The FIA, Looking Out For The Fans? Huh…
I just read an article on YallaF1, Stewards Told To Be Lenient For 2013 Season. As the title states, it is about the stewards taking a more lenient view on race incidents and driver’s behavior this year. There is one line in particular that is really telling. “You can feel that the drivers have more confidence. Rarely have we seen as many die-hard, wheel-to-wheel battles as we saw in Bahrain.” The article goes on to say, “It has made racing better.” I’m not sure that steward leniency is the single largest factor behind the “better” racing this year, I think that tires have a lot to do with it. Had this article not brought this new steward leniency to my attention, I might not have even realized that this effort has been made on my behalf to enhance the show. Whatever the degree, thank you, FIA. That’s a change, right? I just complimented something the FIA did! Wow.
It is definitely true that over the years penalties that were handed out (or not handed out) have had a negative affect on the sport. Controversial? Definitely. Consistency? Absolutely lacking. And some of the penalties were just plain silly. We’re RACING for chrissake, aren’t we?
A couple of years ago the FIA started to use the expertise former F1 drivers to help with the calls that the stewards make on race day. Nigel Mansel, Emanuel Pirro (not from F1, but endurance racing), Johnny Herbert, Damon Hill, Mika Salo and many more have played the role of guest steward. This placated the fans and reduced the number of silly penalties. But there’s still a problem with many FIA penalties in this blogger’s opinion.
Here’s a good example of a misplaced penalty, yes, it concerns Fernando Alonso and if any one has read just a few posts of mine, you know this is the driver that I favor the most. In 2010 at the British GP, Fernando is trying to pass Robert Kubica in his Renault, which Kubica is making as wide as possible. So Fernando makes an attempt to pass and Robert pushes (drives him, if we are to be honest about it) off the track. Because of the physics of an object in motion the Ferrari continues on and when Fernando comes back on track, he is in front of the Renault.
Immediately Ferrari is on the radio to race control checking with the FIA to see what their view is so Fernando can do the right thing. While waiting for an answer, which took an inordinately long time, Kubica’s car develops an issue and has to retire. Logically now that there is no Renault the issue should be null and void, since the Renault’s retirement had nothing to do with the incident. But instead it was illogically concluded that regardless of the Renault’s problems the Ferrari had to serve a penalty, a drive-through penalty, which cost Fernando about 20+ seconds. In Formula One time that is like 10 years of your life and there went any chance of a good result. Really at this point I’m speech-less. That year Alonso lost the drivers title by 4 points so clearly this penalty affected the Driver’s Championship.
But you don’t have to take this Ferrari fan’s Ferrari example as the only proof of inconsistent or silly penalties. Let’s look at a couple of Lewis Hamilton’s infractions, for example.
Hamilton is one of the most exciting drivers on the grid, and has definitely brought new fans to the sport. He’s had 30+ penalties handed to him in his career as an F1 pilot. some of them were deserved but 30? Here are just a few from that long list.
Trying to pass Kimi in Belgium in 2008 in the final laps, he has the pace so Kimi pushes him off the track and he has nowhere to go but back on the track ahead of Kimi, and because he cut the chicane, Lewis gives the position back. They resume racing, Lewis passes Kimi when he crashes out and some how Lewis is penalized. Apparently he did not wait long enough before he resumed racing. Riiiiiight. This next paragraph is right from Wikipedia and since I can’t paraphrase it better, here it is in its entirety:
[The original penalty received mixed reactions in the world press. Byron Young in Britain’s Daily Mirror said that it was the stewards’ decision “that mars sport and turns fans away, that ruins the efforts of even the best competitors, taints the day and leaves fans wondering what exactly they are ‘fans’ of”. The Finnish daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat noted that though the Grand Prix had “crushed” Räikkönen’s championship dreams, Hamilton had adhered “with the rules of racing” in giving the position back. The newspaper put Räikkönen’s disappointment down to his crash, rather than the chicane incident. In Italy, La Gazzetta dello Sport declared that the decision was justified, stating that Hamilton “should have waited at least another turn rather than attacking so soon”.]
