There are admittedly many things in life that I don’t ‘get’. The ongoing infatuation with pulled pork being one. I rather liked the Al Murray Pub Landlord line of “how can pulled pork be traditional when no one had heard of it two years ago?” Anything ever produced by Leigh Francis is another. I can only assume that it’s not aimed at me. Game of Thrones too. I sometimes suspect that I’m the only one among my acquaintances who has never watched it (nor felt any great urge to).
But during and after the British Grand Prix just passed I was reminded of an apparent trait in modern F1 that I don’t get either. One that you might be able to help me with. Among the many common complaints we hear about the modern sport that it’s over-regulated and there are too many penalties is among the most regular. That the stewards butt in too often where there is little need. Nothing wrong with that, indeed I ‘get’ that bit. The current-day F1 driver and team is much more penalised than at most points of the sport’s history, and the consequences of this as well as being potentially confusing also its associated general prissiness and constraint is hardly in keeping with an activity that likes to present itself as gladiatorial.
But the bit I don’t get is that in the next breath we hear from those – no doubt often the self-same people – who in response to something-or-other at the drop of a hat screech their heads off demanding penalties be applied, apparently without getting the disconnect between the two positions.
The latest apparent instance of this was brought about by an incident that you probably recall in the early part of the Silverstone race, when Mercedes – unusually trailing two Williams on the road – attempted to throw the Grove team a dummy on pit stop strategy by sending its mechanics out into the pit lane apparently to receive a car, only for the two Mercs to flash by the pits as normal and the crew to return to the garage. The hope being that Team Willy would have fallen for it and sought to pit one of its own cars to cover the ‘pitting’ Merc, thus throwing its strategy well out of kilter.
Technically of course this isn’t allowed as the rules say team personnel are only allowed into the pit lane immediately before and during work on a car, though equally it was far from the first time it has been tried. The wording of the actual regulation at hand is rather vague. It certainly doesn’t outline precisely what is and isn’t allowed nor the resultant punishments. As David Coulthard noted also it’s the sort of thing that so long as you don’t extract the urine by doing it repeatedly no one is going to touch you. And in any case the Williams team saw right through it.
The main reaction of most concerned indeed was to treat it as a bit of a laugh or at worst that all was fair in love and war (albeit the team’s technical chief Pat Symonds did grumble on the BBC commentary about it being against the rules). Certainly the content of Williams development driver Susie Wolff’s WhatsApp message to her husband and Mercedes boss Toto suggested few hard feelings.
I got a text message [from my wife]: ‘Are you guys trying to bluff us, or what?’
– Toto Wolff
It was curious though that those at Mercedes were apparently so unashamed about it being a deliberate dummy afterwards, rather than, say like Ferrari did in the infamous case of Hockenheim in 2010, at least try to hold the line that it wasn’t what it obviously was in order to not incriminate themselves. “Sometimes you have to play these little games” Wolff admitted, “and we knew that an early stop would probably bring them [Williams] into trouble with running long with the tyres, so we made a try but they didn’t swallow the dummy.”
Though thinking about it perhaps we should be grateful that they didn’t insult all our intelligence à la the Scuderia by going down that route…
But still I assumed all were happy to let this one pass. It was cheeky rather than egregious. But not so, the BBC published an article on the matter after the race which included a few fans’ reactions from social media calling for penalties as a result. I’d imagine the examples were rather hand-picked, but still. “Surely they should be penalised?!” said one. “Action should be taken by FIA but I doubt it will be,” said another. The powers-that-be going straight from being perceived as overbearing to being perceived as timid without any apparent intervening period it seems.
And one way or another such complainants have had their way it seems, with it reported in the days after the British race that race director Charlie Whiting has warned the teams that such ‘dummies’ won’t be tolerated in future, and that some form of penalty, probably a time one, will be meted out. So more intervention; more penalties. Which apparently is the opposite of what we want.
