Guenther Steiner may have had to apologise for the way he expressed his criticisms of Formula 1’s stewarding systems, but the fundamental point he made is correct.
It is an anachronism for a sporting competition as wealthy and high-profile as Formula 1 not to have permanent, professional stewards.
To avoid falling into the same trap as Steiner, it’s important to delineate between professional in status and professional in conduct. The use of the word “laymen” and mentioning other sports had “professional” referees, according to the stewards “could be, and indeed were, perceived to cause offence and in our view reasonably did cause offence not only to the stewards in Monaco but also to other FIA personnel and many motorsport volunteers”.
There are plenty of volunteers and what should be technically classed as ‘amateurs’ who do a very professional job so this is not fundamentally about that. Instead, it’s about the role of what Steiner called ‘the referees’, the significance of the stewards and the unique place they have in the wider perception of F1. While the stewards generally do a good, professional job – genuinely – there is always room for improvement.
Perhaps the word ‘professional’ isn’t the right one to focus on – instead it should be the word ‘permanent’. A permanent stewarding panel (either four or a small pool of, say, six to allow for a little rotation and stand-ins if required) will inevitably have advantages over a more fluid one and to facilitate that they would need to be fully-paid professionals who focus on that role throughout the year.
That would come with a cost attached, but that continuity would help with the ever-troublesome pursuit of consistency.
Now consistency is easy to demand and more difficult to deliver. Every incident is a little different and there always will be some point where there is a fine line between a penalty or no penalty for two ostensibly similar incidents. The FIA keeps a comprehensive, easy-access archive of past cases for easy reference, but a permanent panel would have first-hand experience of the full body of case law and a depth of knowledge that cannot fail to exceed that of those who are not so heavily involved.
It has long been suggested that this carries a problem of perceived bias. But anyone who has worked in motorsport will have myriad connections in the past with any number of drivers or entities. If your favourite driver has been penalised, you can always reach for the fact that one of the stewards was a test driver for someone-or-other 30 years ago rather than trying to form a coherent argument.
That will happen regardless of who the stewards are and the gains of permanence would counterbalance any disadvantage there. After all, it would give the chance to address directly the consistency question – something that is occasionally done in stewarding documents but not often enough.
The question of perception is also essential as well and that’s something the FIA should be very sensitive about given the fallout from the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Full-time, professional referees have boosted standards in the way other professional sports are officiated, so it stands to reason this would have the same effect in F1. Clearly, it would be ridiculous to suggest that there isn’t still criticism and controversy in other sports, but there is value in the apparent accountability.
There are recent examples of this. Prior to what happened in late 2021, the FIA race director would answer questions about decisions made -with the answers and explanations getting wide coverage. The vast majority of the time, these explanations were coherent, effective and ensured a greater depth of understanding of rules and process. Unfortunately, these have been absent since the start of 2022.
Like so many sporting governing bodies, the FIA isn’t keen on explaining itself. But at a time when F1 is more popular than ever, the demands of a modern audience for a more open approach to governance mean it needs to ensure there’s plenty of investment in demonstrating sporting integrity.
But even small actions like the FIA Twitter account publishing an anodyne quote from AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost as one of two ‘toplines’ from the Friday press conference in Spain has more of the air of authoritarian government saying everything is great rather than facing any criticism head-on.
— FIA (@fia) June 2, 2023
It was probably more rooted in an attempt to counteract the perceived damage done by Steiner’s words, but to the wider world it has a very different impact and look.
The FIA gets a lot of criticism and a lot of it is unreasonable. But some of it is absolutely valid. The debate about permanent stewards is one that has rumbled on in the background for some years and seems such an obvious move given the prevailing wind in international sport that it’s remarkable it hasn’t been resolved.
Regardless of Steiner having to apologise for the way he expressed it, the point he made is absolutely correct and one the FIA should act on even if it does come at a cost.
The key question, and therefore perhaps the flaw, in the argument is who would want to take on such a poisoned chalice of a job?