It’s a role that you probably have not heard of in Formula 1, but the Sporting Director is a vital part of maintaining the operational and sporting aspects of a team. They will keep in contact with the FIA over sporting matters, manage the logistics and travel for the team, and – as of recent – being the COVID delegate. Veteran Sporting Director for Alfa Romeo, Beat Zehnder, has been with the team for 30 years and was a key part of the team who were tasked with helping compose the rules and guidance for teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was pretty tough, we stayed in the bubble all the time,” Zehnder recalls of that tricky period. “For the whole year I saw the same 60 faces or 70 faces every week, then on the weekends I had to ask my team to behave sensibly, and not go to big parties. It was pretty intense.” “But in the end, we have to say we did a good job because I think we showed in 2020 that we can have a season – although a little bit shortened – but it was it was impressive how all teams work together.” The results of the hard work paid off, as F1 became the first international sport to restart in mid-2020 when the season opener took place at Austria just four months after the cancellation of the ill-fated Australian Grand Prix. Has F1 become too complicated? Part of the job of a Sporting Director is to understand and interpret the F1 sporting regulations, with teams often pushing the boundaries. But has it become too complicated over the years? Since the controversial end to the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi the rules have come under the spot light even more, as fans struggle to grasp some of the technicalities and nuances. “Obviously the technical regulation is quite complicated. But don’t necessarily think that people at home in front of TV have to understand the technical side. You have to know the basics, but not the detailed technical regulations,” says Zehnder. “I think a lot of the sporting regulation [side] is quite clear. Then obviously you have the application of penalties, and this is up to the stewards of the meeting. “It’s subjective, like in soccer. One referee might see a free kick and the other one might not. So they’re judges of fact and that’s why I don’t think it’s too complicated.” The sport can often be accused of ‘making it up as they go along’ by fans, which was what happened when a record three red flags were shown during the Australian Grand Prix this year. F1 has a tricky relationship with the red flag, with its usage increasing over the last few years. It’s not that the regulations have changed as such, the main source of conflict lies with F1’s desire to get as many racing laps in as possible. Zehnder points to the recent example of the Italian Grand Prix finishing under Safety Car, which prompted cries from fans that it should have been red flagged and restarted. “A race goes over a certain distance and in Melbourne the race ends after 58 laps and not before,” he explains. “Last year in Monza, in Italy, we had the last four laps where we had the Safety Cars, because Daniel Ricciardo stopped with an engine problem and they couldn’t rescue the car in time. “So we had four laps behind the Safety Car and the whole world shouted ‘How dare you!’ or ‘How boring that F1 doesn’t even have the guts to restart the race!” “Now in Melbourne we did the opposite and the world is shouting again that it was wrong. But for me, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be performing a standing start. “If conditions allow and it’s specific in the regulation, why would you do the last two or three laps we have left behind the Safety Car? We clearly decided we’re going to race for as long as possible. So for me, it is straightforward.” Some championships have introduced their version of ‘extra time’ whereby more racing laps can be added in the event of a Safety Car, including Formula E. Could this be something that gets added to F1 in the future? “No,” says Zehnder bluntly. “Everything is designed and calculated to the absolute perfect performance standard. You wouldn’t carry around three, four laps of fuel just in case. “You have the distance, you have the time limit, the time limit of the overall event, and to me it [Melbourne] was executed perfectly.” One rule that could be changed in F1? With all his experience dealing with the FIA on the specifics of regulations, what’s the one rule that Zehnder would like to see changed in the sport? “I would have banned tyre blankets a long, long time ago. We’re the only series that needs tyre blankets!” “I think the first time we talked about it was some 15 years ago and we always postponed it. But now we have a serious attempt.” F1 is looking at banning them completely in 2024 on the grounds of environmental impact it will have, as it looks to be net carbon zero by 2030. However, the move has been met with a lot of hostility from drivers including Lewis Hamilton, who outright called the plans dangerous . But Zehnder believes with enough testing and design considerations, the move can be made to abolish them once and for all. “We already did some tyre tests without the blankets and of course it’s not the same. But the teams and especially the drivers will have to adapt – the grip level is not the same like if you run tyres which are pre-heated to 70 degrees, it’s simply not possible. “But you have to take this in consideration and we’re the best engineers. We can do it, I’m pretty sure.” Read part one and part two of our interview with Beat Zehnder.
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