A sportsman’s blow against march of the robots
Notoriously a man with little to say for himself, Kimi Raikkonen certainly made his words count as he sped to victory in Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
When his race engineer came on the radio to inform him of the gap to the pursuing Ferrari of Fernando Alonso, the Finn’s reply was blunt and pointed: “Just leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.” Late in the race the same voice came through his earpiece, telling him to remember to warm up his new set of tyres. “Yes, yes, yes, yes,” he responded. “I’m doing all the tyres. You don’t have to remind me every second.”
I loved that. It seemed a wonderfully refreshing corrective to the phenomenon, by no means confined to motor racing, of turning sportsmen and women into robots controlled by technicians sitting on the sidelines.
How pitiful it looks when tennis players – step forward, Maria Sharapova and the young Andy Murray – glance up at the coaches’ box between every point, seeking approval or absolution, or when football managers – this means you, Rafa Benítez and André Villas-Boas – hop around their technical area, trying to micromanage the positioning and movement of their players. I want competitors to go naked into the arena, and to stand or fall by their own decisions.
What Formula One fan has not winced at the sound of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa being given advice by his race engineer, Rob Smedley? There was the famous occasion in 2010 when Smedley delivered a controversial semi-coded instruction: “Fernando [Alonso] is faster than you. Can you confirm that you understood that message?” Soon Massa was pulling over to let his team leader win the German Grand Prix. In Singapore the following year, when Massa and Lewis Hamilton were feuding, Smedley told his driver: “Hold Hamilton as much as we can. Destroy his race as much as we can. Come on, boy!”
Should a racing driver need to be told to go faster or fight harder? But then not only does modern F1 give the drivers gimmicks to help with overtaking, it tells them exactly where on the circuit such a manoeuvre is permitted.
It is an employee of Bernie Ecclestone’s TV production company, sitting in the mobile broadcasting centre, who monitors the chatter between the teams and their drivers. He identifies what we might like to hear and brings it to the attention of the director, who pastes it into the broadcast. So we are allowed to listen to Driver A fretting about a lack of front-end grip, or Driver B being told to put in a couple of super-quick laps while a rival is stopping for a tyre change.
While making inquiries about the protocols surrounding this form of supervised eavesdropping, I made an interesting discovery. Although the teams have no control over the selection of these snippets, they do have one weapon at their disposal: when passing information they are keen to conceal from others, they ensure that an obscenity forms a prominent part of the conversation.
Consistent as these intercom exchanges may be with the increasingly scientific nature of the sport, they not only diminish a sense of the drivers’ self-reliance but remove a precious element of uncertainty. The same is true of American football, where the quarterback and designated defensive players are allowed to wear helmets containing radio receivers, and to an even greater degree in cycling, where the UCI, in one of its more enlightened initiatives, is trying to do away with radio communication between riders and their team cars.
Without their earpieces, Tour de France riders would return to the old-school reliance on blackboards carried by official motorbikes to inform them of the gap between a breakaway and the peloton. Such information is necessarily approximate and not quite up to the minute, meaning that the riders would need to make greater use of their experience and intuition. This is surely a good thing since it would reduce the chance of a day’s racing turning into a game of two-wheeled chess and allow a brave lone break – one of the sport’s principal attractions – a better chance of success.
Ben Swift, Team Sky’s gifted sprinter, had just finished this year’s Vuelta a España when he gave me the pros’ standard objections to removing the radio links. First, he said, it would be harder for the riders to get news of hazards up ahead. Second, the necessity for the team cars to spend more time alongside the riders would constitute a danger in itself, not just to the competitors but to the spectators on the roadsides.
Good arguments, but not good enough. Cycling, like grand prix racing, existed and thrived for decades without remote communications. Kimi Raikkonen’s unexpected outbursts were striking a blow for the past, on behalf of the future.