Vettel’s unsurprising penalty

Sebastian Vettel driving his Ferrari

Given the furore that surrounded Sebastian Vettel’s penalty, I wasn’t surprised about any aspect of it. But more worryingly for F1, I can just as easily imagine the furore if he hadn’t received the penalty.

Nothing about these events surprised me in the slightest.

Firstly, there is Sebastian Vettel’s mistake. Yes, none of this would have happened if Vettel hadn’t made yet another driving error under pressure. It’s worth reflecting on that.

His wobble was so bad that I initially assumed he must have had a sudden and catastrophic tyre issue. As it transpired, it was a genuine driver error.

This continues a trend going back almost a year, of Vettel making unusual errors in wheel-to-wheel combat under varying degrees of pressure.

In fact, we can look back further. Vettel’s mistake was eerily reminiscent of the infamous final lap mistake he made at the same circuit — two corners later, but eight years earlier — when Jenson Button snatched victory away from him.

This time, Vettel didn’t lose as much momentum as he did in 2011. But that was just the start of his problems. He did a good job to regain control as fast as he did, to ensure he remained ahead of the chasing Lewis Hamilton.

But the most predictable element of all was the trial by social media (preceded by trial by Brundle).

I was among those initially outraged by the penalty. But if we are honest with ourselves, what is it that drove the outrage?

Perhaps it was partly the fact that we want to see someone other than Mercedes win a race this year.

Let’s face it. The Mercedes domination is getting old. Most people would have loved to see Vettel win. That’s especially the case given that he actually had a good weekend. Apart from that one mistake, he barely put a foot wrong, and was legitimately ahead of Hamilton and deftly holding him off.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t get him off the hook if he is found to have broken the rules.

Much of the rage will also have been due to the fact that we want to see the race won on the racetrack. It is always far from ideal when the car that crosses the finish line first doesn’t win the race.

Incidents like this actually seem to be rarer than they used to be (though I may be wrong; I haven’t checked). Perhaps that makes it more raw when it happens.

But let’s face facts here. The rules exist for a reason. Sometimes, it just has to be the case that the driver who takes the chequered flag also has to take a penalty.

Nowadays such decisions are now normally made before the race actually ends. This wasn’t always the case. Whether a quick decision should be valued over a correct decision is a separate matter for debate.

As for the argument that there are simply too many rules around driving standards, perhaps if driving standards were better the rules wouldn’t be required. Without wishing to apply my rose-tinted spectacles (which I can’t anyway, because I’m about to talk about an era before I even started watching motorsport), sporting behaviour is simply no longer what it was before Michael Schumacher (or arguably Ayrton Senna).

Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux could drive like they did at Dijon in 1979 because they both gave as good as each other got. They understood each other as sports people. The give and take was part of it. And most importantly, they both knew where to draw the line. Unfortunately, as soon as certain powerful figures in the 1990s decided they should start barging other cars off track, that landscape changed.

It is interesting that while most drivers from pre-Schumacher times have strongly opposed the penalty, drivers from the modern era — notably Nico Rosberg and Jolyon Palmer — have supported it.

The stewards had a tough call. As noted by Jolyon Palmer on BBC Radio 5 Live’s coverage, Vettel potentially broke not one but two rules during this incident.

There’s the rule that the stewards found him guilty of, which is re-entering the track unsafely. But he also could be argued to have gained an unfair advantage by cutting the chicane.

It appears as though the stewards felt as if Vettel could have made more effort to stay further left, and reduced the risk of impeding Hamilton. Upon multiple viewings, it looks like he could have done so from the on board footage. It’s also worth remembering that the stewards have access to wealth of data that viewers do not.

In Toto Wolff’s interview on Sky Sports F1 following the race, he argued that it was 60/40 whether Vettel should have received a penalty. He could see how someone else could view it as 40/60.

No doubt it was not an easy decision for the stewards to make. Convincing arguments could be made on either side. In the event, they gave Vettel the most lenient punishment possible — a 5 second penalty.

The most worrying thing of all is that I can all too easily imagine an equal amount of outrage if the stewards hadn’t applied the penalty. For a long time there has been a ‘choose your own result’ attitude among partisan fans, based on marginally differing interpretations of rather technical driving rules.

That attitude may apply to stewards as well. It’s not that I think the stewards were biased against Sebastian Vettel. But for as long as the FIA maintains its revolving door policy for stewards — where they change on a race-by-race basis — we’re going to have problems with the consistency of decisions.

Sadly, there also seems to be a Charlie Whiting-shaped hole in the process now. Charlie Whiting used to take the time to explain to journalists the exact reasoning behind stewards’ decisions. That appears not to be happening now. It has instead been left to Ross Brawn from Liberty Media, not the FIA, to defend the stewards. Good on Ross Brawn for doing what he could in the face of silence from the FIA.

Original header photo by Alberto-g-rovi – Own work, CC BY 3.0

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