Four of F1’s ‘unwritten rules’

F1 videoPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

How do F1 drivers know when they\'ve pushed too far?
How do F1 drivers know when they've pushed too far?

At the Italian Grand Prix weekend driving standards was a hot topic again – hardly surprising given the furore over Lewis Hamilton’s penalty at Spa, and Monza’s combination of two tight chicanes plus a soaking wet track.

With Hamilton’s appeal against his penalty due to be heard on Monday 22nd September it’s a good time to try and clear up the vast grey areas surrounding the rules of racing in F1.

The only thing that has become clear about the rules of F1 racing during the past two events is how unclear the regulations are. The rules of racecraft occupy a tiny portion of the vast tomes of FIA regulations – the detail is supposedly filled out by a number of implicit or ‘unwritten rules’ though it can be hard to work out what they are by looking at past precedents.

What the rules do say

The regulations governing wheel-to-wheel racing in F1 are detailed in the Sporting Regulations (articles 16 and 30) and Appendix L to the International Sporting Code (Chapter IV, Article 2.g).

The latter is what Hamilton was punished under at Spa and simply reads:

The race track alone shall be used by the drivers during the race.

A rigid interpretation of that ruling would likely have seen hundreds of penalties dishes out over the Monza weekend during the GP2 and F1 races. Of course, these rules aren’t enforced to the letter, which is why the unwritten rules are so important. So what are these unwritten rules?

Cutting corners

Let’s start with the ‘unwritten rule’ that’s at the heart of the recent controversy: cutting corners.

Unwritten rule 1: You can cut a corner and gain an advantage if you’re defending

At Hungary in 2006 Pedro de la Rosa dived down the inside of Michael Schumacher at the turn six/seven chicane. Schumacher missed the chicane and kept the position. Fans who had been used to seeing drivers penalised for gaining an advantage by cutting the chicane were perplexed to see Schumacher not receive a penalty. Here’s a video showing the contentious move:

Afterwards de la Rosa spoke to the stewards who told him they’d ‘clarified’ the rules:

The position is that if you are not side by side with the driver ahead of you going into the chicane, then the driver who is ahead of you can jump the chicane and keep his position without being penalised.

Unwritten rule 2: If you cut a corner while attacking you can’t overtake your rival at the following corner

Leaving aside the vexed question of whether or not Hamilton had gained an advantage by cutting the chicane at Spa after he’d yielded his place to Raikkonen (see here for a debate about that), the stewards announced before Monza a change in the ‘unwritten rules’ about what happens when an attacking driver cuts a corner.

In future, they said, if a driver passes another in front of him by cutting a corner, not only must he give the place back, but he must not pass the driver at the following corner.

There’s a discussion of this new ‘unwritten rule’ and whether or not it contradicts past practice in this article.

Pushing a rival off the track

Should drivers ever be allowed to push their rivals off the track? I’m a bit uneasy about the idea but the stewards actually turn a blind eye to it in a lot of cases:

Unwritten rule 3: A defending driver can push their rival off the track

There’s actually quite a few examples of this happening. A famous one involved Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya on the first lap at Imola in 2004. Montoya had his Williams alongside Schumacher’s Ferrari at the exit of Tosa, but Schumacher pushed him off the track.

Schumacher stated in the press conference afterwards that he hasn’t seen Montoya (!) to which Montoya uttered his famous response that Schumacher must have been “blind or stupid”.

Similarly in 2003 Schumaher pushed Alonso off on the Hangar straight at Silverstone, to which Alonso reacted with outrage.

But Alonso’s no fool, and realised that if Schumacher was going unpunished for it he could to, so he pushed Hamilton off the track on the first lap at Spa last year. But Hamilton’s no fool, and he pushed Glock off the track at Monza last weekend. And Raikkonen did it to Hamilton at Spa.

It’s not pretty, and as F1 is usually preoccupied with being safe and desperate to improve overtaking opportunities, perhaps this is an unwritten rule we could do without?

