Well there has been a lot of controversy over who got penalised by the stewards at the French Grand Prix and who didn’t. And once again McLaren are at the centre of it all.
After the Canadian Grand Prix I pointed out that Lewis Hamilton was beginning to show a worrying inability to accept when he has made a mistake. They say you learn from your mistakes, but Hamilton would rather stick his head in the sand under the mistaken impression that this makes him “very strong mentally“.
Andy at Brits on Pole suggested that there are signs that a siege mentality is forming within McLaren. Asked about the three penalties that McLaren have been handed in quick succession, Ron Dennis said on ITV, “Draw your own conclusion.”
In fairness, Martin Whitmarsh quickly put a lid on the story. However, he still pointed out that it was the opinion of the McLaren team that the penalty handed to Lewis Hamilton during the French Grand Prix was not justified.
I can understand that the people at McLaren are a bit fragile these days after the FIA put them through the wringer in the way that they did last year. I particularly worry about Ron Dennis who is beginning to look like he constantly has to bite his tongue. He is probably trying to keep a lot of pent-up anger bottled in. This leads me to think that McLaren are slightly losing control of the situation and their ability to make rational decisions has been compromised.
Among all of the hyperbole, here are some facts. McLaren broke (or, more accurately, a McLaren driver) broke the rules three times in quick succession. First of all, Hamilton failed to see a red light in the pitlane in Montreal and caused an avoidable accident in the pitlane. Causing an avoidable accident is bad enough, but causing one in the pitlane — which is a highly concentrated area full of people — is simply unacceptable. The ten place grid penalty was fully justified.
Then in qualifying for the French Grand Prix, Heikki Kovalainen impeded Mark Webber’s qualifying lap. It was not intentional, but he did it nonetheless and the penalty was expected. Even McLaren expected this one, fuelling Kovalainen heavy for Q3 in an increasingly rare piece of clever quick thinking from McLaren.
Finally in lap one of the race Lewis Hamilton cut the Nürburgring chicane immediately after passing Sebastian Vettel. This is the most contentious one.
For Clive, Hamilton did little wrong. “Hamilton had gained the place before the chicane and so did not benefit from his slight error”.
However, this is far from clear cut. Undoubtedly Hamilton had edged ahead of Vettel. But was he completely clear of Vettel? It seems not. He was probably not far enough ahead to commit to taking the chicane properly. As Keith has noted, Hamilton has contradicted himself within a matter of a few words in one interview about the incident:
I believe I was ahead on the outside and I couldn’t turn in on the guy otherwise we would have crashed
So was he ahead or was he not? Hamilton says he was ahead, but at the same time he would have crashed if he turned in — which means that he was not ahead, but in fact side-by-side with Vettel.
The bottom line is that if Hamilton had tried that at a circuit like Monaco where skipping the chicane means going into the barriers, he would have been out of the race. Unless he is completely stupid, he wouldn’t have tried it at such a circuit. This means that he took advantage of the tarmac run-off at the chicane. For this reason he should have been punished.
For me, the fact that even the people on ITV were contemplating the fact that Hamilton was in the wrong sums up that this should not have been a controversial decision.
It is a well-known rule that if you gain an advantage by cutting the chicane (such as, for instance, taking a position, or keeping a position that was under threat) then you can expect to get a penalty. There are three possible penalties: drive-through, 10 second stop-go or a ten place grid drop. Hamilton got the most lenient of these penalties.
Of course, Hamilton could have avoided getting a penalty at all by simply giving Vettel the place back and trying to take him again. This is what drivers always do if they skip the chicane inadvertently. So why Lewis Hamilton did not do this puzzles me a lot.
There was always a risk following the incident that Hamilton would be penalised. Not a slim risk, but a significant risk. Given that, it would have been a lot more sensible for Hamilton to play it safe by handing Vettel the position back — costing him a few seconds at most — rather than waiting to be slapped with a drive-through penalty that would have cost him more like 30 seconds.
I can well understand why Hamilton didn’t hand Vettel the place back. It is because he simply cannot admit it when he is in the wrong. He simply does not have it in his bones to do the sporting thing even when doing so will be advantageous to him. For him, it is easier to sit back and imagine conspiracy theories rather than hold his hands up and say he was wrong.
This we know already. What worries me though is the fact that McLaren did not tell him to give the place back either. The team is there to — hopefully — make these judgements when a driver’s emotions get the better of him. Unfortunately, it looks as though the guys on the pit wall are also letting their emotions get the better of them.
There is another explanation. We saw McLaren take the safe option when Kovalainen was at risk of getting a penalty. But they failed to do so when Hamilton was in a similar position. Could it be that McLaren find it too difficult to tell Lewis Hamilton what to do?
We know for a fact that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t like being told what to do, even when the order comes direct from his boss Ron Dennis. We saw this in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Hamilton’s petulant behaviour set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to the $100 million fine.
Perhaps McLaren found it easier to let the punishment come along rather than deal with Hamilton’s petulance and sulking after being asked to give the position back. If that is the case, it is deeply worrying for the future of Lewis Hamilton’s career. If anyone is in a position to kick Hamilton’s mental attitude into shape it is the McLaren team. But they appear to have given up.
There is another possibility — that McLaren have actually adopted Hamilton’s approach to racing. We can see this in Ron Dennis’s implication that the only possible explanation for their downfall is that everyone is out to get McLaren.
One was Jarno Trulli’s “wheel bashing” incident. I am not so sure about that myself. Trulli claims that he did not bash wheels and Kovalainen hasn’t said a word about it. I think they probably came very close, but it was 50/50 for me. Kovalainen’s attempted move was extremely optimistic. Meanwhile Trulli was trying to take an optimal line into the chicane. It’s not as though Trulli swiped at him having come from the opposite side of the track. He just edged over to get a wider angle into the corner. It was aggressive driving from both drivers, but not dangerous in my opinion — and if it was then the blame is 50/50.
As for Kimi Raikkonen, the dangling exhaust pipe was simply unacceptable. It was a blatant safety risk. What if the exhaust pipe snapped off and hit another driver on the head? What if the exhaust pipe went into the crowd?
What on earth is the black and orange flag for if it isn’t for this sort of situation? I find it difficult to imagine how that car could have been more dangerous. Maybe it could have spurted fuel onto the driver behind. Perhaps the rear light could have turned into a death ray.
The FIA should take a good look at themselves for that one. But if there is a conspiracy, it is the same old Ferrari International Assistance rather than anything against McLaren if you ask me. And I say this as someone who thinks the FIA’s treatment of McLaren last year was nothing short of outrageous.
McLaren’s apparent paranoia bodes very badly for Hamilton’s career. Unless he and McLaren can become more pragmatic about the situations they find themselves in, this sort of thing will keep on happening.
But now in the face of the good old fashioned British media backlash, Hamilton now faces the biggest mental test of his career at Silverstone on the 6th of July. His first home grand prix was the scene of Hamilton’s first jitters, when he was impatient in his pitstop. Since then he has begun to look like a nervous wreck in high-pressure situations.
Hamilton calls himself “very strong mentally”, but in fact he is one of the least mentally strong front-end racing drivers I can ever think of seeing. He mistakes stubbornness for mental strength which is part of the problem. He needs to learn to be genuinely strong rather than just petulant.