I have some concluding thoughts about the incident which I have gathered after seeing how the debate has unfolded on blogs and forums. Basically, the problem boils down to the lack of clarity in the regulations.
First of all, I notice that people keep on referring to what the rules are. “The rules say he needs to let him past”, “The rules say he needs to lose any momentum he gained”, blah, blah, blah. What is interesting is that no-one can ever actually find these rules. That is because they don’t exist.
In comments sections I have referred several times to the wording of the stewards’ decision and the rules that it cites. I will do that here so that you can see what I am talking about.
The stewards, having receieved a report from the Race Director and having met with the drivers and team managers involved, have considered the following matter, determine a breach of the regulations has been committed by the competitor named below and impose the penalty referred to…
Facts: Cut the chicane and gained an advantage
Offence: Breach of Article 30.3 (a) of the 2008 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations and Appendix L chapter 4 Article 2 (g) of the International Sporting Code
Penalty: Drive-through penalty (Article 16.3(a)), since this is being applied at the end of the Race, 25 seconds will be added to the drivers’ elapsed race time
Article 30.3 (a) of the Sporting Regulations (available from this page) says:
During practice and the race, drivers may use only the track and must at all times observe the provisions of the Code relating to driving behaviour on circuits.
Appendix L chapter 4 Article 2 (g) of the International Sporting Code (available from this page) says:
The race track alone shall be used by the drivers during the race.
Note that the regulations and the Code say absolutely nothing about gaining an advantage. If the stewards are to apply the letter of the law, every driver who ever ran wide or cut a chicane whether or not he gave any gained positions or momentum back would be penalised. That would have probably meant almost every driver in the Belgian Grand Prix getting penalised.
Clearly, this would be a farcical situation and it is right that the FIA exercises caution when it comes to enforcing these rules. Over time it has become a convention that a driver who is perceived to have gained track position by going off the race track should give back any positions that he gained.
The problems with this are obvious though. It is almost impossible to measure what gains a driver made by going off the circuit. For instance, where does the Bus Stop begin? Is it when Kimi Räikkönen brakes? Is it the first apex? Is it when Lewis Hamilton brakes. We just don’t know — there is no set definition. This is where the arguments stem from.
So, you can argue, as Clive has done, that Lewis Hamilton was ahead of Räikkönen going into the corner. Certainly, Hamilton had the edge during the braking zone of the first apex. It is also clear that Hamilton was catching Räikkönen very quickly for a long period running up to the chicane.
But you can also argue that Hamilton braked later than Räikkönen knowing that the escape road was an option that he could take. Conversely, you can argue that Räikkönen braked earlier than Hamilton simply because he was not coping well in the wet conditions, as is evident from his sector times leading up to the incident.
The problem is that we don’t know how the stewards came to their decision. Presumably they think that under any other circumstances, there is no possibility that Hamilton would have been as close to Räikkönen coming towards La Source unless he took the escape road. This is what the argument that Hamilton should have been penalised boils down to.
But the rationale for how the stewards reached this decision is shrouded in mystery. The convention, as I mentioned before, is that a driver who gains a position by using an escape road must give it back. That is what I understood it to be.
Now all of a sudden other people are saying other things such as, “the convention is that a driver must give back a position then not attempt to overtake for another corner (or two).” Or, “the convention is that a driver must give back a position then get back into the dirty air of the other driver” (how this is supposed to happen when F1 is supposedly getting rid of dirty air next year, I don’t know). Or, “the convention is that a driver must give back a position and any other distance he gained” (how this is supposed to be measured by anyone, as I have pointed out before, I don’t know). I saw another person say that he should have given a “courtesy pause”.
I have to confess that these “conventions” are all news to me. Given this myriad of “conventions” that people have come up with, it is clear that there actually is no convention. And let me just reiterate that anyone who says that any of the above are rules is simply lying. The regulations say absolutely nothing about giving back a position or anything. It is quite clear that the rules state that anyone who goes off the race track — whether they gain from it or not — should be penalised.
The problem is when it comes to asking: where do you draw the line? The debates have shown that there is no agreed point at which the line should be drawn. And here is the problem with the FIA as many fans see it at the moment. This is where the perceived inconsistencies come from. When there is no set convention, there are bound to be inconsistencies.
When there are three different stewards at every race, this only compounds the situation. When the stewards are assisted by a man, Alan Donnelly, who is perceived to be politically close to Max Mosley and who until he was appointed in the post listed Ferrari among the clients of his company, that is when things start to become really bad. Whether the fans are right or not, they perceive there to be a pro-Ferrari bias within the FIA. You can’t really blame them.
