There are a million and one topics we could talk about after Interlagos – that whole weekend is worthy of its own book – but I want to hone in on one of the moments that could prove influential when it comes to the racing we see throughout the Formula 1 grid moving forward.
I think Michael Masi got it wrong on Sunday. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton provided some edge-of-your-seat excitement with so much at stake, but the FIA race director made a wrong call.
When Verstappen forced both cars off the track at Turn 4, the absolute minimum acceptable response was for that incident to be investigated. Whether that then led to a specific penalty is another matter, because the FIA have access to a hell of a lot more than I can see while working on a race, but it warranted further analysis from the stewards.
Usually, Masi comes in for some unfair flack. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that stewarding decisions are criticized – either for not handing out a penalty or for the punishment delivered – and Masi is facing a barrage of criticism from fans and observers, when it overlooks a key point: Masi isn’t a steward.
He never decides on the final outcome of an investigation. He refers things to the stewards, and it is they who then come to a decision on whether there needs to be a penalty or similar, and Masi has nothing to do with it at that stage. The bit he decides is whether the stewards need to investigate something or not.
And that’s where the arrows are not so unfair this time round, because it was Masi’s decision to not refer the Verstappen and Hamilton incident for a closer look.
Where I’ve got sympathy is in Masi’s reasoning, because he said the wider desire to leave drivers to fight each other came into play.
“Let’s not forget we have the overall ‘let them race’ principles, and looking at it all, with the angles we had available, that was the philosophy that was adopted,” Masi said on Sunday night.
“I think if you look at proximity of the cars heading to the apex, where it is, nature of the corner, the fact both cars went off, neither car lost position or anything like that, was probably the general view.”
But I’d argue you’ve got to make sure that by letting them race, you don’t accidentally prevent anyone from doing any racing at all.
Before going any further, let me just say that Max was doing the right thing for his own race. He was up against a car that was going to prove tough to keep ahead of due to its straight-line speed advantage, and looked likely to lose out to Lewis at some stage. His only real hope was to hold him off for long enough that Hamilton started to struggle with his tires and couldn’t stay close enough to overtake.
So when Hamilton got a run on him approaching Turn 4, he was always going to try everything he could to keep his car alongside into the corner. Yielding – even if he no longer had the high ground – was most certainly conceding victory.
And Hamilton knew that. He was ready for Verstappen to try and outbrake him, and was able to react and go wide.
But as soon as Verstappen also failed to stay on the track, then it’s surely worthy of a penalty. It’s not whether it was dangerous or intentional (as much as people are hung up on seeing the onboard from Verstappen’s car to see if he opened the steering wheel to run Hamilton so far wide), it’s the fact that Verstappen then left the track and gained an advantage.
In order to prevent Hamilton from overtaking him around the outside – as he had already all but done heading into the braking zone – Verstappen took far too much speed into the corner to be able to stay on track. The only reason Hamilton doesn’t get the move done is because of the Red Bull going off. Verstappen retained his place by exceeding track limits and basically moving the goalposts for where the two of them are supposed to be fighting. It’s almost like allowing a touchdown catch to stand even though the received landed out of bounds, just because it looked cool and was exciting.
Of course, if we ever do see the onboard and he did intentionally push both cars off, that’s even more damning, but Masi didn’t have that camera angle available to make such a call, and we’ll give Verstappen the benefit of the doubt because it doesn’t affect the main point either way. (ED: The onboard footage was released after this column was filed).
If you let such a move go unpunished, you’re really going to hurt the ability for any driver to overtake at any corner. This was one of the two real overtaking spots on the track at Interlagos, and overtaking is tough enough as it is in Formula 1, without the rules making it even harder.
That might seem contradictory when I’m saying hard racing should have been investigated and potentially punished, but there’s a reason this could be damaging.
It’s because the message from Verstappen’s move is that any driver who needs to defend simply has to go to the inside of the track approaching a corner. Then it doesn’t matter if they intend to make the corner or not, they can brake so late that the car on the outside can’t turn in, both can go off the track and it won’t even be investigated.
As much as drivers themselves like to make the point that overtaking around the outside is risky – which is very true – that overlooks the fact that once you remove the ability for there to be two sides to choose from, you’re hardly ever going to get an overtake without it being in a dead straight line using DRS. And that’s not exciting racing.
You need more than one overtaking option to have a fight. One might be easier than the other, but things like selling a dummy or setting someone up for a move by getting them out of position a number of corners earlier go out of the window if the only way to overtake is on the inside.
What Verstappen and Hamilton produced was exciting, and the outcome in many ways was the right one as there were still further opportunities to battle and it did get sorted out on track in the end, but that won’t always be the case.
At the very least there should have been a black and white flag to Verstappen, so that he knew he had pushed it a bit too far and that a repeat wouldn’t be tolerated. I don’t blame him at all for the move, but unless he’d managed to keep his own car on the track, it shouldn’t have gone unchecked.
Now when the roles are reversed or any other two drivers find themselves in a similar position, they’re going to be frustrated if their defense is investigated because of a lack of consistency.
The stewards themselves change through the season, so it’s understandable that there will be differing views on similar incidents, just as you get from various referees in other sports. But Masi is a constant, and that means he’s set a tone that will be tough to deviate from.
It’s not an incident that needs to be worried about in the context of the title race, but it is when it comes to the way F1 drivers go racing in general.