Defensive driving

This often goes hand-in-hand with the above rule. It’s been tested a lot in recent years and I wrote a post about it in April when GP2 racer Romain Grosjean pushed the unwritten rule too far.

Unwritten rule 4: A defending driver may move off-line once to defend his position and then move back to his original line on the way into a corner, but cannot push a rival on that line off the track

In the run-up to the controversial move at Spa, Kimi Raikkonen gave a typical example of how to execute this move. He moved off the racing line to the right of the track to cover the inside of the corner, then moved across to the left to get the best line possible into the corner, while Hamilton was trying to pass him on the left-hand side.

What Raikkonen’s didn’t do was commit Grosjean’s error at the Circuit de Cataluinya. Grosjean pushed rival Kamui Kobayashi clean off the track when he moved to claim his line for the first corner:

Grosjean’s punishment was a drive-through penalty.

Hamilton was pulling the same move on Webber at Monza when the pair made contact. So had Hamilton broken the unwritten rule? Here’s the video of what happened:

I haven’t been able to look back at onboard footage from the cars but it looks to me as though Hamilton gave Webber – just barely – enough room for Webber to get into the corner without hitting the McLaren or going off the track. Webber’s car appears to slew slightly to the right before striking Hamilton’s wheel. It’s possible that Webber may have out-braked himself, which might have been a factor in the stewards’ thoughts.

But certainly, Hamilton cut this one extremely fine, if my interpretation of the ‘unwritten rule’ is accurate. He was probably only a few centimetres from getting another penalty.

Of course, if this were a written rather than unwritten rule it would probably be a lot easier to make a call on close decisions like this. And the same goes for the other unwritten rules.

A bizarre way to regulate a sport

It’s difficult to understand why important clarifications like this aren’t written down – either as hard-and-fast rules, or just guidelines to give stewards a bit of wiggle room.

Why aren’t these rules written down? Why are they apparently only covered them in drivers’ briefings? Do the FIA not want fans to understand the rules of the sport?

If a ‘clarification’ gets made in the briefing room ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix, but isn’t announced to the press, how are fans supposed to know what’s going on? And how do future drivers find out about them unless a charitable rival tells him (not likely)?

A cynic would suggest the stewards issue whatever decision comes into their head and then ‘clarify’ their position with ‘unwritten rules’ afterwards simply to look consistent. And ?â??ber-cynics would suggest they tend to favour one team when they do it.

Max Mosley gave a typically withering response to criticism of the FIA’s inconsistency and lack of transparency over the latest row:

It’s a reflection, and I’m sorry to say this, of the stupidity of the people who say it because they haven’t really thought the thing through and put themselves in the position of the people who have to take these very difficult decisions.

But when the rules as written give so little detail, and when the stewards issue ‘clarifications’ that seem to contradict past precedent, and when controversial decisions are published with so little reasoning (the Hamilton-Raikkonen incident was summarised in seven words), you have to question the sense of leaving important rules of race-craft shrouded in secrecy.

It’s like a trap designed to catch unlucky drivers out and give them arbitrary penalties. It’s almost as if Mosley gets some sort of thrill out of punishing people.

The comments on this article are split across multiple pages. If you are having trouble viewing them via the links below click here to see all comments.

79 comments on “Four of F1’s ‘unwritten rules’”

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  1. You’re going to get into trouble for that last line…

    Btw, “Hamilton gave Webber – just barely – enough room to get into the corner without hitting the McLaren [Red Bull?] or going off the track…”

  2. In all, a VERY good and comprehensive article. Maybe (I think Doctorvee was saying something similar), it would be a good idea to keep track of these unwritten rules and the examples of where they have been applied or mis-applied.

  3. “It’s almost as if Mosley gets some sort of thrill out of punishing people.”

    Sneakily clever. ;)

  4. This is like manna from heaven! I’ve been looking for these ‘unwritten’ rules since Spa, when I was as puzzled as everyone else that Lewis was punished for ‘not using only the track’.

