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 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?
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.
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?
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:
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 über-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.
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