It is legitimate to ask why Lewis Hamilton got penalised in Belgium when Michael Schumacher was not even investigated for cutting the same chicane in two consecutive laps while trying to defend his position (first at 4:20 then at 5:50).
Was that permissible because Schumacher was ahead and defending his position? Or was it permissible because his car was red? Is it a coincidence that the other car is silver?
Perhaps a better video to use is the instance where Felipe Massa didn’t get penalised last year in Fuji for this driving, when in dangerous conditions he barged Robert Kubica off the road twice before taking a wide line onto the run-off area coming towards the finish line, which gave him the speed to beat Kubica. (Before anyone starts, I was highly critical of Hamilton’s driving at Fuji last year — check the archives of my other blog.)
Was Massa given the benefit of the doubt because of the torrential conditions? Or was it because his car was red?
At the time, Martin Brundle commentating on ITV said that it looked “50:50” between Massa and Kubica for naughty driving. It is true that Kubica cuts a chicane a couple of times as well, although he never gained anything like the sort of advantage Massa got coming out of the final corner.
I use this clip because it is an instance where both drivers were a bit naughty. This is just like what happened in Belgium. Hamilton was a bit naughty by cutting the chicane. But when he gave back the position, Räikkönen was a bit naughty by making two moves going towards La Source. Then Räikkönen was a bit naughty by crashing into Hamilton at La Source.
Then Räikkönen was a bit naughty by running wide at Pouhon (Hamilton ran wide at Pouhon as well, but Hamilton re-joined the track much earlier than Räikkönen did. Räikkönen just carried on taking the wider line through the run-off area and this gave him the momentum to catch right up to Hamilton again). Then Räikkönen was a bit naughty by overtaking under a yellow flag (understandably, given the situation).
My point is not that Räikkönen should have been punished for anything he did in that hectic lap. As far as I am concerned, this was just tough racing. It wasn’t completely clean from either driver. Both drivers were pushing it to the limit in all senses. But not in any case was there a clear instance of a driver deliberately setting out to gain an unfair advantage at any point, nor do I think either driver ever seriously endangered anyone’s safety.
For me, this is just the sort of instance where you have to say to yourself, “these things happen in racing”. For me, it was an example of what good racing is all about. Watching the onboard video is an absolute joy for me. I think it is excellent edge-of-your-seat tension. I feel bad that it has been ruined in a way by the overly-officious stewards who somehow managed to overlook all of Räikkönen’s transgressions yet punish Hamilton’s transgression.
It’s great racing, and Hamilton got punished for it. My worry is that a driver who is 50:50 about whether he can make an overtaking move without having to take the escape road will now be more likely to hold back and settle for second. As BBC commentator David Croft and none other that Renault’s director of engineering Pat Symonds have pointed out, this penalty distorts the incentives that an F1 driver has to overtake. When F1 is supposed to be encouraging more overtaking and more great racing, this is a major retrograde step.
If anything is clear, it is that the regulations in this area are clear as mud. Since tarmac run-off areas came into vogue, this has slowly become a greater and greater problem for Formula 1. It was inevitable that sooner or later there was going to be a big controversy over the interpretation of the rules about using run-off areas.
My problem is that now too many rules in F1 are down to interpretation. The vagueness of the rules demands that this be so. But that leaves it wide open to corruption, or allegations of bias. Given the inconsistencies, it is highly possible that the drivers do not know how far they can push it. And the fans certainly don’t know. That is not acceptable.
I don’t think there is a single race that goes by when there is not some pathetic person who says things like, “driver X cut the chicane, driver Y crossed the white line, driver Z farted in the wrong place, therefore they should all be penalised so that my favourite driver can win the race.” With F1’s rules as vague and flexible as they are today, fans can craft a race result that suits them. So can the stewards.
My problem with the Hamilton penalty is that I cannot feel confident that the stewards would have penalised a Ferrari driver for doing the same thing. Many other people feel the same way. At worst, the system is open to corruption. At best, Formula 1 has become a judged competition. Slowly but surely, Formula 1 is changing from a sport where the winner is the person who crosses the line first into a sport where the winner is whoever the stewards thought did the best job. Figure skating on wheels.
Perhaps the FIA really likes that idea. But I don’t. What the FIA needs to do is sort this mess out once and for all. If there really is a need to rotate the stewards, at least have one or two permanent stewards — and make them credible. Also, make the rules on using run-off areas and escape roads much, much clearer so that drivers, stewards and fans alike know where the line is drawn. Because just now we are all guessing, and that is where the debates are coming from and that is why Formula 1 keeps on having these controversial situations.