Why Vettel should not have been penalised

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.

Penalty-creep

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.

11 comments

  1. I see your point in this article, and you put forward a compelling argument as to why Vettel was not worthy of a punishment.

    What you seem to fail to see, however, is that the rules punishing drivers for (avoidable accidents) are there for a reason; because if they weren’t then a lot of drivers would drive in a manor that would cause more accidents than ought to be in F1.

    It’s designed to be a deterrent rather than a punishment, but if it weren’t a punishment that stewards were willing to apply then it wouldn’t work as a deterrent.

    Yes, it’s a high-speed sport, so incidents will always happen. But if you drive with a little care in mind (just a little) then a lot of incidents are avoidable, therefore driving without care for this should well be punished.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Senor Swinstead.

    I definitely think that penalties should be applied when drivers have acted in a reckless or dangerous manner. The question is at what point does a move stop being clumsy and start being malicious.

    For me, the intention is key. With an incident like Schumacher in Hungary, it was pretty clear that Schumacher intended to intimidate Barrichello into yielding, with potentially disastrous consequences.

    I just don’t think Vettel had that sort of intention in mind. All he wanted to do was pass Jenson Button. The way he went about it was clumsy, but there was no malicious intent. He did not intend to cause a crash. He did not intend to create a dangerous situation. He wasn’t trying to bully Button into letting him past. He just innocently lost control.

    This is the sort of situation where I think a penalty is really not required. Vettel was punished enough by the result he created for himself. There was no need for the stewards to do anything more. Otherwise, we risk scaring drivers out of even trying.

  3. To me, Vettel’s move on Button was reckless. He displayed very poor judgement of the state of the track, sufficient that he would have ruined his own race whether Button had been present or not. It wasn’t the overtaking attempt that doomed Sebastian, it was driving without due care and caution on a track that was becoming gradually more difficult to drive upon.

    It didn’t make that much difference to his race that Button was in the way, yet Button was removed nonetheless. Such is what happens when very poor judgement occurs in the presence of innocent parties, and it is probably the main reason why the FIA has a penalty system in the first place. If innocent parties got regularly removed from races (or had them seriously damaged) by guilty ones, it would discourage people from bothering to respect the natural rules of the race and, especially, the artificial ones imposed by the FIA to bring further order into the races. Without respect of rules, most drivers and teams will not want to be present in F1, let alone race there.

    Hopefully Vettel will learn from this and increase his awareness of the circuit when conditions are changing. If he can do that, better overtakes from him should follow suit. In that case, the penalty will not only have improved his general driving standard, but increased his ability to overtake. The key, though, will be for Vettel to remember that this penalty is effectively for low awareness (the thing that caused the accident) rather than for attempting to overtake (a necessary but insufficient component for this accident to happen).

  4. I’m sorry but I disagree with your assessment. Have you already forgot Canada, when Petrov got a penalty for causing a collision with Pedro?

    It was very similar he lost control going on to the kerb and ruined pedro’s race, who had to get a new nose. No one complained about that penalty…

    Have you forgotten Australia with Mark, when he took out Lewis? That’s similar too, no penalty was awarded due to it being a racing incident! and Mark being punished badly getting a new wing. The main difference there was Lewis could continue. In this case Jenson was out the race completely.

    I find it annoying that, posts like this complain about the stewards consistency. Yet if you look through the season so far, the only mistakes I can blame them for was Monaco (Schumacher) and Valencia (Hamilton) and the silly 5 second penalties.

    The problem with Vettel’s maneuver was that it was overly aggressive, reckless and cost not only his race but Jenson’s who couldn’t continue “the whole thing was avoidable”.

  5. Alianora for once I disagree with you! As you know I’m a big Webber fan and I must admit this bought a cheer from me when it occurred. However I was amazed with the penalty. It was a pure racing incident in which the conditions of the track caused the accident. Next they’ll start punishing guys from spinning if somebody happens to hit them on the way through…or goodness forbid somebody comes close to hitting them.

  6. Completely agree with your view on this Duncan.

    The hope instilled by early season ‘driver warnings’ that the anti-racing days of F1 were behind us now seems a long time ago.

    The stewards need to realise that the penalty system needs to be consistent from March to November. Granted, as we approach the tail end of the season, accidents appear more costly to the drivers involved (in this case, Button and Vettel) but this doesn’t therefore mean that penalties should be harsher. Infringement X should merit punishment Y, be it in Bahrain or Abu Dhabi.

    Besides, all accidents are ‘avoidable’ by definition. They are simply a by-product of taking risks – and risk is a key ingredient of motorsport.

