Button’s complaint shows we need more team radio

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Jenson Button, McLaren, Bahrain International Circuit, 2013The battle between Jenson Button and Sergio Perez was one of the highlights of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

It was made all the more interesting because Button’s increasing irritation at being given a hard time by his team mate could be heard in clips played from the team’s radio broadcast.

“He just hit me up the back,” complained Button at one point, adding: “Calm him down.”

Though McLaren has since cleared the air between its drivers, Button remains unhappy that his conversation with the team was heard by television viewers.

“The problem with the radio is that my message is not meant for the masses, it’s meant for the team,” explained the 2009 world champion, who said he did not intend his comments to be made public,” he said later.

“In a way it’s a pity that TV companies just choose the messages they want, because they can come across in the wrong way.

“I was obviously angry, but the anger was supposed to be kept within the team, because I am radioing the team, I’m not radioing TV companies.”

It is, of course, not “TV companies” but Formula One Management who listen in on the radios and decide what gets broadcast. Button’s dissatisfaction at being opened up to that kind of scrutiny is exactly why we need to have more of it, not less.

Formula One is not like most sports. Watch at a football stadium, a cricket pitch or a golf course and the reactions and emotions of every player are there fore you to behold. You can study a player’s craft at close quarters.

For the most part that simply isn’t possible in Formula One. Competitors are shielded beneath carbon fibre and Nomex and even if they weren’t they’d still be going past at two hundred miles an hour.

There was a time when fans could turn up to races with radio scanners and had their pick of whichever cars they wanted to listen to. That practice ended when teams began using military-grade radio encryption.

But thanks to an agreement between the teams a few years ago, we can now hear radio discussions via the television broadcasts. This has revealed illuminating details of how they go about racing – not least the extent to which they strive (not always with success) to manipulate the running order of their drivers.

This transparency is what F1 needs more of, not less. Instead of having edited messages played minutes after they’re broadcast, they should make the full live radio communications for every car available online – with suitable warnings about swearing, naturally.

Inevitably it’s American forms of motor racing which show F1 how it should be done. Watch an IndyCar or NASCAR race and the use of team radio broadcasts is more widespread and greatly enhances the viewing experience.

It’s easy to sympathise with Button’s embarrassment at being overheard criticisng his team mate when he had seemingly forgotten such radio broadcasts are no longer private. But like the walled-off F1 paddock, private team radio broadcasts were emblematic of a sport striving to keep the paying public at arm’s length. The reversal of that trend was a step forward, and long may it continue.

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