Stewards have been very much in the limelight recently although this is hardly unusual, irrespective of time, place and specific disciplines of racing.
Instant opinion, through social media or the thrust of a microphone to gauge immediate reaction from competitors rapidly after incidents occur is bound to create headlines.
But what if you go beyond the headlines? Who are the people that you rarely get to hear about? The stewards themselves.
Relatively little is known about what goes on behind the stewarding doors in top-level motorsport, and how they prepare, practice and execute their work, particularly in Formula E.
At the Paris E-Prix in April, e-racing365 was granted exclusive access to the stewards’ room and given time with FIA circuit championship director Frederic Bertrand and chairman of the stewards in Paris, Michael Schwägerl.
Stewards are chosen by the FIA and given a licence to specify they are fully independent. They are not paid and they work on a voluntary basis with travel and accommodation as expenses.
They are not linked contractually to the FIA. This is important, because it is a key reason why the sport’s governing body does not interfere in the decision making process: by contract it cannot.
However, the FIA can nominate stewards for the selection process which is mostly made based on the practical experiences stewards have in their careers.
“I am really keen on having stewards who [not only] have experience in single-seater [racing] but also on other championships too,” Bertrand tells e-racing365.
“So that’s the reason we work with Michael [Schwägerl], for example, not only in Formula E, but also on the World Endurance Championship and touring cars, so that he has a ‘global view’ of what is happening and standardization of the experiences of that specific role.”
Some of the stewards, like Schwägerl, have a legal background, with the former German national rally driver still a practicing lawyer of strong reputation.
Formula E has two international stewards per race weekend, with one being the chairman, while the other works alongside a national steward nominated by the race location’s local ASN.
“We try to make teams you can relate to on one side with the legal skill and the FIA experience, and on the other side you take somebody having a different view and experience, this is how we try to do it,” explains Bertrand.
According to Bertrand, the actual selection from a specific Formula E point view has one important ingredient running through it: team work.
“I try to have people who are able to cope with the full system and specificities of Formula E,” he explains.
“For example, being fast in decision making, being able to to work in an environment which is not as comfortable as some others because we are often in temporary structures and setups.”
Reacting Precisely and Quickly
It cannot be over-emphasised how busy the race days at a Formula E event are.
For teams, it’s notoriously tough with all the on-track running crammed into a single eight or nine-hour day. Equally, for the stewards’ reaction time and judgement, accuracy and speed are paramount.
“Forty-five minutes for a race decision is not easy, or the timing that you have between sessions, so these are all faculties we try to create and have some people able to fit with the team,” says Bertrand.
“In Formula E we have [the driver advisor] and always there I think it is quite good to have not signing a decision, because, for example we are using the driver advisor to go to this driver and speak with him.
“Maybe if you speak with him after a decision to explain it from driver to driver way it is sometimes better than if he will sign a decision and then they say he is on the same side, et cetera.”
This is where the interface between race director Scot Elkins, the stewards and the drivers and teams is vital. Unlike Formula 1, the driver advisor does not have the capability to make and sign off an official decision.
The driver advisor is a difficult role to find because the FIA has to select someone not only with experience but who also has no ties to manufacturers or teams. Impartiality is key.
This is why former racers such as Paul Belmondo, Enrique Bernoldi and Tonio Luizzi are often used, and why the likes of ex-Formula E racers such as Nick Heidfeld or Nico Prost have never been utilized since they only recently stopped competing in the championship.
“The race director will go to [the driver advisor] and say ‘What’s your opinion, it’s this corner, which is why he’s done that’, if it’s like this, and its normally if you are on a legal base from a normal drivers steward like, we have it in Formula 1, this is different.
“Honestly, we have discussed it very often and from our side it is quite good to have it like we have it here in Formula E.”
Inside the Stewards Base-Camp
The stewards at Formula E races are located in a bespoke room separate from the race director, who works from race control.
Elkins has a bank of cameras covering every aspect of the circuit, whereas the stewards don’t have the same opportunity to view that amount of detailed coverage.
“They have some TVs like [the media] and if the race director realizes something on one of the cameras he can send these images and also GPS [data] to the stewards and say, ‘OK I put it under investigation’, or, ‘Please stewards look over there if we should put it under investigation or not,’ explains Schwägerl.
As chairman, Schwägerl will take a look and judge whether or not to put the incident under investigation.
“We check all of the cameras what we can get,” he says.
“We look to the data what we can have from the scrutineers to see, to compare the speed from the two cars and where he was in front and because sometimes it’s a main decision you have to do.”
With Formula E races often action-packed and relatively short, the issue of time penalties or drive-through penalties converted into time penalties is done as soon as possible.
“In the WEC you have minimum six hours to make some decisions, here it’s really tight and tough,” explains Schwägerl.
“The difference is we don’t have a hearing with the driver so the decision will be made mostly for incidents during the race, without hearing a driver and hearing his version and the version of the other driver.
“We see them after the race, during the race they are not very happy with the decision and then they comment the decision somewhere, but it’s OK, we have to do the decision and it has to be done, full stop.”
The uniqueness of powerful single-seaters racing on often tight street circuits brings with it a variety of different challenges, and they are ones that incrementally improve the procedures as the all-electric championship matures.
“In Formula E we have different pit lengths, all the pitlanes have to be adapted with special parameters and whatever else,” opines Schwägerl.
“This is one thing what we have to discuss after each race, and I think you found already during the different seasons that we made some small differences on some race circuits, because we have found we have to do a chicane a little bit different for the next year, and I think we will have this also for the future.
“Because now with only one car [per entry] we will get a lot of experience that we will bring also to Season Six and we are still always in discussions what we can make better.”
E-racing365 would like to thank Britta McKenna, Frederic Bertrand and Michael Schwägerl for the access granted to write this feature.