Guenther Steiner’s comments about full-time F1 stewards will resonate with NFL fans

Anyone who has watched the slightest bit of Formula 1 over the past few years, or even the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, knows that Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner is not shy about speaking his mind.

The team themselves have even leaned into that trait from their boss. With just a few clicks on the Haas team store you can find the “[H]e does not foksmash my door!” t-shirt. That bit of apparel references a moment from the 2019 British Grand Prix, when the Haas duo of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen collided on the opening lap. Following the race, Magnussen smashed the door to Steiner’s office in the paddock, which touched off this moment captured by the Netflix cameras.

As you might expect, the audio is not exactly safe for work:

Following the incident, Steiner did not hold back in his criticism.

“It was a very disappointing race for us. I’m just stating the obvious here. The best that our drivers could bring to the battle was a shovel – to dig the hole we’re in even deeper,” said Steiner. “We need to go back, regroup, and see what we do in future.”

While the involved parties eventually moved past the incident — and as you can see the team turned it into a bit of swag — Steiner’s recent comments resulted in a rather different outcome. Haas driver Nico Hülkenberg was given a five-second penalty after race stewards found him responsible for a collision on the opening lap of the Monaco Grand Prix.

Steiner blasted the decision, citing how other “first-lap incidents” were handled, along with a lack of video evidence showing a collision between Hülkenber and Williams driver Logan Sargeant.

“Lap one, we get a penalty for what I think is not a collision,” Steiner said. “F1 is one of the biggest sports in the world and we still have laymen deciding on the fate of people which invest millions in their careers.”

“Every professional sport has got professionals being referees and stuff like this,” he added. “I think we need to step it up. I think it’s now time. I think we’re discussing this for years and years and we always go back to this.”

Steiner was summoned by FIA race stewards ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, and following the hearing the Haas team boss was reprimanded for his remarks. In the decision, race stewards stated that “Mr Steiner’s word “laymen” and his reference to other sports having “professional” personnel could be, and indeed were, perceived to cause offence and in our view reasonably did cause offence not only to the Stewards in Monaco but also to other FIA personnel and many motorsport volunteers.”

The statement continued:

“However, the Stewards accept Mr Steiner’s statement during the hearing, that his reference to professionalism was meant to refer to people who worked in a role as their profession and not that the Stewards were acting unprofessionally.

“Further Mr Steiner stated his reference to “laymen” was meant to refer to people who worked occasionally and not meant to refer a lack of qualifications or specialisation.”

Steiner’s underlying point — that it is time for F1 to have full-time race stewards — might have merit, even if inarticulately stated.

The debate over full-time stewards is not new, and Steiner is not the only team boss who has raised the issue in recent years. Speaking back in 2019, McLaren CEO Zak Brown made the call for full-time stewards. “It’s the lack of consistently. I think more full-time stewards would help because I think the stewards are doing the best they can with the flying in and out,” said Brown in 2019.

“Some of them are there a lot, some are less. IndyCar pretty much has full-time stewards. So I think that is part of the solution,” he added. “Having more full-time stewards definitely seems to be the right way to go.”

Steiner also found an unlikely ally following his recent comments, none other than former driver Ralf Schumacher, the uncle of Mick Schumacher, who lost his seat at Haas at the end of last season.

“The demand for more consistency has come up more and more often,” the former F1 driver said in Barcelona. “Now, of course, it is very important how he [Steiner] articulated that. We all know Gunther Steiner. But other than that, I’m more with him than not on that one.”

“What bothers me a bit,” added Schumacher, “is that I do think we can be open and honest with one another. The desire to use professional stewards, the idea that we have the same ones all year round, that discussion should be allowed.”

Currently, F1 draws from a pool of potential stewards for each Grand Prix. Each race is typically — but not always — overseen by four stewards. One is nominated by the host nation’s governing body, while the other three are supplied by the FIA, drawn from a broad pool of candidates who rotate in and out through the year.

All the stewards are volunteers.

During 2021, a total of 41 different people acted as FIA stewards across the 22 races.

Steiner’s underlying contention, and one mirrored by Brown, is that with full-time stewards, there will be training, oversight, and most importantly, consistency.

It is an argument that might be familiar to some readers, particularly those who have their eyes on the NFL each fall.

The majority of NFL referees serve in that job on a part-time basis. While the league began a process in 2017 of allowing current referees to become full-time employees of the NFL, only a fraction of the current roster of referees are actually full-time.

According to this report from Pro Football Talk in late December, the move to convert all NFL officials to full-time employees was “gaining traction” in league circles. And with good reason. Given the prominence of the NFL, the money involved — both in terms of sponsorships, contracts, and gambling — and the growth of the sport worldwide, making sure the best referees were on hand making the right decisions seems like a wise move.

For most officials, the NFL gig is a side hustle, one that potentially gets short shrift when considering other professional and personal responsibilities. That’s unacceptable. The officiating function is far too important to be a part-time gig.

Even if making officials full-time employees doesn’t dramatically increase the accuracy and consistency of calls, it will allow the NFL to say it’s investing the time, money, and effort to get it right.

While it’s too early to know when the move toward full-time officials will be made, the point for now is that the effort is gaining traction. And it should. The NFL needs to prioritize everything about the officiating function. The NFL needs to be able to truthfully declare that it has done everything in its power to improve the process.

Could the same be said for F1?

After all, given the growth and prominence of the sport, finding a way to “improve the process” makes a great deal of sense. Finding a way to reach a level of consistency in decisions, which is what Steiner was arguing for, is an admirable goal.

Even if he added that Steiner flair:

“And it’s always a discussion because there’s no consistency. And again, I don’t want to blame any particular person on this, but if you’re not all there all the time, it’s just like a job every… it’s not even a job. In a job, you can get sacked! Because you get paid and, if you do a bad job, you get sacked.

“You cannot get sacked, because you don’t get paid. I think we need to step it up. I think that’s now time. We’re discussing this for years and years. And we always go back to this.

“And every other sport has professional referees. American racing – NASCAR, IndyCar – how many times do you hear problems with the stewards or with the race director’s decision? Very rarely. Very rarely.”

In many ways, the F1 discussion regarding stewards mirrors the NFL discussion regarding referees. A need for consistency in how the sport is governed on game/race days leading to a call for full-time decisionmakers.

The NFL is moving, albeit slowly, to the full-time model.

Might F1 follow?