  7. Jake, I am afraid you chose the wrong example because I don’t think Petrov should have got a penalty in Canada either.

    The treatment of Mark Webber in Australia after his collision with Lewis Hamilton was the right way to treat an incident like this in my view.

    As I said in my post, a penalty should only be handed out in extreme circumstances, where a driver has made a clearly dangerous planned move, ignores a safety rule (e.g. exceeding the pitlane speed limit) or if he gains an unfair advantage (e.g. by cutting a chicane).

    Vettel did none of these when he lost control of his car. He was clumsy and reckless, but it wasn’t intentional.

    There are three incidents this year that I think I would have punished:

    • Trulli on Chandhok at Monaco
    • Schumacher on Massa at Canada (and also for cutting the chicane several times)
    • Schumacher on Barrichello at Hungary

    The rest should be decided on the race track, not in the ivory tower known as the stewards’ room.

    When you have penalty-creep, too much of it becomes a matter of opinion. In that case, F1 will have become a judged sport like figure skating rather than the battle of man and machine — as measured clinically by a stopwatch — that it is at its soul.

  8. I really think Sebastian Vettel is not ready to become a world champion just yet. If he was a bit more experienced and probably calmer on race days, he would have converted more pole positions to wins. Oh, well, may be next year!

  9. Duncan, I did choose the right example. Petrov made a rookie mistake and caused an avoidable accident, even though it was out of his control once he spun. He should of known better then to drive on the curb, no one commentating said it was unfair neither did anyone else, which is my point! But as soon as vettel makes a mistake everyone is over it in a defense.

    You do realise that even with his penalty he only lost two places, should of been a stop and go.

    Same with Mark and Vettel in Turkey it was Sebs fault 100% no driver has to move over team mate or not they can hold their line. Same thing happened here Jenson held his line Seb outbreaked himself lost control and took out a competitor.

    By the way the Truli incident was given a reprimand. Massa outbreaked himself under estimating the breaking distance of schumacher on worn soft tires and was considered a racing incident. The Rubens and Schumacher incident was punished. The Mark and Kovi was a racing incident.

    To be fair to the stewards they have given enough reprimands to a lot of the drivers and even in the drivers briefings. They can only give out so many warnings before they need to give penalties out.

    As for Mark in Australia many thought it was too soft considering his aggressive driving that day. Half of what you said in your essay post isn’t true either, it’s not going to stop overtaking.

    A vast majority of the field have been racing long enough and know how to race, it’s only the rookies, seb and sutil that have this issue where when they’re out front they’re ok but in among other cars they don’t know how to race and get super frustrated.

  10. Jake, thanks for your comment.

    I think we have to agree to disagree. Although you make some good points, I disagree that penalties should be handed out willy-nilly in the way you seem to suggest.

    As you say in your own words, the Petrov incident was as a result of a “rookie mistake”. There was no malicious intent, nor did he unfairly gain an advantage. He just made a mistake. The price he paid was a race that was ruined as it was. The penalty was wholly unnecessary in my view.

    In what other sports is the competitor handed a punishment for making a mistake? When a footballer concedes a goal kick is he also given a yellow card? It is ridiculous. For some reason people seem to really like penalties in F1 these days — I guess because it allows you to easily create your own fantasy results.

    Once we go down this path, F1 will not be far away from the judged sports like figure skating, which are wide open to corruption. F1 should steer as far away from making these kind of subjective judgements as possible. This is motor sport. The judge should be the stop watch.

  11. I fear you are missing the point slightly Duncan.

    I understand what you are saying about them punishing racing and yes that should be discouraged. The fact is, he was never going to overtake Button from that position into that corner, he would have been pushed wide and ran off the track at the second apex and would have had to give the place back if he actually got ahead.

    He was penalised for causing an avoidable accident – this was avoidable as he should have been able to see that he could not pull off a move there.

    By his poor judgement he destroyed the race of a championship contender, the penalty was just, he didn’t deserve to score points in that race after doing that.

    Vettel needs to watch some highlights from other drivers who can actually overtake and know when they can and can’t do it. I agree with you when you say age is no excuse. People are saying “He’s so young, it’s hard for him to be at the front, you expect to much, he still has to mature – blah blah blah” Hamilton was the same age in his first season as Seb is now, and as we all know very very nearly won the DC so was very much in the spotlight. To date Vettel has had 57 races, Lewis has had 66 and there is only 2.5 years between them in age, it’s nothing. People need to stop making excuses for him and he just needs to improve.