do Formula One radio systems work, and what are the various purposes of the radio? First, radio communication has numerous purposes, the most important of which is safety. It doesn’t matter if it is a road car or a Formula One car; automobiles are dangerous machines. Road cars rely on individuals to operate their vehicles safely while giving the driver all the safety features possible to survive a collision.

On a Formula One circuit, the speed, and power of the cars amplify the potential consequences of every incident. Throughout a race weekend, the radio system is used to communicate with the drivers on track and create a safer circuit. Race engineers and the drivers communicate about changing track and car conditions and where other drivers are to ensure that on every lap possible, the car and driver return to the paddock under their own power, potentially only slightly worse for wear.

After an incident, the first response from the Formula One teams is to check on the status of their driver through the direct-link radio system. Race operations and the FIA use radio communications to initiate the recovery of the vehicle, driver, and debris from the incident before using radio communications to get the session back to racing conditions.

The Formula One teams and FIA officials use TETRA digital trunked radio systems for their communication needs. These systems are unencrypted and allow routing options, so only the team members who need to hear radio communication receive that communication. For example, the strategy team at the home base cannot communicate directly with the driver in the car or the race engineer. Still, it will likely have access to the critical conversations between driver and engineer to do their jobs, communicating directly with the team’s chief strategist on the pit wall.

Much like everything in Formula One, even radio communications are complicated. Communications are an integral part of the successful operation of a Formula One car, team, and winning. Since 2010, only Mercedes and Red Bull have won either World Championship. Both teams will count efficient, transparent, and open communication amongst the most significant contributors to their success alongside driver talent, work ethic, and technological ingenuity.

For radio fans, you can find an entire list of identity tags and frequency ranges for the Formula One grid here. For Formula One fans, you can listen to all of the radio action in any session, watching the driver onboard cameras, where the team radio and the sound of the car and wind are the soundtracks to the session.

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