There’s also the matter that it strikes me as harsh in the extreme to punish a driver in that instance, given the offence would have had little to do with them personally (though it was intended to be to their benefit). Also were Silverstone’s case replicated who out of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg would you punish? Or do you punish both? Someone suggested punishing the driver whose tyres were brought out which would work in many instances but then you could imagine teams – being as they are the conniving sort – in a situation with one car needing the help and their other car way behind sacrificing the race of the straggling driver by ‘accidentally’ bring their tyres out instead… Presumably too a punishment of a fine or whatever for the team only wouldn’t have satisfied those baying for sanction.
But such an instinctive desire to finger-point and demand official retribution is not at all confined to the fans. As we often have been able to ascertain from the radio chatter we hear on the TV world feed and elsewhere teams haven’t always needed too much encouragement to snitch on others to the stewards, nor have drivers. Indeed a modern feature of drivers’ radio messages being broadcast is that they are used frequently as a de facto means of communicating with the sport’s referees.
Alonso and Vettel battle it out at the 2014 British GP (© Ferrari)
It all put me in mind of the Fernando Alonso vs. Sebastian Vettel scrap from this very grand prix 12 months ago. On the face of it the battle was enthralling – it had a sheer desperate edge, full of left, right, try-every-angle dicing and just-enough-room-but-not-a-millimetre-more judgement by both drivers. Martin Brundle said in this vein that “their contest was the reason why people tune in to watch for many hours and why so many track-side fans pay out to watch F1”, while Allan McNish concurred, calling it “some of the best racing you will ever see…F1 at its best.”
It was a battle that on this basis deserved to go somewhere in the ballpark of the standard-bearing Gilles Villeneuve-Rene Arnoux dice from Dijon in 1979. But while in the latter case the two protagonists afterwards fell delighted into each other’s arms, in the former one Vettel and Alonso concentrated solely it seemed on trying to get the other punished. Both in shrill, almost brattish, terms complained about the other repeatedly as we all heard via the radio transmissions that were broadcast, mainly about track limits but Vettel, stretching credulity well beyond breaking point, bemoaned that he felt he wasn’t being given sufficient space by his opponent either. The contrast between that and the stoicism of their actual racing could not have been more stark. It served to taint it.
And imagine if the Villeneuve-Arnoux battle was replicated today. What odds on hearing a cacophony of complaint about the number of ‘avoidable collisions’ when the two banged wheels repeatedly? And of course Arnoux at one point ‘exceeds track limits’ in completing a pass and doesn’t give Gilles the place back (not deliberately anyway).
In fairness it appears the sport’s bigwigs have recognised lately that stewards have been too interventionist and keen to apportion blame and punishment to racing incidents, and there have been conscious attempts to step back as it were. The first of these was in the 2010 season which worked well and I’ve no idea why they lapsed subsequently into old ways. And last year before the Austrian race the Formula One Commission issued new guidelines, at the teams’ behest, that stewards should be more willing and able to let incidents go. Before then Charlie Whiting had to report any incidents between drivers that resulted in a collision to the stewards for investigation. The revision meant matters were a lot more at the stewards’ discretion. And in fairness my general perception since is that teams have held their tongues more readily too.
Vettel in that Austrian race after colliding with Esteban Gutierrez was the first to benefit from the change – and sure enough there was audible complaining heard in response as to Seb ‘getting away with it’. Further evidence of the struggle even to please some of the people some of the time. But it seems that the more laissez-faire approach has held solid. Thinking over the last couple of races for example there was a time that Silverstone’s Lotus and McLaren pinball in the opening turns would have almost certainly resulted in someone getting a penalty; same with Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso’s crash on Austria’s lap one. In the event no one did.
But of course things exist within their zeitgeist. If we reverse the causal arrows we can hypothesise that the behaviour from fans, teams and drivers is a function of the world around it. If you see penalties handed down it’ll likely mean in the spirit of fairness that you’ll want to see similar punishments for what you see as similar incidents in the future, particularly if your driver of choice has previously been sanctioned. As Jimmy Durante had it “dose are da conditions dat prevail”. And it therefore all creates its own momentum. We get ourselves into a debilitating spiral of what the late Northern Irish politician David Ervine coined as ‘whataboutery’.
