Hard racing or dirty driving? It’s complicated

Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 26, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  

Formula One is a sport of tiny margins — tenths and sometimes hundredths of a second determine pole, which in a race like Monaco could be the difference between first and second. So, it’s no surprise that teams spend millions of dollars bringing upgrades to races for that elusive, marginal gain.

The margins are just as thin in wheel-to-wheel battles on the track; there is a fine line between hard, fair racing and disputed, unsporting driving. The question of exactly where this line lies has come up over the last three races this season, after incidents at the Canadian and Austrian GP.

It started in Montreal when Sebastian Vettel re-joined the track after going wide and, in the process, crowded out Lewis Hamilton, who was hoping to make the most of Vettel’s mistake with an opportunistic pass for the lead.

But with the wall on his right, Hamilton was forced to brake hard and bail out of the move, having run out of space as Vettel got his car sorted after re-entering the track.

Vettel was deemed to have re-joined in an unsafe manner, forcing Hamilton to brake to avoid a collision, and the stewards handed out a five-second penalty. So, although Vettel crossed the line first, Hamilton, less than five seconds behind, took the win.

The Ferrari driver was furious with the stewards’ decision; the world of F1 was polarised about whether it was correct.

Max Verstappen took the chequered flag for the second year in a row.

Max Verstappen took the chequered flag for the second year in a row.   | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Then, at Spielberg, an on-track incident involving eventual winner Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc was investigated for hours before the stewards decided no further action was needed. Verstappen had made his decisive move over Leclerc, who ended up outside the track limits.

The two incidents, coming as they did within the space of 21 days, caused quite the stir. Fans and former drivers decried the fact that races were being decided in the stewards’ room and not on the track. They were of the view that excessive regulations had sanitised the sport, stripping it of its appeal.

The problem, of course, it that not all rules can be applied in black and white terms. The wording of some laws and the manner in which events unfold at high speed require subjective interpretation.

Vettel fell foul of Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulation which states, “Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage.”

In this case, when Vettel left the track, his tyres picked up dirt. A lot of drivers seem to agree that in such situations cars lack grip. Further, when he rejoined the track, Vettel bumped over a kerb that steered him to the wall and it took time for him to gain control over the car, by which time Hamilton had a look at a pass. But, with the wall on the outside, the Briton had to abort the move.

The stewards, having examined the evidence including CCTV footage, deemed that Vettel had the opportunity to leave a little more space once he was in control and instead chose not to. The extent to which the stewards relied on slow-motion replays isn’t known, but some experts pointed out how they can deceive the eye when things are happening at 100mph and a very fine steering input can look like a big correction.

For the last few years, there has been a clear direction from the administration that stewards would be lenient in handing out penalties, which made the Vettel penalty even more of a topic, with drivers pointing out the contradiction in it. The apparent lack of consistency, despite there being a driver representative at every race to help stewards, is a concern.

This has renewed the call for a permanent driver representative to maintain a certain degree of consistency over the season, but it remains to be seen if these episodes spur some action on that front.

One for the future: Charles Leclerc’s driving in the Bahrain GP has caught the eye of many, including rival teams, and all agree on great things for him.

One for the future: Charles Leclerc’s driving in the Bahrain GP has caught the eye of many, including rival teams, and all agree on great things for him.  


In the Verstappen-Leclerc incident, the former pushed the limits to the extreme, braking late after having brought his Red Bull alongside the Ferrari. But he stayed in the middle of the corner rather than hug the apex like he had on the previous lap. On that lap, the space he had left allowed Leclerc to re-pass him. Subsequently, Verstappen ensured that Leclerc, who effectively lost the position under braking, had nowhere to go. Was it smart or dirty racing? Depends on whether you are Max or Charles.

These investigations — and the delays in the results being certified — detract from racing’s natural, immediate thrill. But the drivers are not blameless and need to be adults about this, for they are the ones immediately on radio either crying about an injustice or pleading their defence. So, every time a driver says, “We should be allowed to sort it out on the track amongst ourselves,” it rings hollow.

One thing F1 may want to take a look at is whether the regulations have kept pace with the changes in the sport. For example, former drivers Karun Chandhok and Pedro de la Rosa have pointed out how the replacement of several grass and gravel traps by asphalt run-off areas has altered driver behaviour and strategy. They are defending hard despite losing the position; often they go off the track and hope the argument that they were crowded out wins the stewards’ approval. Have the regulations factored this in and are the stewards in the loop?

There is a case for updating and refining the system to improve the consistency of the decision-making. But even if that happens, there will continue to be incidents that provoke debate. And some of the decisions will continue to leave a bad taste in the mouths of drivers and fans, like they have this season.

At least, it isn’t all bad this time around. The incidents have added a bit of spice to what had become a dull and insipid season. If Ferrari and Red Bull can continue to challenge Mercedes’ dominance at this weekend’s British GP, without the stewards getting involved, the focus will shift back to the track.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 4:17:39 PM |

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