Then there was the safety car debacle at Valencia. Hamilton basically raced the safety car to get out ahead of it when it was deployed due to the fact Mark Webber showed everyone in F1 (that did not already see it at Le Mans) how a car can fly. It took the FIA 20 minutes to assign a penalty, TWENTY, by then Hamilton had built up such a huge lead that his drive-through penalty didn’t penalize him at all, and he went on to finish 2nd. (In the interest of disclosure, the driver that I like, Alonso, who was behind Hamilton, got the shaft. But that still doesn’t address the ridiculous amount of time it took the FIA to react to the situation.) This incident caused such a reaction that I believe the FIA changed the safety car rules to prevent a similar situation occurring again.
Hamilton is not by any means being singled out by the stewards. Most of the top drivers have too many infractions levied at them. That’s because the top drivers push their machinery and their driving to the edge. I’ve always thought that penalizing them for what they are hired to do. For racing hard, was at cross-purposes with what the FIA really wants, which is to keep racing exciting so the fans are interested and keep coming back. Well maybe the FIA is finally realizing this. According to the YallaF1.com article, FIA stewards were encouraged in an off-season meeting to be more lenient when it came to on-track scraps between drivers in an effort to entice them to take more risks. Better late than never, I am all for it!
The penalty on a race car driver, unlike any other sport that I know of, often ends any chance of winning the race right there and then. It is not like a foul in basketball, or pass interference in football, or tripping in soccer. In each of these other sports, play is stopped and in each case a free throw, a new set of downs at the infraction or a free kick or kick at the goal is performed. However, each team or player that has been penalized can still go on to win the game or have a good game despite this. A player is only removed from the game for a very severe violation, or repeated violations. And a team only forfeits a game when they don’t show up or are found to have egregiously cheated, like when college teams are found to have violated the recruiting rules extensively. Using these criteria, a drive through, a stop and go, or a time-add penalty should only be handed out when absolutely necessary.
Anyway, the penalty of crashing out if you try making a pass too aggressively is far worse than a drive-through. It’s also true that the offending driver is not the only one that loses out, so we do need some balance. Drivers are risking more than their own race or neck when they are aggressive. So where is the tipping point? Has the FIA of late been too pro-penalty-active? I think so. We need to see more of the wheel-to-wheel action. The kind that Webber and Hamilton, Button and Perez were engaged in during the Bahrain GP. And if one, or even all four drivers suffered a spin, on off-track excursion, or a broken suspension then that would have been on each driver equally. It looked quite fair to me. One exception, if Perez had damaged Button’s car he surely should have been given a penalty, but that did not happen, so no harm no foul. The McLaren teammates might think that kind of driving is too aggressive but I say again it’s RACING for chrissake. Exciting stuff that we don’t see often enough in F1!
I’m not advocating crashing people out or driving people into the gravel (or worse the barriers, a la Mr. Schumacher) or for that matter parking your car at the exit of a turn (another stunt courtesy of the 7 times world champion), but F1 could do with a little roughing it up, and at least Michael always fought until the bitter end, and didn’t worry about penalties too much.
I believe its true that if a driver feels he will be hit with a penalty for what looks like a questionable move to the stewards, then he will not even attempt it since a drive-through penalty can end his hope of a good result. And so, as if we don’t have enough issues that cause “the procession” in modern F1, add to that list the fear of the penalty, which in turn causes drivers to either wait several laps for the clean pass or a pass via the undercut and pit stop rotation. Not very racy is it? But when the stakes are so high, when most of the cars on the grid have bulletproof reliability, when for so many years the championship has been won by 10 or less points, then you start to sympathize with the drivers protecting the points they have and doing nothing foolish to upset the stewards.
I think we all want the drivers to pass more, (even the FIA, there I said it) to pass a lot more, to create more excitement, but then when a driver attempts to pass and there is a little bit of drama, i.e. some wheel-to-wheel racing everyone gets all bent out of shape and the stewards levy a penalty.
So I am all for this new perspective that the FIA has discovered. If this is yet another piece of the “lets make the racing better” puzzle then bring it. Hopefully the FIA is on to something and lets just have fewer penalties, OK? I mean it’s RACING for chrissake!
-jp- (glad I’m not a steward on race day)