It had been a decent grand prix. There was plenty to watch as a number of drivers – Daniel Ricciardo and Lance Stroll most specifically – shone with much-needed star performances. Meanwhile at the front, the two most decorated Formula 1 stars of the current generation put on a duel of intensity and suspense that kept the large and enthusiastic Montreal crowd totally gripped.
Vettel’s penalty: why F1 is the loser (but the winner too)
Then it all unravelled. Leader Sebastian Vettel, who had driven beautifully following his stunning pole position on Saturday, reverted to recent type and buckled. He made yet another error while being hunted by Lewis Hamilton, cut the Turn 3 chicane and almost forced his rival into the wall as he rejoined.
What did you think when you first saw it? Racing incident or a transgression worthy of punishment? Whatever, there was a sense of inevitability when the notice flashed up on the screen that Vettel would have an extra five seconds added to his eventual race time.
F1, as it has too many times before, had seemingly just pulled the trigger with both barrels aimed squarely at its feet. Or had it? Let’s take a look in more detail.
Rules are rules
Hamilton was annoyed to find the crowd booing him on the podium, given that he clearly felt Vettel had deserved his penalty. Was he right?
Well, much is said these days about too many penalties being dished out for racing incidents and a lack of steward consistency. But the problem is, thanks largely to driver pressure over the years on defining the ethics of wheel-to-wheel combat, the rule book has become more dense and detailed on this area than it ever used to be.
Key sections include: “Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage.”
And here’s another: “Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited.”
No one can argue that Vettel left the track, and when he rejoined his Ferrari did impede Hamilton. To the letter of the law, the stewards had to penalise the four-time champion in such circumstances.
As for consistency, Max Verstappen’s penalty for a similar incident with Kimi Räikkönen last year has been raised in the debate that is still raging. It’s a good point. The evidence is the stewards are sticking to the rule book – just as they should.
Rather than trolling Emmanuele Pirro, the unfortunate drivers’ steward on this occasion, the faceless masses would do better to consider the rule book itself. That’s where the problems lie.
The definition of what constitutes fair racing has arguably gone too far and now thwarts the kind of battles from the past – think Arnoux vs Villeneuve at Dijon in 1979 – that are lauded as F1’s greatest moments. Both would have been penalised for track limits transgressions had they been racing today.
But then again, without written-down guidelines of where the line is in modern racing, would we then return to the days of infamy when the likes of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher drove others off the road and got away with it?
Do we relax the rules and encourage cut-and-thrust racing? But if we do, how do we respond when drivers step over the line – as they surely would?
Vocal ex-drivers echo the crowd
This is one that clearly needs cool and unemotional discussion, given the number of ex-drivers who were anything but in their criticism of the penalty. David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Johnny Herbert and others were vocal in their view that such punishments are outlawing old-fashioned, elbows-out racing. As Vettel said himself, this isn’t the sport he and others like him fell in love with when they were growing up.
So what is the solution? Clearly, there has to be some room for flexibility, judgement on a case-by-case basis, common sense – call it what you will, but all the things that could lead to future controversies over a lack of consistency…
One option that F1 has so far always dismissed is for the rights promoter to employ an FIA-blessed permanent race steward: a figure with the respect and authority to rule on each and every incident on its own merits, supported by a set of ‘ethics’ that are a guideline rather than a hard-and-fast rule.
Such a job would be perfect for an ex-driver – but honestly, who would want it? Imagine the abuse they’d open themselves up to. It would have to pay well…
Vettel shows his flaws once again
Beyond the stewarding and rules conundrum, the most fascinating sporting aspect of this incident surrounds Vettel himself – and his failure once again to keep it all together.
From his first pole position since the German GP last year, he’d put on a display that appeared to be silencing all of those who think the ‘old’ Vettel – the one who streaked to four consecutive titles at Red Bull – will never be seen again. This was good to see.
But yet again, just as he had in Bahrain when Hamilton pressed on, Seb cracked. Afterwards, Hamilton spoke kindly about his old rival and stated how much he enjoys their duels. No wonder… They nearly all end with Hamilton on top.
We’ve asked it before, and now we ask it again: has Vettel really got what it takes to beat Hamilton to a world title in a straight fight? He must ask himself the same question regularly – because he is intelligent, self-aware and a decent human being. If so, we can’t help but wonder what his answer is.
The big sulk
Vettel and Hamilton share something in common – as in fact do most racing drivers: they can’t stand losing, and sometimes if the circumstances are particularly vexing, they simply can’t take it.
On this occasion, Vettel’s fury and his sulky walk back to the bosom of his team HQ was understandable. He felt he’d been “cheated” out of the win, and most of the crowd (and TV audience) agreed with him.
But the moment when he swapped the position boards in parc ferme was a superb piece of theatre. Over the top? Oh yes. But he’d read the moment perfectly.
For all the technology, F1 is a human sport and we all love it when drivers react as we think we would in such circumstances. Modern sports people are scrutinised to levels beyond what their predecessors could ever have imagined – so let’s not be churlish when they ‘play up’ in the heat of the moment.
So on a day of sporting drama around the world, whether it be cricket, tennis or football (played by both men and women), F1 has stolen the headlines for a moment of complexity that can so easily be read by the masses so simply.
So has the sport once again made a fool of itself? Perhaps. Then again, after a season that has largely failed to catch fire, once again F1 is the subject everybody is talking about.
As much as F1 irks all too often, you can’t deny: it still stokes the fire, even if it’s not always for the best reasons.
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