Formula 1 stewards often find themselves making headlines when they’ve been forced to hand out penalties that haven’t gone down well with fans.
While most people would love to see battles settled on the track, it’s the nature of any sport that someone has to interpret the rules and enforce them as fairly as possible.
They are there to ensure the regulations are followed; not to make the most popular decision. And in that respect, there are few who envy what F1 stewards do.
The way stewards work in F1 has evolved a great deal over the years, not least because of the technology involved in F1 nowadays.
Stewards have access to hundreds of camera angles, live data, team radio messages and much more, and still manage to make decisions in a matter of minutes.
There are those who argue F1 would benefit from having a thinner rulebook and let the drivers sort out arguments themselves.
But history suggests that there will always be contentious moments regardless of how black and white the regulations are.
Michael Masi, Race Director, FIA, Emanuele Pirro, Driver Steward, FIA, and other FIA memebrs walk the circuit
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
How are the stewards chosen?
On any given grand prix weekend, there are a number of race officials whose job it is to oversee proceedings, uphold the rules and ensure everyone – from the drivers to the fans – are kept safe while there are cars on track.
Some of these are permanent officials, who are there at every race. These include the race director and a permanent starter.
Then for every grand prix, a panel of stewards is appointed. It is their job to deliberate cases and make decisions based on F1’s rule book and the FIA’s own Sporting Codes.
Three of the stewards, one of whom will be appointed a chairman, are nominated by the FIA from the international pool who hold the necessary FIA Super Licence (which is different to the driver superlicence).
For a while, one of this panel has been a driver steward, who is there to ensure that the drivers’ point of view is taken into consideration when it comes to ruling on incidents.
Another steward is nominated by the race’s own national sporting authority, which also proposes the clerk of the course.
A marshal waves the red flag
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
What do the officials and stewards do?
The race director has the ‘overriding authority’ in a number of areas during a grand prix weekend, working with the clerk of the course to give out orders.
The race director controls practice, qualifying and the race, making sure that the timetable is followed properly. If necessary, the race director can propose changes to the timetable; for example, if heavy rain delays a session.
He decides if red flags are brought out to bring sessions to a halt, he deploys the safety car and the virtual safety car, and instructs lapped cars to overtake, among other responsibilities.
The clerk of the course has to be in constant contact with both the race director and all marshal posts throughout each session. He is the point of contact between race control and the track workers to inform them of what the race director has decided.
The permanent starter’s job is to oversee start procedures at the beginning of races.
This involves activating the lights-out sequence once cars have lined up on the grid and making sure that standing starts are completed safely.
This responsibility used to be overseen by Charlie Whiting, but it became a role in its own right after his unexpected death on the eve of the 2019 season.
Meanwhile, the job of the stewards is to rule on racing incidents and apply penalties for breaches of the sporting code and technical regulations if they have been reported to them by officials or delegates.
They can rely on any video footage or electronic information (for example, telemetry data) to help make their decisions.
Like the clerk of the course, the chairman of the stewards has to be in constant contact with the race director whenever there are cars on the circuit.
Mika Salo and Charlie Whiting, FIA Delegate
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
Who are Formula 1’s key officials?
F1’s race director is Michael Masi, who took over the role in 2019 after the death of Charlie Whiting. The permanent starter is Christian Bryll, who took up the position for the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2019 when Whiting’s various duties were separated.
The role of the driver steward was introduced at the start of the 2010 F1 season in response to criticism that stewards’ decisions had been inconsistent.
Previously stewarding panels could be made up of individuals with no racing experience of their own, although this is no longer the case.
Famous names to have taken on the role over the last decade include former Tyrrell and Williams driver Derek Daly, nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, five-time Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro, ex-F1 driver and former president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) Derek Warwick, five-time 500cc motorcycle world champion Mick Doohan, as well as former F1 champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Alan Jones and Nigel Mansell.
In 2020, Vitantonio Liuzzi and Johnny Herbert were among the F1 drivers to fulfil the role, while Vitaly Petrov – controversially appointed for the Portuguese Grand Prix in the aftermath of remarks about Lewis Hamilton’s anti-racism stance – stepped down from his duties after the death of his father.
