Of the numerous motorsport events going on last weekend – ranging from Formula E causing mayhem around the gorgeous streets of Bern in Switzerland, chaos at the Nurburgring 24 Hours, and a Formula 2 driver banned for three virtual safety car infringements in the same race – what occurred in two races certainly caught the eye.
One was a race dominated by a driver starting on the front row – a 55-lap affair which, with no interventions from safety cars, resulted in the opposition being blown away by half a minute with no answer for this searing pace.
The other was won from pole after 53 laps by the comfortable margin of 18 seconds with a champion at the absolute peak of his powers seemingly easing to victory over his team-mate who, despite looking feisty throughout the weekend, had no response when it mattered.
Interestingly, both races also featured four-car duels over positions in the middle of the top 10 that went down to the absolute wire. Each race also featured one retirement, and both, aside from the latter having a very brief VSC period, had no sign of the safety car or any other interference.
On paper, neither race was exactly a thriller. Yet the IndyCar race at Road America was by far more enjoyable to watch than the French Grand Prix. Writing this sort of thing is always going to be like treading on LEGO bricks. But, it is fascinating and fair to compare these two races – held just hours apart from one another – given the similarities between them.
To summarise the IndyCar race at the brilliant, undulating, fast, fearsome Road America in Wisconsin: Alexander Rossi duelled teenage rookie sensation and polesitter Colton Herta through the opening corners. Once he made his way past, he was absolutely unstoppable. He obliterated Team Penske pair Josef Newgarden and Will Power, who were squabbling over second, by a margin very rarely seen in the series these days.
Lewis Hamilton won the French Grand Prix at the vast, expansive, lifeless, dull, bland Paul Ricard with those awful painted run-off areas. In a race that did not produce much drama or excitement, he led home team-mate Valtteri Bottas to stick one nail firmly in the coffin of the championship. Ferrari, again, could not deliver a result.
The IndyCar race provided much more to talk about, and it was largely positive – the kerbs breaking up aside. Reigning champion Scott Dixon’s climb from dead last to be in the scrap for P5 at the end, Graham Rahal’s superb tribute livery to his father, Rossi’s much-wanted win to assert his title credentials to name a few. That goes without mentioning the record for the youngest polesitter now going to the long-haired teenager Herta. And, crucially, the racing was just excellent through the field from start to finish.
The F1 race, on the other hand, was, to put it nicely, among the dullest grand prix in recent memory. The Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track is not a circuit that promotes great racing for precisely that reason – it is a test track. There was precisely zero indication that Mercedes could be stopped – especially in Hamilton’s control. Other talking points? Penalties. Joy. After the Canada furore, that was not what F1 needed. What racing there was resulted usually in either a DRS pass – not really what ‘racing’ is about – or in a Haas driver moaning. The TV team somehow managed to do an excellent job in missing two of the most exciting moments – backmarker George Russell fighting his team-mate over last, and the last-lap scrap over seventh. Thrilling.
You bet that last-lap dash resulted in investigations and subsequent penalties, such is the state F1 has allowed itself to get into. The penalties were correct given the precedent set before, and no blame should be given to Daniel Ricciardo for going for it, but it makes something that was already dulled even worse than it needed to be.
Meanwhile IndyCar’s scrap over fifth – eventually won by Dixon after his superb recovery? All eyes were on that. No penalties were (absolutely rightly) given. They were just left to go at it – and it produced excellent entertainment and, most importantly, racing right until the chequered flag.
While F1 (and the FIA) shouldn’t start hurling spec bodywork at the cars and bring back refuelling and all that jazz in a vain attempt to suddenly try and be as exciting as IndyCar, it needs to reconsider what it means to actually go racing. The overregulation – despite the many grey areas that still exist and cause confusion – and the oversensitivity and lack of sense applied is seriously detrimental to motorsport as a whole.
It ultimately comes down to the teams and the drivers who have pushed the FIA down this particular route, and it is something that has gradually progressed over the past couple of decades or so. IndyCar, in that time, has had to see off its own civil war and for whatever reason just seems able to strike the correct balance between letting drivers race while not letting them take things too far – especially at 240mph on a superspeedway with fans in grandstands just yards away.
F1 showed in Canada that it can’t even go to tracks that do – shock horror – have grass or walls on the exit of corners without erupting into massive controversy whenever someone runs off the road. IndyCar is capable of doing this many times a year seemingly without issue. So, covering Paul Ricard and F1’s other car park tracks in walls, grass and gravel would not fix this. It requires a complete mindset change from all within the series and that includes the governing body, the teams and the drivers. There’s no one quick fix to this huge mess.
Much sympathy can be shared to those who endured watching such a lifeless race around such a lifeless track for 84 painful minutes on Sunday, especially behind a paywall. While the powers that be are continuing to squabble over the 2021 regulations to the point where all they can agree on is that they can’t agree on anything – they cannot hide from the fact that the current product is seriously poor and requires fundamental changing. What is worrying is that, despite the big claims a few years ago, we don’t seem to be getting anything close to it but a poor watered-down version of the big, bold statements released by Liberty Media when it took over.
These are critical moments and times for the future wellbeing and security for the future of the series, and if France was not the wake-up call F1 needed, those at the top should watch the IndyCar race from Road America and truly understood what it meant to deliver an excellent motor race on a Sunday afternoon.