    In an interview with Lewis a year or so ago about the meeting with Ron when he gave him the drive for 07, Lewis reports that Ron told him to be fitter than any other driver and know the rules better than any other driver. I remembered this when in a subsequent TV interview (might have been after a race) a journalist questioned Lewis about agressively moving twice in front of a rival when your only allowed to move across once. Lewis immediately corrected him by saying that you can move once, but then move again to regain the racing line for a corner. This was why I was surprised in Spa. I think Lewis and McLaren and indeed Charlie Whiting understood that if you gain advantage by cutting a corner to pass, you show that you have relented that advantage by letting the other guy past. Was this ‘next corner’ bit new for Monza? I’m still confused – maybe I’m just one of the stupid people Max keeps going on about.

    Great site, btw

  5. Keith,

    Good summary, despite your comparison between M Schumacher maneouvre with F Alonso’s last year or Kimi this one against L Hamilton is bizarre.

    Last year, almost everybody agreed, even in Great Britain (after a big debate of course), Fernando did nothing but keeping his line, the same than Kimi this one, despite in this case, not everybody agreed, at least in Great Britain.

    In any case, would be good for the sport if the FIA just start to write those “non written rules”. Maybe they should not be 100% right for every case, but at least the drivers will know how to behave and what will be the consecuences if they don’t.

    It is like having a wall, maybe the wall doesn’t make justice in every occasions, but the drivers know very well if they go off the track, his race is finish!

  6. Alonso follower
    16th September 2008, 8:05

    Ah, that last line was priceless…
    Yes, a clarification would be in order. Overall, I don’t like an sport where you’re allowed to crash into rivals without punishment, or you can make them go off the track. I’d prefer something were the willingness to take risks, the skill of the driver and the overall quality of the machine you’re riding make a difference.
    Otherwise, aggressive driving will rule and we will have Hamiltonian drivers competing to see who has the biggest balls.

  7. When Kimi do this all you was talking that he pushed Lewis of the track. When Lewis pushed Glock off the track and fight with Webber in a very dangerous way you said that the rules are not quite good… Maybe we have to decide what we think about this situation whitout looking on the driver nationality.

  8. V8 supercars do not accept “a driver pushing a rival off the track” they have a rule regarding “racing room”.
    on the hamo webber incident = i reckon Hamo did cut it fine, only saw webber’s onboard and it was very close, a bit sill from a man whose got a world title at stake.
    if they hit at any differant angle, they’d have both been out.
    i say dont be to harsh on drivers or it will end up deterring them from having a go at passing, which is the VERY last thing the sports needs!
    only need to punish if deliberate or so obviously dangerous that something needs to be done!
    thing is, with wheel to wheel racing u will get incidents etc from time to time!
    at the end of the day it’s all a matter of ettiquite

  9. Friend of Max – The Red Bull/McLaren thing, bit of a clumsy line by me. What I meant was “Hamilton gave Webber – just barely – enough room for Webber to get into the corner without hitting the McLaren or going off the track” – which is what I’ve changed it to now.

    Prateek – :-)

    John Spencer – Thank you!

    “Was this ‘next corner’ bit new for Monza?” – That’s the very nub of this argument here.

    IDR & Gregoff – Sorry I’m not sure what your points are about the “driver pushing a rival off the track” stuff but I think Jones makes a good point about how drivers in other series have the concept of “racing room”. I’d like to see F1 adopt that. It seems crazy that the (unwritten) rules seem to favour the driver in front so much, when overtaking in F1 in normal conditions is so difficult.

  10. Many thanks Keith for this collection, and for this excellent site. Keep up the good work!

  11. I tried to dig deep into to the sporting and technical regulations following the Spa incident and I was very surprised nothing is written there except that sentence Keith mentioned above, the same one stewards used in explaining the penalty …

    During the Monza race, when Massa overtook Rosberg by throwing all 4 wheels over the kerbs (and the artificial grass patch), I wondered is this is a case of attacking those kerbs to the limit or is it already cutting the chicane … Me wondering did not affect anything. It however looked like Massa and Ferrari wondered too as it took a whole lap before Massa (already well clear of Rosberg) slowed down and let Rosberg re-pass … How much time Massa (and his slow thinking crew) wasted there …

  12. If the game is all about “unwritten rules”, then they should make the game completely free of rules. Now that WILL be EXITING. Think of all the actions that will happen….

