I have a nickname from my friends in F1 – ‘The Shield’ – because I often look for the potential defense when someone might have got something wrong. I look for the less obvious reasons for something happening, the explanations that only reveal themselves if you put yourself in their shoes, because I hate that feeling of criticizing or accusing someone of something, only to have a very fair reason fired back that makes you look a bit stupid.
It’s too easy to get angry about the smallest thing and start complaining when you don’t have all of the facts. And as a journalist, I always want all of the facts, but have to admit we rarely have them – just what we can piece together.
But this isn’t a precursor to a defense of the FIA. This is more an attempt to highlight the fact that complete certain arguments are completely unwinnable, so it’s best to work hard at avoiding them altogether.
The Lewis Hamilton penalty situation in Russia has been a great case study, because the reaction from fans has covered the full spectrum. On one side, the FIA is out to get Lewis. Clearly, it wants to stop him being successful and is unfairly targeting him. Some commenters add racism into the mix, if this is their view. On the other side, the FIA has bent over for Mercedes and Hamilton again because he’s the sport’s biggest star, so they rescinded his penalty points because of favoritism, wanting to make sure he doesn’t miss a race.
When you post about a penalty decision and see both of these arguments – along with the more rational ground that lies in between – you get a feeling that the sport is fighting a battle it can’t win.
But what the FIA needs to get better at doing is not exposing itself to these arguments so often. Fans are passionate, and many will want to vocally defend their position. It’s a lot easier to handles those sorts of situations – either by addressing accusations or ignoring the very far-fetched – if it’s not a common occurrence.
The debates have been all the more heated this week because Hamilton was on the verge of a race ban for a few hours before his penalty points were rescinded. But when you break the penalties down in isolation, he had little to get annoyed about.
His first two penalty points came in Brazil last year, where he hit Alex Albon and spun the Red Bull in the closing stages. Hamilton took full responsibility, had no complaints and the two points are standard for causing a collision. Daniel Ricciardo picked up the exact same penalty for a similar incident with Kevin Magnussen in the same race.
Another two came Hamilton’s way for a repeat clash with Albon in Austria, but that was already after he’d picked up two further points for failing to slow for yellow flags in qualifying. In contrast to what happened in Russia, that was a penalty where the stewards changed their minds after seeing a new angle that showed that the flags were clearly displayed, and whether the yellow was intentionally ignored or simply not seen, drivers need to be aware of them from a safety perspective and such penalties are intended as deterrents for that very reason.
Which also leads me on to Monza and Sochi. Mercedes called Hamilton in at Monza, but there were still boards telling the driver not to enter the pits. Again, that was for safety reasons – marshals were pushing Kevin Magnussen’s Haas into the pit lane – so regardless of the call from the team, Hamilton needed to react to what was being shown to all drivers out on track.
That was crystal clear, even if unfortunate, but Russia was less so because of the wording of the race director’s note, which simply stated: “Practice starts may only be carried out on the right-hand side after the pit exit lights” with no end point specified. However, there was a further clause that added: “For reasons of safety and sporting equity, cars may not stop in the fast lane at any time the pit exit is open without a justifiable reason (a practice start is not considered a justifiable reason).”
The area after the pit exit lights was not in the fast lane, it was to the side of the pit exit. Where Hamilton stopped was in the pit exit itself where there is no speed limit. He’d asked his team if he could go further down the pit exit and was told he could, leading Mercedes to argue the information in the race director’s note was open to interpretation.
This is where the argument doesn’t sit well with me. Yes, F1 is all about loopholes being exploited. It’s part of the sport. But when it relates to safety it isn’t right that teams would take a risk and then try and use a grey area to get away with it. Nineteen other drivers and their engineers knew what the race directors’ note meant, and followed it accordingly. That Hamilton was told he could do otherwise was as much a team error as his, so the removal of the penalty points is understandable – but it was still an error that needed penalizing.
But that’s where the FIA defense ends, because those loopholes still need to be covered off. In Belgium, a specific box was marked out for practice starts to remove ambiguity. Why not do that in Russia? Why would one painted line on the track be so difficult?
As much as I’ve made clear that I don’t agree with Mercedes’ use of the interpretation argument, you need remove the team’s ability to do that altogether, literally with the stroke of a paintbrush. As the governing body, you know teams will fight for any potential advantage and take advantage of each and every tiny gap, so you can’t cut a corner anywhere.
I mentioned Belgium, and the FIA did some corner-cutting with a ruling against Charles Leclerc at Spa-Francorchamps, too. Leclerc was investigated for being too slow on his reconnaissance lap to the grid and therefore exceeding the maximum lap time allowed, but after the FIA looked at it then it was found that Leclerc had trigged the timing beam to start his lap before stopping to carry out a practice start.
Only, in order to trigger the timing, that meant his practice start was performed outside the very clearly defined area. Now, there’s a tight pit exit at Spa, and Leclerc could have had acceptable reason for being slightly beyond where he was told to carry out the launch – traffic behind him, a failed attempt to get away, a car issue – but the stewards did not reference it at all. That again leaves them open to criticism when making future decisions, and the Hamilton penalty put that oversight into the spotlight.
The defined penalties – like two penalty points for causing a collision – are intended to ensure consistency. That won’t keep everyone happy, but it’s an understandable approach. For it to work, however, you have to investigate incidents consistently too. If you only look at one or not the other, that’s a failure.
The Leclerc oversight came just one race after the Ferrari driver had driven two laps without seatbelts, having thought he was out of the Spanish Grand Prix. After one lap at racing speed, he started a second before telling the team he was driving without belts and should pit.
Leclerc could have entered the pits instantly given where he spun, but chose to drive on. Not having seatbelts done up is a serious safety issue, and in the same way Hamilton’s yellow flag infringement was reassessed based on new footage, there should have been no leniency for Leclerc once the stewards were aware of how the incident unfolded.
Those are just examples from the past five races, and I’m sure fans of either driver mentioned can come up with plenty more on both sides of the coin.
That will always be the case, because certain decisions have to be a matter of opinion from the stewards, just like the officials in any other sport. And that’s what makes it interesting. But when incidents are going completely unnoticed or ignored to the extent it can undermine other decisions, the criticism is justified.
The FIA will never win, but it can definitely lose less often.