Before controversy struck, the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix was shaping up to be a stunner. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Nine world championships between them. Over 100 grand prix victories between them. Seemingly endless poles between two of the juggernauts of this sport. A rare battle that should have been savoured as Hamilton hounded leader Vettel towards the closing stages of the 70-lap contest. Instead, it was soured by a decision from race control that many questioned.
Under pressure, Vettel made a small mistake at the Turns 3 and 4 fast chicane on lap 48. He oversteered onto the grass while following Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso. He then returned to the circuit, had a further moment of oversteer, and subsequently veered to the right. In his path was Hamilton, who was forced not only off the track but to take further evasive action to avoid a collision.
“Letter of the law” says that it was slam-dunk. Vettel had returned to the circuit in an unsafe manner, as his rival was forced to avoid him. Vettel was awarded the smallest penalty available – five seconds added to his race time. But it was significant enough to take victory away from him.
Lately, Vettel’s on-track battle form has been weak. On the face of it, it was another high-profile error by him. But his performance over the weekend was just as good as Hamilton’s. It took a special lap by Vettel to beat Hamilton to pole, and the opening phase of his race screamed Vettel circa 2013. It was only in the second phase of the race where Hamilton showed the exquisite form a five-time champion should showcase.
Superbly, both pushed exceptionally hard. Vettel’s mistake showed that, as did the number of errors Hamilton made under braking. This is what Formula 1 racing is at its best. Two of the greatest ever performing superb mind games with each other, pushing one another to and beyond the limitations of themselves and their ultra-expensive machinery.
However, the grandstand finish was cruelly denied. This is a penalty that is going to be debated for years – maybe even for decades – down the line. One take on it is that Hamilton had more than sufficient time to make a decision once Vettel had run wide. He had three options: 1) assume Vettel was going to run wide when he returned to the circuit, so take the left route; 2) lift off and anticipate that Vettel was going to be out of control and hog the circuit so guarantee no collision that way; or 3) take the racing line, assuming Vettel was going to be on the left when he rejoined the track.
In this case, Hamilton took option three, which was perhaps the riskiest of the lot. But Hamilton is immensely smart in combat, especially with Vettel and knew he would have been in an advantageous position regardless. This is where the penalty is questionable. Yes, Vettel returned to the circuit unsafely. But, why was that the case?
There’s not much grip on grass, which is a given. Vettel had next to no control while he was traversing the green stuff, so he had little opportunity to slow down from what was a pretty quick speed. He was spat out onto the track in the middle, where he was met with another moment of oversteer. All things considering, he did a good job to wrestle control of his car as well as he had done.
It must be interesting to have known what Hamilton would have done against, say, Charles Leclerc or Pierre Gasly – with whom he has less experience in combat. He knows Vettel inside-out. The pair have been racing for a decade and a half now. He does not necessarily know what the younger, lesser-known quantities will do in such a situation. He may have been more circumspect and taken the second option in that similar hypothetical scenario.
Had he not regained control, overcorrected and speared off into the right, he would have wiped both himself and Hamilton on the spot. It was a lot of faith Hamilton put into Vettel there to not do that. In that situation, Hamilton would have looked silly for putting himself in such a precarious position.
Had Vettel left a bit more space – and Hamilton had overtaken but with all four wheels off the circuit – then by the regulation that is an illegal overtake. But many of the regulations do not allow for common sense to prevail. But when, in F1, does common sense ever seem to prevail?
If Vettel had driven in that manner at, say, the Turns 7 and 8 chicane – which has tarmac run-off – then absolutely he should have been penalised. He would have been in full control of the car and would have had much more opportunity (both time and space) to rejoin in a safer manner.
Essentially, there is this feeling that Vettel was essentially penalised for how Hamilton placed his car in this situation and for losing control of his car. This is not the first time that something like that has happened in recent memory.
When Kvyat lost control on the opening lap in China, he came into contact with both McLarens, one of which had run wide off the circuit. Kvyat was penalised for causing a collision, which had only occurred because he lost control of his car when he had a snap of oversteer. Like Vettel, he impeded a car which had run off the circuit. Both were penalised for what was essentially finding the limit.
It’s a bad precedent. What with the majority of what little overtaking is done having to be performed with DRS, and hurling penalties out at any driver who dares attempt to find the limit. That’s not racing, at least not the romantic interpretation of it. From now on, will drivers be slammed whenever they have a small moment around another car? If so, then why ever go near to what is capable?
Compared to another FIA-sanctioned top-line single-seater series (like that fact or not), Formula E almost seems too lenient with its racing. Drivers there race hard on the streets (and the odd airport here and there), but the racing can vary from ‘epic’ to ‘a bit too touring cars’. It’s almost as if the correct balance cannot be struck. IndyCar, however, seems to have done exactly that. That’s not to say it is perfect – but is any sanctioning body in sport?
The drivers are the ones predominantly at fault for this – screaming ‘foul’ over the radio whenever in battle. They are the reason for the way motorsport has changed from letting them race to what we have now through what has now been decades of pushing the limitations – correlatively as the sport has become safer.
Vettel spoke at length in the press conference about how he wanted to return to the past, before the times of nonsense penalties and whatnot. But he would have to return back to a time well before he was even born to find that time and he may still be disappointed with what he would find there. While the 1979 French Grand Prix epic between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux was memorable, that period was also contentious and also full of F1 making mistakes. It has done ever since the championship started even at the first race with Ferrari boycotting the race over prize money.
There’s irony in that the grass arguably was the catalyst for this controversy in the first place. With tarmac run-off being the cause for many groans among fans, media, drivers and the likes, in this scenario, some tarmac run-off with a bollard to rejoin safely probably would have prevented this mess altogether.
Hamilton has both gained and lost from this scenario now – having lost the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix through what felt like a similar lack of common sense from the stewards. He has no right to take the moral high ground from this despite his actions post-race, having been the one to come onto the radio and essentially implied that he felt that Vettel should have been pinged for his rejoin.
That’s not to blame him for that – he is there to win races in whatever way possible – but to many, he was not the moral victor on the day. That was Vettel, and he made it known that he also felt that he was harshly done by after the race.
Some may have thought of Vettel’s actions, such as storming off into the Ferrari motorhome or switching around the ‘1’ and ‘2’ boards in parc ferme, as childish or immature, but it was passionate, raw and emotive. Truly going against the mould and almost reminiscent of Ferrari heroes Villeneuve or Jean Alesi before him. His weekend performance was not too dissimilar to a performance of that calibre – right down to being denied victory for whatever reason. It was refreshing to see such emotion when most drivers behave like “lawyers”, to quote Vettel himself.
This is something that should have been addressed a while ago but, now we have had a high-profile scenario of it, this conversation is going to rumble on for quite a while. Irrespective of whether the call was right or not, a race to the flag was properly denied and a precedent that deters racing has been well and truly set. It’s time for the FIA to seriously rethink how it goes about making these decisions.