Of course F1 coverage also is greater, there are more cameras and other ways of tracking the drivers and cars and therefore many more things get spotted than used to be so. And we have this in combination with the radio broadcasts mentioned plus social media and the like offering rather more opportunities to complain. We also via these channels find out about the complaints a lot more readily. This all accelerates the negative spiral described above.
It also is human nature to an extent more broadly that people aren’t necessarily great at linking the impact of their individual behaviour to the overall aggregate outcome. In addition to this case in hand of crying for penalties while simultaneously thinking F1 drivers are penalised too much, many examples of this sort of thing can be found and indeed far beyond the circuits’ perimeters. My personal favourite is when residents never use their local post office branch but then when it is announced that it is to close due to lack of use they get irate about it. Game theorists may point towards the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in that none of the actors here, be they teams, drivers or partisan fans, want to be the one taking the initiative to make a change that may result in a better aggregate outcome as they fear shorter-term pain for themselves individually from doing so (in this case their lot getting a punishment and a rival not).
But it seems the world has changed too, or at least F1 has. I once heard a story that when Vittorio Brambilla in the March took a surprise pole in the 1975 Swedish Grand Prix it wasn’t entirely down to skill, he was aided apparently by that the timing beam was near his team’s pit wall, and a couple of seconds before he completed his qualifying lap one of his mechanics decided to swipe his pit board through it… Then, I’m told too, the reaction of rivals was not one of outrage but rather to have a giggle about it. But perhaps that was more a product of an age wherein F1 was still rather a gentlemanly pastime scrutinised in detail only by a handful of diehards rather than the super-professional, ultra-moneyed, global industry with a mass following that it is today.
Time was too that driving offences hardly were punished at all. Disqualifications (about the only sanction available beyond fines and the like as well as the long-held honour of a one minute penalty for a jumped start) when they happened tended to be for technical reasons or else for clearly (ish) defined offences like push starts or reversing in the pit lane. Citing any meaningful punishments in F1 for poor driving as such prior to Eddie Irvine sitting out three races in early 1994, after which point the floodgates opened seemingly, is rather a needle-in-a-haystack exercise. Quaintly Al Pease was however kicked out of the 1969 Canadian Grand Prix partway through for ‘insufficient speed’…
To an extent this all likely too reflected that driving standards were mostly self-policing for a long stretch of the sport’s history. This was in large part because, without wishing to sound corny, drivers wouldn’t push the boundaries of acceptability as it would greatly increase their probability of leaving the circuit in a box. In a similar vein ‘exceeding track limits’ likely would result in delay, an accident or worse.
Of course none of us want a return to that, not entirely anyway, not only for the severe human cost but that the sport has learned the hard way that a mass audience won’t accept death live on its TV screens. And in this vein also for all that we grumble about what we might view as pedantic penalties actually in many cases they exist for good reason. So a balance has to be struck.
As a case in point I encountered some muttering in comment sections and the like about Lewis Hamilton’s five second penalty in Austria for crossing the white line upon exiting the pits during the race. Some, possibly with partisan leanings, saw the offence as trivial and the penalty as race-ruining among other things. But that rule not only is not new – the first time I recall it being applied was against Ralf Schumacher way back in the European Grand Prix of 2001 – it also is there as cars at greatly differing speeds cutting across each other could well result, as Martin Brundle described it in his commentary, in something like a plane crash.
And while technical penalties are a slightly different matter to sporting ones, for all that we complained about the myriad engine penalties influencing the Austrian grid order this too comes from the good intention of restricting the number of engine parts used in a season so to keep costs down. And cost control remains perhaps F1’s biggest concern. The proposed compromise reported over the Silverstone weekend of keeping the engine penalty sanctions but capping them struck me as a sensible one.
There also is the obvious point that any sport has rules and boundaries, and not enforcing them properly is anarchy.
But whatever is the case I dare say that haranguing officials to throw the book at people hardly helps getting us the outcome we all seem to want which is stewards butting out a lot more than has often been the case. The recent matter with pit stop dummies emphasises as much.
It’s not enough to call for a more laissez-faire F1. You have to live it too.