I have long felt that there have been too many penalties in F1. Many talk about the inconsistency. This is indeed a problem. But the main issue is that they are handed out far too often. Today I feel that the stewards overstepped the mark once again and interfered with the race when it was not necessary.
Another clumsy mistake from Vettel
That does not excuse what Sebastian Vettel did. I am a great admirer of Sebastian Vettel. But I am sorry to have to say that today he demonstrated just why he does not deserve to win the Drivers’ Championship this season.
Vettel’s speed is not in doubt. But in a wheel-to-wheel situation his judgement is left in question. This season he has made several unnecessary mistakes. His clash with Jenson Button is just the latest one, and it would not surprise me if there is at least one more this season.
It does seem to be Vettel’s greatest weakness. For a while he had a reputation for being a driver who was unable to overtake. He had shaken that off, but these scrapes that he is increasingly getting himself into are threatening to make this question return.
People talk about experience. David Coulthard certainly brought that up plenty of times during the BBC’s coverage. But experience has little to do with it. Lewis Hamilton was able to handle life at the front of the grid much earlier in his career without constantly putting his foot in it in this way. Yes, Hamilton made mistakes, and he still does. But he was not clumsy in the same way.
Meanwhile, the most experienced Formula 1 driver in history, Rubens Barrichello, also managed to lose control at the very same corner, steaming straight into Fernando Alonso with great force. That is not a reflection on Rubens Barrichello’s skill. With 300 races under his belt, no-one can question his skill or experience.
Accidents will happen
Instead, it underlines that accidents will happen in racing. Sometimes you come off well, sometimes you come off badly. F1 is a risky endeavour by its very nature. There is not a driver on the grid who can say he has never caused an accident. This is what happens when you are racing on the edge. It doesn’t matter how good you are or how much experience you have. In tough conditions, mistakes are made. That is racing.
That is why I have to question whether it was necessary for the stewards to punish Sebastian Vettel by making him serve a drive-through penalty. Yes, what Vettel did was a bit silly. It seems like he got mixed up in a car that was clearly faster than Jenson Button’s and didn’t know what to do when he suddenly found himself halfway up the McLaren’s gearbox.
Incidentally, if my reading of some of the post-race interviews is correct, it seems as though it was part of Jenson Button’s job to hold up the other cars to give Hamilton maximum advantage. Were team orders at play? Was Jenson Button deliberately holding up the pack? Notice how in his post-race interview with the BBC, Lewis Hamilton says, “he did everything he could to back us up and get the most points”.
Nonetheless, Sebastian Vettel got himself into a situation that he did not need to be in. The consequences were disastrous — for both Button and Vettel. The thing is, these incidents have killed Vettel’s title challenge. That in itself is the penalty a driver faces for poor driving standards.
Formula 1 is a sport, not a court. The problem is that the stewards often find themselves in a power trip and like to hand out penalties willy-nilly for increasingly minor indiscretions. Whether or not there is a former driver in the stewards’ room, this is the main problem with the stewarding system.
For years, I have been fearing that Formula 1 is in danger of banning racing. Instead of Formula One, the sport is in danger of becoming Formula None. As far as I see it, Sebastian Vettel was penalised today for attempting an overtaking manoeuvre. Yes, it was a manoeuvre that went wrong. But motor racing is inherently risky. If overtaking wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t be exciting to watch.
These are drivers racing on the edge of what is possible with today’s machinery. In changeable conditions, Vettel got the balance wrong. But it was a judgement call that he had to make in a very short space of time.
A clumsy driver punishes himself enough
One of the beautiful things about motor racing is that it is all about balancing risk in real-time, in a very natural way. That is what we see every time there is a wheel-to-wheel battle. Everyone knows in this situation there is a chance that things might go wrong. Drivers are ready to face the consequences when things go wrong.
Sebastian Vettel’s real penalty was the natural one. His race was ruined by his mistake. With a damaged car, having to make a pitstop to change his front wing, the potential of a second place finish went up in smoke.
For some reason, the stewards decided to interfere in this natural justice system that is inherent in motor racing. Now when drivers see that they can be penalised for attempting an overtaking manoeuvre, they will soon enough stop attempting as it will no longer be worth the risk. The balance will have tipped too far in the opposite direction, and in an artificial manner.
And people wonder why there is not enough overtaking in F1?
A penalty should be handed out in the most extreme circumstances. I would say that Michael Schumacher’s barge in Hungary was a perfect example. That was a clear, premeditated move that was carried out over the course of a number of seconds. Vettel made a split-second move that suddenly went wrong. The intentions are different, and the seriousness of Vettel’s mistake is not in the same league.
Racing should be allowed. If it is not, the sport will be dead. But yet again, F1 finds itself curiously punishing someone for trying to race. Sebastian Vettel punished himself enough.