Jun 10, 2019
Laurence EdmondsonF1 Editor
- * Joined ESPN in 2009
* An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011
MONTREAL, Canada — “Ultimately, it’s not the sport that I fell in love with when I started watching.”
As those words came out of Sebastian Vettel’s mouth, it was clear defeat at the Canadian Grand Prix had hit hard. Possibly harder than any other defeat in his career.
A five-second penalty for a fairly innocuous incident on Lap 48 had stripped him of his first win in 17 grands prix, but it wasn’t simply the bitter taste of a missed opportunity that was bothering Vettel. Instead, he seemed to be sick to the stomach with a sense of disillusionment. His worst fears about the sport he has dedicated his life to manifested in a result that was so difficult to accept he considered skipping the podium ceremony. In a season of lows for Vettel, this was rock-bottom.
It’s not unusual for drivers to argue against stewards’ decisions. A man sat in a 40 degrees Celsius cockpit, putting his life on the line at 200 mph, is likely to come to a different conclusion than four men watching television screens in an air-conditioned room. But this seemed to go beyond that. It verged on betrayal.
To understand why it was such a painful defeat, it’s important to understand the kind of guy Vettel is. The 31-year-old is very much an analogue driver in a digital age — a rare sportsman in the 21st century who has no presence whatsoever on social media. On arrival in the new $60 million paddock in Montreal this year, he shrugged his shoulders at the concrete and glass, admitting he “quite liked the camping style that we had before”. In an age of drivers who play driving simulators in their spare time, Vettel is old-school.
But his penalty on Sunday was very much a product of modern Formula One. A decision based on analysis of slow-motion replays and throttle traces, tracing each split-second decision to create a detailed, if speculative, overlay of what was going on the cockpit of car 5, and then fudging all that detail to fit the binary articles of the FIA’s rule books.
The result was a ruling that was correct by the letter of the law, but quite harsh to anyone who had witnessed the incident.
“The stewards reviewed video evidence and determined that Car 5 [Vettel] left the track at Turn 3, rejoined the track at Turn 4 in an unsafe manner and forced car 44 off track,” the stewards report stated.
To break that ruling down into more detail, the first part is based on Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations, which states a driver may only rejoin he track “when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage”. The fact Vettel rejoined directly ahead of Hamilton had an element of danger to it — the Mercedes driver had to hit the brakes as a result — and therefore could be considered unsafe.
The second part of the ruling was defined by the Appendix L of the FIA Sporting Code, Chapter IV, Article 2 b) that states “manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited”. By ending up where he ended up, it could be argued Vettel crowded Hamilton to the edge of the track.
But what the decision failed to appreciate was that once Vettel made his original mistake in Turn 3 and was on the grass on the apex of Turn 4 there was no other way he could rejoin the circuit in any other way. This wasn’t a case of “look, signal, manoeuvre”; it was a case of reacting to the circumstances as he tried desperately to stop his Ferrari from spinning into the wall. Watch his steering angle in the onboard footage, and the only point he was directing the car at anything other than hard left was when he was correcting a slide.
“I lost the car,” Vettel said after the race. “I didn’t do that voluntarily because the outcome is unpredictable. Once I managed to catch the car, obviously I realised that I couldn’t stay on track, couldn’t keep the car on track, so I slowed down, had to slow down, go over the grass really cautiously, lost a lot of time.
“I managed to get back on track with dirty tyres, and once I regained, sort of, control, being somewhere on the track, I had to check my mirrors and Lewis was right behind me, but it was just to see where he is, not to, I don’t know, be in his way or whatever.
“So, that’s what happened. I’m not the first guy in the world of racing that had a mistake on corner entry and had to catch the car going through the grass, gravel or whatever.”
But the black and white rules about rejoining the track don’t factor in the split second corrections that are needed after barrelling across the grass at Montreal’s Turn 4 — they simply state that a driver must return to the track when it is “safe to do so”. Arguably, Vettel’s return to the track was not safe, but the reality was he had no other choice once he made his original mistake. By penalising the way Vettel rejoined the track, the stewards are also penalising the original mistake — which sends you down a rabbit warren of where the stewards’ authority should start and finish in a sport that relies on mistakes to make things interesting.
