Not at odds with a season of relatively uneventful Grand Prix thus far, the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix seemed to be ticking along to its conclusion without a great deal of incident.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel appeared to be on course to breaking Mercedes’ string of six wins in as many Grand Prix, when on lap 48, under some pressure from Lewis Hamilton directly behind (although not looking like he’d be able to get past it must be said) Vettel cracked once again and went off track in turns 3 and 4, rejoining directly onto the racing line and forcing the now alongside Hamilton to back off allowing Vettel to preserve his lead.
The stewards immediately announced an investigation into the incident, and a short while later Vettel was issued with a 5 second time penalty.
Then it all kicked off.
Vettel was disgusted with the penalty he thought had ‘robbed’ him of the win. Ex-racing drivers leapt to his defence. People on Twitter were apoplectic (as people on Twitter tend to be).
Were the FIA right to issue Vettel with a penalty?
Well, to my mind, this is actually two questions:
1. According to the rules, should Vettel have been awarded a penalty?
2. Is the rule that landed Vettel with a penalty correct?
The answer to question 1 is, absolutely. According to the letter of the law, Sebastian Vettel rejoined the track in an unsafe manner causing Lewis Hamilton to brake to avoid a collision. Furthermore, in doing so, he actually gained an advantage on Lewis Hamilton eking out a marginally bigger gap to his rival than he’d enjoyed the lap before.
You could say that on rejoining the track he was affected by an armful of oversteer that landed him plum on the racing line, but that was as a result of Vettel keeping his foot on the gas. If he’d have backed off more, he’d have regained control and could have guided his car back on track without impeding Hamilton.
But of course, he’s a racing driver and he wants to fight for his lead on track or not and so he decided to keep his foot in, block Hamilton and deal with the consequences later.
The answer to question 2 is debatable. No two situations are exactly alike and so to try and have a few lines in black and white that cover all eventualities is virtually impossible.
‘Why can’t the stewards apply a bit of common sense?’ people cry. Because ‘common sense’ actually allows for a flexible interpretation of the rules, and that, while what’s might be required here, gets in the way of consistency in the application of said rules over the course of a season.
You could argue that the rules are getting in the way of the racing, but I wonder if, had Hamilton done the same to Vettel and not been awarded a penalty thus continuing Mercedes unprecedented run of wins whether there’d be a similar outcry but in favour of stricter regulation. I fancy there would have been.
So we could change the rules, but prepare yourself for drivers taking advantage of that.
And if your driver is taken out by an over-zealous K-Mag or Ro-Gro storming back onto the racing line after going off because he’s desperate not to lose position, then don’t have a pop at the stewards for improper regulation.
In summary, as unpopular as this opinion might be, the application of the rule was correct. And although it does absolutely nothing for the spectacle of the sport, and although I think 99.99% of Grand Prix drivers would have done exactly the same as Vettel in that situation, the rule is also correct. You can’t steam back onto the racing line after going off-track without any consequences whether you’re a Ferrari driver about to stop Mercedes’ cruise to seven wins in seven races or not.
Furthermore, the FIA can’t selectively apply rules depending on the situation.
And while in this case I think it was harsh on Vettel, when I saw the incident I expected it.
If this incident is the 1/10 where the application of the rule is harsh, without a rule the other 9/10 incidents where the offending driver unequivocally deserves a penalty for doing similar get away scot free, which would be far more unjust.
Having said that, the FIA and Formula 1 have a history of kneejerk reactions and so I expect the regulations (currently tightly policed at the request of the drivers let’s not forget) to be loosened in the near future as a result of the outrage caused by this incident.
And in true F1 fashion, it’s likely to flip flop between the two ad-infinitum, because bad press is better than no press, right?