Paranoia over penalties

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.

Now it is true — as Clive and Milos have both noted — that arguable two other drivers should have been given penalties in France.

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.

13 comments

  1. Hello Vee;
    Really I love two of your paragraphs…
    “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.”
    and..
    “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.”
    This two points have been discussed here in Spain long ago…since Hungary 2007.
    At least some British are now getting the point.
    And the penalizations ( or whatever is it written) are just “Divine Justice” for the ones he didn’t get last year.
    What a pitty, Aloso out of Mclaren and Lewis still on…
    He( Ham) should have leave the team and then they would have 3 times WC and in the way of 4th times….

  2. Wow, dear Vee. I just don’t know what to add. You have depicted the situation so objectively that I can’t add or take anything.
    I would like only to say that I but the blame on McLaren’s wall. We have seen examples of teams reminding drivers to give back a place, and it is obvious that letting Vettel to pass wasn’t going to hurt HAM’s options in the race. Maybe is HAM himself the one who has the last word, I don’t know.
    As for the title of the post, for just one second I tought that you were going to talk about the Spain-Italy match. I wonder if Britain is supporting our boys…

  3. It is interesting how the Ferrari International Assistance thing has become as synonymous as referee’s favouring the big clubs in football.

    It near-undoubtedly exists, very few bother questioning it and at the end of the day the others will just have to get on with it.

    In a way it adds to the sport rather than detracts from it: a constant talking point.

  4. The trouble is that it takes away fairness and racing from the equation. And I’m still not convinced that it’s anything more than general incompetence on the FIA’s part.

  5. I can’t agree with you on the Kovi penalty. That was absolute BS – there were other cars involved in that, yet Kovi was the only one penalised? The FIA should either punish them all, or punish none. Not single out a driver – who was not even the catalyst for the incident but happens to be driving a Silver car – to take the lump for everyone. That is the type of behaviour that does lead to speculation of a vendetta against McLaren. It’s gone beyond Ferrari International Assistance now, last year proved that.

    What I do find interesting, is that twelve months ago Alonso was the devil incarnate over the Hungary and resulting issues, whereas Hamilton came out smelling like roses. Now though, the tide seems to have shifted and people are realising that maybe, Alonso was the one shafted.

  6. Actually, Hamilton’s statement on the Vettel incident makes perfect sense. Hamilton was ahead of Vettel as they approached the chicane and he could have insisted upon his rights by grabbing the racing line. The problem was that would almost certainly cause an accident of the type Coulthard has demonstrated repeatedly this season – Vettel would have T-boned him as he turned in.

    So Lewis had to leave him braking room (DC please note) and take a wider line into the first element of the chicane. That was complicated by the fact that there was a slower car just ahead (I think it was DC, in fact). Had Lewis taken the natural outside line, he would have undoubtedly collected the rear of this car. It left him with nowhere to go except over the curbs.

    Effectively, Hamilton was avoiding potential accidents. Had he stuck to his rights as the man ahead and turned in, Vettel would have collected him and we’d be saying that he should have let the STR driver have room. He cannot win, it seems.

    Thanks to Bernie, we cannot look at replays but that is how I saw it at the time and that is what I have to go on, therefore. The fact that others saw it differently merely shows that witnesses to an incident will always have different stories – ask any insurance company.

    Of course one can be pedantic and declare that rules are rules, Hamilton short-cut the chicane and must be penalized. But that is a part of what I’m saying – McLaren are given no leeway, others are given the benefit of the doubt.

    As for the Kovalainen/Trulli incident, I must take it that we are now saying it is perfectly acceptable to force a passing driver off the track. Heikki went for the gap that Jarno left, drew level and then Trulli moved aggressively to the left, squeezing (I think bumping but it matters not a great deal) Kovalainen over the white line and on to the green. As far as I’m concerned, that’s dangerous and unfair driving.

    The criticism of the McLaren team’s part in the Hamilton incident illustrates what I am saying as well. Everyone says they should have told Lewis to let Vettel through again but that is only from the benefit of hindsight. The team queried the reaction of the stewards immediately but were not given an answer until it was far too late for Hamilton to let Vettel through.

    So we are saying that McLaren should recognize that they are never right in the eyes of the authorities and should have assumed automatically that they would be penalized. I can’t argue with that – it looks like a reasonable assessment of the situation and it would obviously be in McLaren’s interests to take it that they will never have a decision go in their favour. But I do not think it’s fair that McLaren receive criticism for refusing to accept that the FIA have a vendetta against them.

  7. Clive, your explanation of Hamilton’s move makes no sense to me. Basically you are saying that he did take advantage of the tarmac run-off area by making a pass that otherwise would not have stuck. So in what way is that not deliberately gaining an advantage by cutting the chicane?

  8. I’m saying that he made the pass on the straight and that circumstances forced the short-cutting of the chicane. Had Hamilton insisted on his rights as the car ahead and turned in, Vettel would have collected him and they would both have been out of the race – no penalty but no points either.

    So he has to take a wider line but then sees the slower car ahead and occupying the chicane. The shot I saw was in-car with Hamilton and it was obvious that the wide line was no longer possible given the position of the car in front. I thought there would be a collision but Hamilton found a better way.

    The pass was completed before the chicane – if Hamilton was forced to take to the tarmac run-off thereafter by other circumstances, no advantage has been taken. It all rests on whether you think he was going too fast to make the chicane, regardless of circumstances. I think he wasn’t, just about everyone else thinks he was. Big deal, I know what I saw and won’t be swayed by being in a minority. 😀

  9. What you are still saying though is that Hamilton did cut the chicane to gain an advantage?? If the pass was completed properly he wouldn’t “have to” take the wider line would he? And he didn’t take the wide line — he cut the corner instead. So he did cut the chicane to gain an advantage.

  10. Not at all – I’m saying he cut the chicane to avoid an accident. As I said, he could have taken the racing line into the chicane, at the risk of being punted off by Vettel.

  11. ITV, James Allen in particular, can’t say enough good things about Hamilton yet they immediately thought the whole chicane thing may lead to a penalty unless Lewis let Vettel back in front.

    Now, if they think that – on first viewing – I really don’t understand why McLaren or even Lewis himself didn’t think the same thing. Other than for the very reasons you outline above – ie, Lewis would never think he had done anything wrong, and the team wouldn’t dare suggest it.

    I also think the track layout has something to do with it – drivers have the wrong idea on run-off areas. Hamilton should have taken to that area as an absolute last resort, but at the back of his mind he would’ve known it was there and that will have impacted on his decision to try and pass Vettel there.

    Last year he was praised for not sitting behind people for long, instead making quick passes – this year he has tried the same but not had the same luck or judgement in picking the right spots to attempt these passes.

    As you can guess, I’m with the majority on this one. I can even accept that Lewis was in front of Vettel at the corner if that’s what he insists on being the truth, but if he was then going too fast to take the corner then that doesn’t constitute a correct overtake in my view.

    He didn’t actually overtake Vettel through the chicane, but it was all part of the same manouvere as far as I’m concerned.

    It’s a shame we can’t get to see the footage sowe can decide for ourselves, but that’s just the way it is!