During a Formula 1 race, you’ll often hear brief radio exchanges between the driver and their team regarding events happening out on track. These are often engaging and insightful but may leave many wondering whether F1 drivers can communicate with each other during races.
F1 drivers can’t talk to each other during races. This would lead to multiple issues, such as confusion for the drivers when they are trying to get information from their teams, as well as technical issues, such as radio interruptions. Communication is restricted to the driver and their pit wall.
It is possible for teammates to get messages across to each other, but to do so, they must go through their designated race engineer, who will pass the message on. In this article we will discuss the role of the F1 team radio and how it all works, as well as who drivers can talk to during races.
Team Radios In F1 Explained
While F1 team radios rose to prominence in 1984, their official origin is disputed, with some claiming that Lotus engineer Colin Chapman was floating the idea of F1 radio communication around back in the 1970s. The analog radios that first became widely used in 1984 were wildly unpredictable, often falling victim to interference and crosstalk.
Digital radio systems eventually began phasing out the traditional analog radios during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Digital radio systems allow for stronger radio transmissions, making them more reliable across all areas of the track. They also produce clearer sound, eradicating the choppy muffles that drivers and teams previously had to put up with.
Nowadays, teams use two-way radio frequencies that encrypt their signal so they can’t be interrupted by communications from other teams. These radio communications are often broadcast to the public in short segments with a small delay to omit any unsavory language. They are also regulated by the FIA to prevent any foul play.
Not all teams welcomed this broadcasting with open arms, with Ferrari and McLaren keeping their radio exchanges close to their chest for a very long time. This was until the FIA stepped in and made it mandatory for radio transmissions to be broadcast.
How Do Drivers Activate Their Radio Communication?
To activate radio communication, the drivers will press a button located towards the top of their wheel. This will put them in direct communication with their race engineer. Drivers are fitted with a bespoke earpiece before the race to allow them to hear messages from their team. They speak through a microphone fitted inside their helmet which is plugged into the car.
There are various access points dotted around the track that pick up the signals from the radio, meaning the drivers should, in theory, have a clear and strong communication with their team wherever they are on the track, which is vital for longer tracks like Spa-Francorchamps.
Do F1 Team Radios Ever Go Wrong?
Even though F1 radio technology has substantially improved since the 1980s, it can still go wrong. With the microphone being placed inside the helmet, it is vulnerable to shaking and heavy movement when the car is out on the track. This can sometimes cause it to slip out of position, becoming muffled and subsequently leaving the team back in the pits unable to hear what their driver is saying.
This issue is inconvenient for both parties, but easily solvable, as the driver will still be able to hear the strategy that their team wish to employ. However, it’s a far less routine solution if it happens the other way round. Due to fact F1 cars are so loud, drivers may sometimes find it hard to hear what their team is saying to them.
When Radios Stop Working Properly
If this is the case, they may request for the team to talk to them either when they are on a straight, or when they’re passing through slow corners, as their engine and revs won’t be at their loudest.
FUN FACT: Max Verstappen’s radio malfunctioned in the final stages of the Canadian Grand Prix in 2022, but he still managed to fend of Carlos Sainz to take victory!
If the driver still can’t hear, or communication cuts out altogether, then teams will revert to the old reliable tactic of displaying their messages on pit boards as the driver goes past. These messages will be short and simple, as the driver won’t have much time to read them, but they will convey the main points that need to be said, such as when the driver should come into the pits.
Do F1 Drivers Talk To Each Other Over The Radio?
F1 drivers cannot talk to each other over the radio. The communication is restricted to the driver and their engineers. If a driver wanted to get a message out to their teammate, they would have to go through their engineer first. There is no real need for driver to driver communication in F1.
If teammates were able to communicate with each other during a race it would put them in danger of fracturing their relationship, as F1 drivers can be quite brutal when the red mist descends, and they’ll say things in the heat of the moment that are perhaps a bit unnecessary.
No Contact With Other Teams
As you would expect, drivers also have no contact with drivers from other teams while out on track. This would potentially lead to a minefield of abuse and insult-hurling, not to mention how busy the radio frequencies would become. It would be very difficult from a technological standpoint to allow 20 drivers to access each other’s radio waves.
This would also lead to confusion between the drivers as to who was talking to who, and the last thing you want when travelling at 200 mph is unnecessary confusion. So, it’s probably a good thing that drivers are restricted to hand gestures or the occasional wag of the finger – Fernando Alonso showed us how the latter is done at the 2022 Austrian Grand Prix!
KEY POINTS• F1 team radios weren’t always as clear and as accessible as they are now
• While drivers cannot talk to each other, they can communicate with their pit wall
• It wouldn’t make much sense to allow drivers to talk to each other
Who Can F1 Drivers Talk To On The Radio?
F1 drivers can talk to their race engineer on the radio, and occasionally messages will come from other members of the team like the team principal. They will be in constant communication with their race engineer about car and track conditions, and to discuss strategy calls.
The bulk of the driver’s communication will be between them and their designated race engineer. The race engineer will be with them on the comms throughout the race, occasionally relaying information to the driver from other sections of the garage, such as strategy calls. You’ll also occasionally hear the team principal talk directly to the driver.
Team Principals Joining In
An example of this was during the 2022 French Grand Prix, when Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff effectively told George Russell to stop complaining and carry on with the race after an on-track altercation with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez. It’s not often that the principal will get involved in such a way, unless they are congratulating their driver at the end of the race.
The primary job of the designated race engineer during the race will be to report back any strategy changes to the driver, as well as telling them when they want them to pit, how many laps they have left, and other technical details. They will also warn the driver of any upcoming yellow flags or traffic, as they have access to details that the driver won’t be able to see.
Other Radio Usage
Occasionally, other members of the pit wall will interject with comments to the driver, such as the data analysts discussing tire wear and fuel loads, among other more technical details. However, a lot of the time they will pass the information on to the race engineer instead.
If a driver has a crash, the race engineer will be the first to ask if they are alright, as well as reminding them to disengage the engine and letting them know when to leave the car and get to safety.
The Ups And Downs Of Being A Race Engineer
The job of the designated engineer is a very important one, but also a very tough one. They will often have to make calls that their driver won’t necessarily agree with, leaving them on the end of some particularly harsh tirades, like poor Julien Simon-Chautemps, the unlucky receiver of multiple Kimi Raikkonen outbursts.
However, as the driver will spend most of their time out on track with just the race engineer in their ear, it can lead to some close relationships forming, such is the case with Lewis Hamilton and his long-time race engineer, Peter ‘Bono’ Bonnington. Hamilton has worked with Bonnington since he joined Mercedes in 2013, and they have won six World Drivers’ Championships together.
Long term partnerships between drivers and their engineers are common in F1, as they provide important continuity and familiarity. The engineers will also need to know how much information the driver likes to receive, as some will prefer more communication than others.
KEY POINTS• F1 drivers will normally communicate solely with their race engineer
• You’ll often hear the winning driver’s team principal come on the radio at the end of the race too
• F1 drivers usually form very close relationships with their race engineers
F1 drivers cannot talk to each other while driving, and instead they usually only communicate with their race engineer over their team radio. We’ll likely never hear F1 drivers communicating with each other over the radio, as it would probably get very chaotic and unpleasant very quickly.