“The best guy was Charlie Whiting, we all try to be like him” – Scot Elkins
It’s a tough job being an FIA race director, just ask Scot Elkins. The American has been in charge on Formula E race weekends since late 2017 and combined with a deputy race director role in both F1 and F2, he’s probably one of the busiest men in motorsport right now.
I met Scot in his air-conditioned office on-site at the New York E-Prix in July. On a blisteringly hot summer’s day I’d just made the 10-minute ‘commute’ from the media centre, across two bridges, and through a packed E-Village to get to Scot, but it was well worth the effort.
As soon as I knew Scot had agreed to a one-on-one interview, there were many topics I was pretty eager to cover, but I felt our first point of discussion had to be what I could only describe at the time as an ‘elephant in the room’ of sorts.
Just a few weeks earlier, an incident during the Bern E-Prix had catapulted Formula E into the spotlight, but not for the reasons it might have wanted.
Following a lap one incident that left several cars with damage and the track blocked, TV images cut to a group of drivers angrily remonstrating with an FIA official in the pitlane, aggrieved at the decision to restart the race in the original grid order, cancelling out any progress they’d made in the Turn 1 melee.
It was a mess and the TV footage only served to provide ammunition to the naysayers who like to criticise the championship and call out its supposedly questionable driving standards.
As the man who made the decision that day to restart the race in the order the drivers qualified in, Elkins explains how and why that decision was reached and reveals exactly what ‘lap zero’ is and why it’s something we’re likely to only ever see in Formula E.
“The guys that thought it was the wrong call [to reset the grid in Bern] were the guys that cut through the chicane and made it through the chaos,” Elkins says.
“The regulations state that it’s the race director’s decision based on any available data that he has. We can use timing lines, video, anything we need [to reset the order].
“There’s a unique thing that happens sometimes in Formula E where the start line is offset from the finish line, and in Bern, that was the case. What that means is that from the start line until they hit the finish line or the control line as we call it, the lap doesn’t actually start – that’s what we call lap zero.
“A few of the guys were like ‘oh but I crossed the finish line’… well you did but that was just the start of your first lap, you didn’t actually complete a lap!”
Complex calls like this are part of the job as far as Elkins is concerned, and being able to make the right call and get the drivers on-side can be a challenge.
“The first timeline we had prior to the incident was actually right around the start gantry, and we realised we couldn’t define where all the cars’ positions were based on that,” Elkins explains.
“I’ve had a conversation with all of the drivers, one on one, who were unhappy with [my decision at the time]. They all understand it, they don’t necessarily like it, that’s OK, [but at least] they understand the process.”
Elkins comes across as a guy very capable of controlling a room full of discontented racing drivers, but also as someone who relates to their viewpoint and who’s able to build a rapport with them.
The scenes that followed the Bern red flag led many to feel that the drivers seen arguing with the official on live TV had gone a step too far, but Elkins holds a slightly more considered viewpoint on that.
“Motorsport of all sports in the world, to me at least, is built on passion and emotion. Those guys literally just took off their helmets and just got out of their cars so they’re still fired up,” said Elkins.
“The fact is, we’ve had individual conversions with each one of those drivers [who complained about the Bern incident] and I’ve had conversions with the stewards about it and said ‘you know what, it wasn’t the greatest thing but nothing happened there that was a punishable offence.
“It was tough on Niels [Wittich, deputy race director] because I stay in race control and he goes down and helps organise the re-ordering of the field. He obviously wasn’t very happy about [being confronted by a group of them] and nor would I have been, but it’s something that happens.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with being a race driver, it’s just about being a human being. You’ve got emotions, and which one of us hasn’t said something we wish we could take back?”
Elkins says he’s big on ensuring there’s an open dialogue between himself and the drivers at all times and insists on an having an open-door policy during race weekends.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity the drivers’ get to influence change is during the official FIA drivers’ briefings, where Elkins explains that no subject is off-limits – from an informal chat about a penalty decision or a more formal discussion about getting a rule changed.
“We have a very open drivers’ briefing. I don’t walk into the brief and say ‘hey this is how it’s going to be’, we work on things together. That’s the philosophy I’ve always had as a race director and the paddock knows that, the team managers know that,” says Elkins,
“They’ve all got my contact information. If they want to send me a note, we’ll sit and talk about things. It definitely is an open door and we have an open mind about stuff. The part that’s tricky is that the way the regulations are set up, we can really only change them four times a year because the World Motorsport Council has to approve it.
“There’s a process called the sporting working group and the teams have representatives in that. We’ll discuss [any proposed changes] and if we all agree that it’s right we’ll try to implement it. There’s a formal process for how that works and we have the ability to bring things to the working group as well if a bunch of drivers come to me with something.”
As Formula E grows, the spotlight on it has increased ten-fold and this is something Elkins is well aware of. While the championship has been keen to avoid comparisons with F1, one talking point that often comes up during race weekends is the ruling on penalties – and specifically, what the drivers can or cannot get away with.
With growing frustration amongst F1 fans for what many see as over-officiating, Formula E, has taken a much more flexible approach in determining the type of contact that’s permissible within the rules.
The aggressive overtakes that are often a feature of Formula E races have earned the championship comparisons, perhaps unfairly, to fairground bumper cars, but as Elkins explains, the drivers know exactly where the line is and he’s keen to keep the ‘street-fighting’ ethos that the championship has been built on.
“I think it’s very clear that in Formula E, not everything is a penalty,” he says.
“We want to let them race, we don’t want to over-officiate. Formula E has always been a kind of a street fight as the marketing people say.
“I as the race director have been very clear with the drivers, the team managers and everyone involved, as to what I feel needs to be investigated. I’ve said it in the briefings a number of times, which is contact resulting in an advantage gained, whether that means a time advantage, taking a position, or knocking someone out of the way, that’s the type of contact that will be investigated -100%.”
With the level of competition increasing year on year, officiating the world’s fastest-growing racing series has its challenges, but there’s clearly looks up to when a situation calls for a tough decision.
“We allow [the drivers] to speak freely in the briefings and have conversions about [any penalties that are awarded].
“For sure, we don’t sit people down [and tell them what to do], but we do have conversions. I think the two-way relationship works really well.
“To be honest, the best guy in the world at that was Charlie Whiting. That’s how he held his drivers’ briefings and we all try to be like him.“
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