The second part of the ruling requires the stewards to deem Vettel’s move towards Hamilton as deliberate.
Asked if he knew where Hamilton was as he rejoined Vettel said: “No! How? I had my hands full trying to keep the car somewhere in my control.
“Obviously I knew that Lewis was behind somewhere because he was, like, a second behind, but when I looked in the mirror he was right there. So I was obviously then racing him down to Turn 6.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hamilton felt Vettel’s positioning was deliberate, but in his answer he also sympathised with the Ferrari driver’s actions.
“If I was in lead and I had made the mistake and ran wide, I probably would have done the same thing because it happened so quick and you are just trying to hold position,” he said. “But when I say I would have done the same, I would have tried to squeeze him too and that is ultimately what happened today and my opinion on that has not shifted.
“From a driver’s point of view you know how it goes. It’s different when you are watching as a viewer, but as a driver when things go wrong you go ‘oh shoot’ and you try and squeeze so that you don’t lose position. It’s a natural instinct that we have, and you don’t go ‘oh actually, I’m going to pull to the left and let my buddy go by’.
“So he did block me, but unfortunately he went off track and the way that the rules are written that’s how it’s described. That’s the way it is.”
And that’s the crux of the issue: By the letter of the regulations Vettel deserved to be penalised. But when the guy on the receiving end says he would have done the same, you have to ask whether the rules are serving up the best spectacle for the sport.
For Vettel, there is no doubt the current set of rules go too far. For him, Sunday’s incident was just the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger problem in the sport.
“I disagree with where the sport is now,” he said on Sunday night. “You have all this wording ‘I gained an advantage, I didn’t gain an advantage, I avoided a collision’. I just think it’s wrong, you know, it’s not really what we’re doing in the car.
“It’s racing, it’s common sense. If there’s a hazard on track, obviously you slow down because it’s quite unnatural to keep the pedal to the floor and run into the car and then say, ‘Ah, it’s wrong that the car was there’.
“I rejoined the track and then Lewis obviously had to react. I don’t know how close it was or close he was. Once I looked in the mirror, he was sort of there but for me that’s racing and I think a lot of the people, including the old Formula One drivers and people in the grandstands and so on, would agree that this is just part of racing.
“We all sound a bit like lawyers using the official language. I think it just gives no edge to people and no edge to the sport. Obviously it hurts me today because it impacts on my race result but I think this more of a bigger issue.
“Tomorrow, when I wake up, I won’t be disappointed. I think Lewis and myself we share great respect and I think we’ve achieved so much in the sport, I think we’re both very, very blessed to be in that position, so one win up, one win down, I don’t think it’s a game-changer if you’ve been around for such a long time, but as I said, I’m not happy about all this complaining and stuff that we see so many times.”
As he spoke it was clear this extended beyond making excuses for a costly mistake. It wasn’t just another driver throwing his toys out of the pram. Vettel was raising points echoed by former drivers and underlined by the post-race boos from the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve’s grandstands. F1’s bureaucracy had stripped the sport of a thrilling battle between two of its best drivers and no one felt that pain more than Vettel.
As rumours continue to hover over his future in the sport beyond 2019, Sunday’s disappointment added more fuel to the fire. Could this be the trigger that makes up Vettel’s mind?
“I’m not ready for this kind of question!” he said. “I don’t know, I just feel that nowadays we look at so many things that maybe we didn’t look at in the past because nobody was really making a fuss. Now, obviously it’s worth making a fuss for everything because you have these decisions.
“I sympathise in a way with the stewards. I’ve said many times when I’ve been in the stewards’ office and they are sitting in front of a piece of paper and they’re watching the race, and they also came back to me and said we agree but look, we have to do these kind of things.
“So I think just the way we are doing these things now is just wrong but it’s our times, we have regulations for everything.
“I don’t know, if it’s clear there’s a hole when you’re walking down a street because they’re doing construction work, there needs to be a be guy who guides to the other side of the road, otherwise it’s the construction company’s fault that you fell into the hole and broke a leg. But I think you’re just an idiot if you walk into that hole and break your leg.
“But that’s a little bit how my theory is nowadays [compared to reality]. The two are drifting apart.”
Not a conclusive answer by any means, but it wasn’t a “no”.