Banned on the radio
When rock band Queen penned the 1984 hit single ‘Radio Ga Ga’, it’s possible – although extremely unlikely – that they were critiquing motorsport’s increased reliance on race radio to influence and determine the outcome of a race.
Still, we like to think that Freddie Mercury was no fan of some of the pointless chatter that peppers the airwaves in almost every top category in the sport.
Radio? Someone still loves you. But not – interestingly – in DTM.
Why? Because we banned in-race radio chatter at the start of 2018, and – frankly – haven’t looked back since.
It’s a bold step, but it chimes directly with the series’ avowed intention of highlighting and promoting good, close racing. ITR chairman Gerhard Berger – never a man to shy from holding a strident opinion – simply thinks that too much radio contact neuters the racing. And we think he’s right.
So, how does the radio ban actually work? How is it policed? How is it practiced? And does it actually make any difference?
We sat down with a team principal and a DTM driver to ask the key questons:
What is allowed?
First, let’s be clear about what is and isn’t permitted: in-car radio is fully open during free practice and qualifying. It’s also permitted during the race for ‘safety-first’ conversations – to inform drivers of a hazard or a waved-yellow ahead. It’s also opened up during Safety Car periods, meaning drivers can freely converse with their engineers when they are travelling slowly on the track.
“It’s good to have the radio for free practice and qualifying,” explains DTM race winner Philipp Eng. It’s useful for traffic management and everything else. Then, in the race, if
there’s a yellow flag or Safety Car, you’re allowed to talk – but it’s important that you use that time properly: for example, I always want to know how many DRS activations the guys around me still have; what’s the age of their tyres, and what was their pace was before the Safety Car came out.”
“I’m happy that radio communication is allowed during free practice,” adds his team boss, Bart Mampaey. “It helps to explain things to a driver – especially a rookie; the car is so complex that it needs explanation during the weekend sessions.”
Staying safe helps to open the channels, but it doesn’t make communication straightforward, according to Mampaey: “If the race director announces a change in climatic conditions, then the driver can ask us a question, and we can only respond by saying yes or no. In other words, the driver won’t necessarily know there’s a change in climatic conditions, so they need to regularly ask! We cannot tell them.”
Teams are also allowed to inform the driver about the freeing-up of driver aids for the final five laps of the race: it’s a new rules for 2019, allowing free usage of the DRS and P2P. “We can tell the driver in just one sentence,” adds Mampaey. “Obviously, the driver doesn’t know when it’s the start of the final five laps, so this exception makes sense.”
Practice makes perfect
Clearly, the best way to ensure the team and driver are aligned during the race is to perfect the lines of communication away from the racetrack. In the case of BMW Team RBM, this means plenty of scenario-planning using the simulator.
“We really aim to ensure the driver is autonomous,” says Mampaey. “We need him to fully understand how DTM racing actually works; what he has to do exactly at each stage of the race. And that requires training – which differs from circuit to circuit.
“So we use the simulator. Our drivers come to the workshop before each race – on the Tuesday or Wednesday – and we train them about where to best deploy the DRS, and refine the plan for each race.”
Communication in the race
With radio chat banned, teams are required to go distinctly old-school: using a good, old-fashioned pit-board.
And even that is standardised: “It just says ‘box’ on it,” laughs Mampaey. “That’s the only thing that’s allowed. You can’t put anything else!”
Eng relishes the sense of independence the regulation encourages: “I’ve always treated the radio as a back-up in an emergency,” he says. “I don’t need anybody to hold my hand over the radio.”
Without an engineer to hand-hold a driver during the race, teams and drivers increasingly rely on their own learning and experience across the race weekend to guide and inform their race preparation.
“In DTM, we don’t have telemetry in the car,” explains Mampaey, “So the car is the ‘black box’ and the driver can look at information on the dash – but the teams can’t see that, so the driver can relay it over the r
Eng enjoys the engineering aspect of the discipline: “Across the weekend, we build up our understanding of how the tyre degrades, and how that affects our strategy. From Saturday to Sunday, you gain a much better understanding of what’s going to happen on Sunday because you know how the tyres work. I can then feed back to the team more clearly about what I predict is going to happen with the cars and the tyres.”
Despite the ‘inconvenience’ of the radio ban, it’s an effective ‘old school’ way of going racing, and it definitely works.
Mampaey concludes with a smile: “The driver talks to us all the time! We just can’t reply!”