Up until yesterday, it had been a good year for F1. The spotlight has been on the racetrack rather than the stewards’ room. It had even reached the stage where some people — including me — were asking if the stewards were being too lenient. Overall, it seems as though the reign of Jean Todt is much less of a nanny state.
Unfortunately, yesterday in Monaco that changed — and for a typical reason. The rules were simply badly-worded and too ambiguous. And that left plenty of room for two interpretations of the situation.
It is not often you will find me on the side of Michael Schumacher — especially since, the longer he continues being average, the more I can say “I told you so“. But I sympathise with him and the Mercedes team in this instance.
What is the new rule for?
The confusion arises from the introduction of a “Safety Car line” for the first time this year. This means that drivers can start overtaking more or less as soon as the Safety Car peels in, rather than having to wait until passing the start line.
I think this has been a slightly under-advertised rule change. I first learnt about it during the Chinese Grand Prix when cars were passing each other into the final corner of the lap during a race restart. So the explanation for the introduction of the Safety Car line is unclear to me.
I assume the idea is just to get the race back under way again as quickly as possible. In that case the idea gets my approval, even though I liked the idea that there was skill involved in timing your restart perfectly for the start / finish line. I remember particularly Fernando Alonso really showing up Jenson Button at a restart during the 2006 Australian Grand Prix — still one of my favourite Alonso moments.
What a good idea, too, it would have been if this rule had been brought in as a result of last year’s Australian Grand Prix finishing behind the Safety Car. Allowing the drivers to race towards the finish line, rather than form an orderly queue towards it, would be a good way of maintaining the excitement of a motor race until the end, rather than allowing it to fizzle out like Australia 2009.
It seems as though article 40.13 is specifically designed to prohibit this though. I would be interested to learn of the rationale for this. It seems to me that it would be a particularly good idea to use a device like the Safety Car line only on the final lap — not on every lap except the final lap!
The return of Formula None
I keep coming back to the concept of Formula None. This is the curious phenomenon whereby the powers-that-be in F1 decide to outlaw anything that comes dangerously close to becoming motor racing.
Michael Schumacher’s move on Fernando Alonso was an incredible piece of opportunistic driving. It brought an exciting twist to the final lap. Then again, it becomes less special when you realise that Alonso wasn’t even thinking that he would have to defend.
I do find it a shame that, in a race which saw no position changes whatsoever in the final 48 laps, the one successful overtaking manoeuvre has been deemed to be illegal — and for slightly unclear reasons.
Differing interpretations of article 40.13
The contentious rule, Article 40.13 of the Sporting Regulations, reads as follows:
If the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.
Looking at the wording of this rule, it is in fact little surprise that it has caused confusion, since it is so badly worded. For one thing, it talks about something that should happen before the end of the race if a particular state is true at the end of the race.
You may safely assume that a race will end under “Safety Car deployed” conditions if the Safety Car is on track for the final lap. But you nevertheless need time-travel skills from the top drawer in order to carry out the instructions in the sequence that the FIA regulations request.
I admit that is a pedantic point. The real issue is in the definition of “Safety Car deployed”. It is clear now that the rules say that Safety Car conditions effectively end when your car passes the Safety Car line on the lap in which the Safety Car enters the pits. For some reason — unexplained — this is seemingly different on the final lap.
We must now turn to whether — theoretically — the 79th lap of this 78 lap race would have seen the Safety Car continue on the track rather than peel into the pits. This is key to understanding whether or not the race finished under Safety Car conditions.
It seems to me as though a message on the timing screens declaring that the Safety Car will pit in this lap, that could seal the deal. However, this may just be a procedural message, notifying teams and television viewers that the Safety Car will pit, even though Safety Car conditions will not technically end.
Perhaps, then, the “Track clear” message will underline the idea that our theoretical 79th lap would run under green flag conditions, and not Safety Car conditions.
If after that there was a shred of doubt, turn your eyes to the marshal posts, where you see a marshal merrily waving a green flag, just next to a big green flashing light (which is operated by Race Control). Surely a green flag always, always, means “racing”.
To me, it is absurd to throw out green flags, and yet prohibit overtaking. Even from a safety point of view, it is contradictory to what drivers are surely always told. Green means you can race safely; yellows mean you must slow down and not overtake. Apparently now green means “cruise to the finish line and don’t overtake — but only if you’re on the last lap, otherwise you can race safely.”
Are the green flags just for show? Surely if the intention of article 40.13 is to prevent racing in the last few hundred yards of a race just after the Safety Car has pulled in to the pits, the flag should still be yellow.
Looking back to that last Safety Car finish in Australia last year, you can clearly see marshals holding out “SC” boards and waving yellow flags as Jenson Button cruises his way towards the finish line. So why has the procedure been confusingly changed this season?
The decision was far from clear-cut
In many senses then, Mercedes and Michael Schumacher has a pretty strong case for claiming that racing conditions — “green flag” conditions — had resumed.
It seems as though their interpretation of the rule was unique. Certainly, Fernando Alonso had been told by Ferrari not to race. Lewis Hamilton was so surprised at Schumacher’s move that he went on the radio to enquire about it.
According to Andrew Benson:
This interpretation was shared by all the team managers bar that of Mercedes – I understand that upon seeing Schumacher’s move every single one of them got in touch with race director Charlie Whiting to say it was not allowed.
But the teams appear to sympathise with the Mercedes team’s point regarding green flags, with Jonathan Legard reporting that Mercedes have “support from other teams” on this issue, and that the procedure may be reviewed.
Some have tried to suggest that the rule is clear. In fact, it is not clear at all, particularly when the procedure — to throw out false green flags — is so confusing.
The fact that it took the stewards approximately two and a half hours to announce their decision denotes that the decision was far from clear-cut. It seems as though there has been a major cock-up in the FIA’s implementation of this new Safety Car system. As they might say in the areas surrounding Jean Todt’s office in Place de la Concorde, plus ça change…
(Image nicked from Alexj2002 at Digital Spy and the short guy in the white shirt.)