Derek Warwick, FIA Steward
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Notable F1 steward moments
Decisions made by F1 officials and stewards have caused controversy throughout the history of the series.
While fans seem to loathe the idea of on-track results being changed after the chequered flag has fallen, post-race penalties have provided some memorable, championship-defining moments.
Not every official decision comes after the race though.
The 1984 Monaco Grand Prix was a prime example: a young Ayrton Senna had qualified 13th in an uncompetitive Toleman, but torrential rain on race day allowed the Brazilian to exercise his supreme talent and climb through the order.
Chasing down leader Alain Prost, Senna looked a contender for the win and the Frenchman – who was nursing a brake problem – began to wave furiously at the officials in the pitlane to have the race red flagged.
Clerk of the course Jacky Ickx duly did so at the end of lap 32. Although Senna passed the slowing Prost before the finish line, it was Prost who was awarded victory based on the standings on the lap before.
Crucially though, he only scored 4.5 points for the win (as opposed to the usual nine) as 75% of the race hadn’t been completed. Later that year he was beaten to the title by Niki Lauda by a mere half a point.
Senna and Prost would be at the centre of the controversy again five years later, as the two drivers – now team-mates at McLaren and fighting for the title – collided at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Alain Prost, McLaren, Ayrton Senna, McLaren
Photo by: Sutton Images
The impact took championship leader Prost out of the race, but Senna was able to restart and eventually took the lead with a couple of laps to go.
However, in the aftermath of the race, the stewards decided that Senna had rejoined the track illegally, disqualifying the Brazilian and handing the championship to Prost with a race to spare.
One of F1’s stranger race outcomes occurred at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1998.
Mika Hakkinen had been leading the rain-hit race by some distance, but a spin caused damage on his McLaren and a safety car soon after wiped out his lead. When the race restarted Michael Schumacher swept past in his Ferrari, seemingly on his way to a comfortable win.
However, with two laps to go, Schumacher was handed a 10-second penalty for overtaking behind the safety car.
Unsure of whether the penalty should be taken as a stop-go or would be added to his finish time, Ferrari called Schumacher into the pits on the last lap.
It meant he could serve his penalty then, but as Ferrari’s pitbox was stationed beyond the chequered flag point, the German finished the race in the pitlane before serving his time.
Podium: race winner Michael Schumacher, Ferrari, second place Mika Hakkinen, McLaren, third place Eddie Irvine, Ferrari
Photo by: Sutton Images
McLaren protested the result, but in the end Ferrari argued with the FIA that the penalty had been issued too late considering when the offence occurred – and it had not been made clear what the exact penalty was.
At a full hearing of the FIA’s International Court of Appeal it was decided that the stewards that day had made several mistakes. Schumacher was allowed to keep his fourth win of the season.
Even though practices have improved considerably since the early days of the championship, F1 stewards can still divide opinion with their decisions.
It can happen sometimes when they do their job properly and enforce the rules as they should be.
Max Verstappen was hauled out of the cool down room seconds before heading out onto the podium after being penalised for his last-gasp overtake on Kimi Raikkonen at the US Grand Prix in 2017 when he had taken the position by running off track and inside the kerbs.
Although his actions were a clear breach of the rules, it did not stop many of his supporters feeling he had been unfairly treated.
Verstappen’s overtaking came under scrutiny again at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2019, bumping wheels with Charles Leclerc as he passed the young Ferrari driver for the lead in the final moments of the race.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB15, collides with Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90
Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images
It took several hours for the stewards to complete their investigation and confirm that the Dutchman had indeed won the grand prix fair and square.
This came just a few weeks after Sebastian Vettel had been stripped of victory at the Canadian Grand Prix.
The German briefly lost control of his Ferrari at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and the stewards decided that the way he rejoined the track had unfairly impeded Lewis Hamilton.
Although the Briton had been unable to overtake, the five-second penalty given to Vettel ensured that Hamilton only had to keep pace with his rival to take victory.
In protest after the race, Vettel marched up to the number boards in parc ferme, dumped the second place marker in front of Hamilton’s Mercedes and put the first place board in front of the empty space where his own Ferrari – parked up at the end of the pitlane – should have been. Much to the delight of the nearby fans.
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, 2nd position, switches the position boards in protest of a penalty that cost him victory
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images