Formula 1 drivers may look like they are alone in the car, but with the press of a button, they can turn to their teams for support and guidance.
Radio communication is an important part of Formula 1 races. Drivers have a button on their steering wheel that will activate their radio, allowing them to communicate with their team using a microphone and earpiece in their helmet.
Each driver has a designated engineer who is his main contact during races. For example, Max Verstappen of Red Bull has Gianpiero Lambiase, Charles Leclerc of Ferrari has Xavier Marcos Padros, for Mick Schumacher of Haas it’s Gary Gannon, and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes has Peter Bonnington, known as Bono.
Bonnington has been the race engineer for Hamilton since 2013. Hamilton said Bonnington had been “hugely integral” to his success, helping him win six of his seven championships.
“We’ve had an amazing journey together,” Hamilton said. “We’ve supported each other on and off the track, in good and bad times. I love working with Bono. He’s like a brother to me.”
Teams will have as many as 80 people on their radio channels during a race. This will include the pit crew, the strategists making the race-defining calls and the engineers who ensure that the car is working properly. It is then up to the race engineer to filter the relevant information and feed it to the driver.
In the days before radio communication, teams gave directions to drivers by writing letters and numbers on information boards, which were then held over the side of the pit wall on every lap for the drivers to read as they zoomed past. That method is still used when car-to-pit radios fail.
“It’s a very good way of actually communicating,” said Paul Monaghan, the chief engineer of Red Bull. “You won’t always know that the radio has failed. It might have just gone quiet for a bit, or the driver is asking you questions, and he’s getting more and more irate because the replies aren’t reaching him.”
Schumacher started working with Gannon when he made his Formula 1 debut last year. “Gary’s always been somebody I could rely on,” Schumacher said. “As a rookie coming in, he showed me the way, what was important and what was not.
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“We really managed to build up a really good understanding when it comes to driving our car.”
The amount of communication between a driver and the engineer varies, Gannon said in an interview. Some drivers prefer to be left alone. In 2012, Kimi Raikkonen, who was with Lotus at the time, replied, “Just leave me alone, I know what I’m doing,” after being nudged by his race engineer during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The plea became so famous that it was printed on T-shirts.
But Schumacher is keen for updates on every lap, receiving information such as the time gaps to other cars and tire condition.
“Mick really thrives off having information,” Gannon said. “He likes to know lots of things, so we can give him a lot, and also he’s not distracted by it.”
Radio communications with drivers are broadcast, and the public can listen in on the Formula 1 TV coverage, as can viewers of “Drive to Survive” on Netflix. Teams also listen to each other to gain information on their rivals.
Engineers will often talk to their drivers in code, such as “Plan A” or “Plan B” to communicate strategy. Gannon said it was about “finding the right balance of getting the right information without giving everything away.”
But internal radio communications remain private, meaning teams can discuss plans openly before taking it to the driver. Monaghan of Red Bull helps oversee its operations during a race and can “talk to anybody within the garage during the race, on the pit wall or whatever members of the team, whether it’s here at the circuit or in our operations room.”
The race engineer is normally the only person to speak directly to a driver during a race, preventing a distracting overload of information with multiple voices talking at the same time.
This means the person in charge of the team rarely talks to the driver during a race. Toto Wolff, the team principal of Mercedes, said he had been “trying to resist pushing the button” to activate his radio channel to the driver for the past 10 years, intervening only when necessary.
“One voice speaks to the drivers, unless there’s something else happening,” Wolff said. “For them it’s good, they know the words, they know the tonality of their engineer, so you don’t want to disturb them.”
The race engineer will also be the first person to deal with a driver’s emotions during races. Gannon said he had learned to grow a “thick skin” with drivers getting frustrated.
He had to tell Schumacher at the Austrian Grand Prix in July not to overtake his teammate, Kevin Magnussen, despite Schumacher believing he was faster. The team felt passing might give Hamilton, who was following them, a chance to get by them both.
It led to some frustration from Schumacher, who said on the radio, “I don’t agree, like seriously,” but Gannon said it was “what the team needs, so I have to go do it.”
Even seasoned veterans can get frustrated on the radio. At the Dutch Grand Prix in September, a strategic mistake by Mercedes cost Hamilton a chance to fight for the win when the team decided not to have him pit for fresh tires.
“I can’t believe it guys,” Hamilton said on the radio. “You screwed me man. I can’t tell you how pissed I am right now.” Bonnington calmly replied: “Copy Lewis. We’ll chat afterwards.” It defused the situation.
Hamilton said in Mexico last month that Bonnington’s demeanor was vital.
“How calm he’s able to be throughout the race, and how he’s been able to guide and help navigate me through a race, I don’t think there’s many people who could do that,” Hamilton said.
Monaghan said he believed that being a race engineer was a “kind of agony aunt role” that had “a degree of psychology to it.” But he said establishing that bond between the engineer and the driver over the radio was critical.
“If the driver trusts the team and vice versa, then we’re in a position where we’re not doubting one another, questioning one another,” he said. “Then you’re a team and fighting as one.”