  13. If the rules, written or otherwise, are to be held as consistent between GP2 and F1 then Hamilton should have had a penalty last weekend in my opinion – his move on Webber looked worse from the footage we have seen than the Grosjean move.

    @Milos I’m sure ITV commentary said the FIA had asked Massa to give the place back to Rosberg, but they thought he had just taken the normal line so were a bit puzzled by it. Maybe shows not all decisions go in their favour!

  14. Great article Keith! So many unanswered questions? Do you think it would be possible to get a straightforward answer to all this from the FIA. And going by his comments, I think Mad Max would be hard pressed to explain it all.
    You would think that all these ‘unwritten rules’ would have been written down by now, knowing the complexity of the sport. This must be a hangover from the 50s and 60s with the ‘Gentleman Racers’. No wonder the poor Stewards have to ponder them after the race!
    I am all for rules that allow for racing, overtaking and all the things which keep the sport interesting. Its little wonder at the moment that most drivers seem content just to hold position!
    And as for the ‘unwritten rule’ that seemed to appear only at Spa, and only for F1, we should pay attention to the next infringement of it by a non-McLaren car, and see what penalty is imposed…..

  15. Great article Keith, I certainly hope a lot of readers who come here read it and keep it in mind, before they go criticizing drivers for their race actions.

    The Hamilton – Glock incident, I think was just a case of Hamilton taking the proper line through the corner, like someone said in a previous post. Glock may never have had that opportunity to get so close in that shrinking space had there not been a car immediately ahead of Hamilton, which slowed him down, just after he had overtaken Glock.

    The Ham – Web incident was about 60 -40, Both cars moved in the same general direction, but Hamilton was well ahead when he started his move, and Webber was closing in. It was obvious Webber was going nowhere with that move.But he was left a car’s width and still attempted to stir into Mclaren.

    Lets not forget, Kimi driving Massa off the track, at high speed,at Spa

  16. So the unwritten rules are the guidelines or advice fed back to the drivers and teams in the drivers’ briefings with the race director or the stewards? The drivers all seemed to talk confidently about the concept of ‘gaining an advantage’. And yet, the written rules as published by the FIA flatly contradict the unwritten rules by which the stewards supposedly operate. The written rules state that you must use only the track at all times (meaning the bit between the white lines). This turns out to mean that you must keep at least one wheel on the track. Given that the technical regs specify measurements down to the millimetre, why don’t the sporting regulations get a tad more specific about the position of the cars on the track, maybe by incorporating the ‘one wheel within the white lines’ bit? But then of course the regulation as implemented by the stewards is completely different. It turns out that you can leave the track at any time, do whatever you like and come back onto the track, just so long as you haven’t blatantly/subtly/whatever gained a perceived/actual/theoretical/whatever ‘advantage’ by so doing. Again, this qualification MUST be incorporated into the written regulations, otherwise they are meaningless.

    p.s. Does anyone think McLaren will actually win the Spa appeal?

  17. John – and think back to the Massa/Sutil brawl in the Pit Lane. Massa was not supposed to have gained an ‘advantage’, even though he was a lap ahead of Sutil and already had it….

  18. Very interesting topic, Keith.
    The relationship between FIA and drivers seems to be something like: “Don´t ask us to tell you if you are wright or wrong. We will not gonna help you on this issue.”

    Max favourite maxim:
    “We are always right even when we are wrong” as that is the main purpose of a governing body…

  19. So all U want to say that is HAMILTON was right in every move that he made and he should not be punished at all for whatever moves he make.

    I am not sure why this mess is not happening when other drivers do it.?Why it always rises when HAMILTON does it?

    Though HAM was clearly fast in monza he made some ruthless move on webber and glock.???

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