What’s the truth about Max Verstappen’s penalty?

Max Verstappen

Stewarding in F1 has improved markedly in the past year, with the FIA having vowed to take a more lenient line on minor indiscretions. That makes this week’s controversy surrounding Max Verstappen’s penalty at the US Grand Prix feel like a blast from the past.

I actually found myself feeling quite indifferent about the whole situation. When Verstappen overtook Kimi Räikkönen with his last-gasp last-lap move, it caused great excitement. But when I saw the replay I instantly wondered if he would be penalised for cutting the corner.

I quickly put that idea to bed, noting that we had seen drivers going beyond those sacred white lines all weekend, and almost all without penalty.

Yet the punishment came swiftly enough to be handed out before the podium ceremony began. And it was reasonably harsh. Not only was Verstappen given the standard 5 second time penalty, but he was also given a penalty point on his license.

Cue predictable controversy all over the TV broadcasts and social media.

If nothing else, it’s a good excuse to wheel out the clip of the 1979 French Grand Prix. This famous battle between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux is one of the most legendary in the history of Formula 1. It is notable for being far from a clean fight.

Of course, the circuit design at Dijon-Prenois was a great deal more rustic than any of the high-tech super-modern facilities that Formula 1 tends to visit these days. That meant that going off track naturally penalised the drivers. Or at least, it was percevied to.

Although watching the clip carefully, it appears as though Gilles Villeneuve never actually left the circuit (although René Arnoux did). Villeneuve certainly knew how to push it to the edge though.

There is no doubt that, by the letter of the law, Max Verstappen broke the rules.

The frustration from fans comes from the fact that, regardless of that, what he did was still incredibly impressive and exciting.

But more than that, the fact that drivers had been exceeding track limits all race long, but this was the instance it was penalised, left a bitter taste in the mouth.

Max Verstappen’s army of fans are livid that their exciting racer has been punished for producing exciting racing. Ferrari fans, meanwhile, are still likely seething about the mere idea that Verstappen would dare to attempt to pass a red car at all.

I have seen people argue that it is perfectly legitimate to exceed track limits — as long as you do so on the outside. That doesn’t really explain why Romain Grosjean was penalised in Hungary in 2013 for his ballsy outside pass. The greatest moment of Grosjean’s career was illegal.

Drivers wouldn’t run wide if they didn’t gain from it. Even if it doesn’t gain them time, running wide may save them a bit of tyre wear, or chopping a bit off a corner might sav a little fuel. They might be marginal gains, but this is a sport that measures time to the nearest thousandth of a second. Mounted up over several laps, it could be the difference between having to make an extra pit stop for new tyres.

I’ve also seen it said that running off track is perfectly fine, just as long as you don’t overtake a car in the process. In this interpretation, you don’t “gain an advantage” unless you gain a position.

In fact, I would argue that when you are close to another car is exactly when it is permissible to leave the circuit, if that means you avoid a collision. Verstappen sailed close to the wind with his move, but it is arguable that he put his car there to ensure that Räikkönen wouldn’t crash into him.

It is also fashionable to blame the design of modern circuits for the fact that drivers are able to leave the circuit and rejoin in the first place. “Put grass there”, they say. “Construct armco barriers and concrete walls! Lay a massive gravel trap. Put molten lava at the side of the racetrack. That’ll soon stop them.”

Modern safety requirements preclude any of these solutions from being feasible. Besides, it’s not always a bad thing for a car to be able to rejoin the track after running wide. Like the moment during qualifying, when Romain Grosjean had to take last-minute evasive action to avoid slamming into the back of Lance Stroll, who was dawdling on the racing line.

There are no easy answers, so I expect these controversies to bubble up every once in a while until the end of time. I now feel like it’s just part of the sport.

You might even say the contorversy is all part of “the show” these days. It is interesting that this has cropped up towards the end of a season where the championship battle has suddenly turned into a tensionless damp squib.

In lieu of an exciting championship race, social media-savvy Liberty Media will have been wishing for something like this to come up to keep column inches growing between now and this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.

I’m not suggesting the commercial rights holders can pull the strings in that way. But in the words of the late, great F1 Rejects podcast, conspiracy theorists, stand up!

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