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SINGAPORE – As the Formula One season exits Europe and heads to Asia for this weekend's Singapore Grand Prix, teams and drivers are preparing for a new challenge, with the sport now banning a large amount of radio messages during races.
The change comes in response to fan disquiet about the increasingly remote-control nature of the sport. Teams, with reams of available data during races, have been determining race strategy and the appropriate car settings to carry it out, with drivers simply pressing the buttons on the steering wheel to adjust their use of fuel, tires or brakes accordingly.
In order to put such things back in the hands of the drivers, a whole range of radio instructions have been banned from this weekend's race at Marina Bay onwards.
Teams will no longer be able to instruct drivers on engine or gearbox settings, how much fuel has been used and whether there is a need to preserve what's left. They also can't give information on the wear on tires and brakes. That will leave drivers having to make critical judgment calls on their own.
"Until now we did so much based on what they told us to do on the radio. Now it's up to us," said championship leader Nico Rosberg of Mercedes. "It could make it a lot more interesting. It's going from 100 percent communication to about 20 percent, so it's a massive change."
Some messages will still be allowed, including lap and sector times and information on the situation of competitors such as track position, gaps and tire use. And the drivers will still be able to access a lot of data via the telemetry on their steering wheels — only now they must interpret it themselves rather than relying on the team.
The governing body FIA has sent out detailed memos to the teams on what is allowed, but in a sport where success so often relies on exploiting regulatory loopholes, many are expecting some teams to flirt with the limits of the new rules.
"The directive is not yet fully clear and there will inevitably be some controversy, so it will need further clarification as to how much the essential on-track procedures will be affected," Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said.
Having spotted one potential loophole already, organizers have said the banned information cannot be passed on by the old-style pit-boards which are hung outside the pits as the cars pass, which in times past were the principal form of team-driver communication.
Rosberg's teammate and championship rival Lewis Hamilton was relishing the throwback to old-school driving.
"I remember way back in karts, we didn't have any data, so nobody could ever see where I was quick, anything I did, any trick I had," Hamilton said. "So maybe it's a bit of a step back in that direction.
"I quite like that we're left to do it ourselves."
While the radio rules will provide an interesting novelty in Singapore, they are unlikely to shake up the established 2014 pecking order.
Instead it is the tight, twisty nature of the Marina Bay street circuit, the likelihood of safety-car periods and the ever-present risk of rain in the tropics that provide the most likely threat to Mercedes continuing its dominance.
The power advantage of the Mercedes engine, both for the factory team and its client Williams, has been pronounced at the past two races on the high-speed circuits of Belgium and Italy, but that will be largely negated at Marina Bay.
Red Bull looms as a real threat this weekend, as that car runs best in the high-downforce, high-traction settings that are required in Singapore. Sebastian Vettel has won the past three editions of the race.
While Vettel stands a good chance of breaking through for his first win in a frustrating 2014 season, it is his less-experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo who is the man Mercedes fear. The Australian has won two of the past three races to climb within striking distance of the championship lead.
"I am expecting a podium," Ricciardo said. "We have to aim for that if we want to stay in the title hunt. I think we will be the second best car out of the box tomorrow. The question is how close we can get to Mercedes — obviously closer than Monza."
Asked whether a win in Singapore would put him into championship-chasing mode, Ricciardo said he's already there.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's game on," he said.