Four of F1’s ‘unwritten rules’

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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 ???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.

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

  1. 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

  2. John Spencer said on 16th September 2008, 11:38

    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?

  3. 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….

  4. 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…

  5. madurai said on 16th September 2008, 12:06

    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.???

  6. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 16th September 2008, 12:08

    Madurai – Hamilton was tough with Webber and Glock but, as I wrote in the article, it’s petty similar to what’s gone before. He did cut it very fine with Webber though.

    Brar – Yep I think that’s pretty much Max’s motto…

  7. madurai said on 16th September 2008, 12:16

    Its not that “SCHUMI did it”,”kimi did it” so did HAM.
    I suppose evry other driver gave room to their rivals.
    eg:Massa was just riding on the kerbs when he overtook NICO.Not a part of wheel was in grass.But he let NICO through.TRUE SPOTSMANSHIP.It all depends on indiviuals.

  8. Sounds more like a dictatorship than a governing body to me.

  9. madurai – what we are more concerned about here is that a driver was penalised for a move he made in one race, but nobody was penalsied for doing exactly the same move in the races beforehand, or afterwards.
    Are these rules being made up race-by-race? Are they being made to penalise one team or one driver? Or are the Stewards so varied in their ideas about applying the rules that its a lucky dip every time you go racing?

  10. Robert McKay said on 16th September 2008, 12:39

    Excellent article Keith.

    To be honest, the Rosberg-Masa incident at Monza just muddied the waters even further. Massa made a perfectly good move at the (second?) chicane and though he was over the kerb he still had two wheels on the track, as far as I was concerned. Yet he was made to give the place back.

    However, racing in clear air on your own that is the line that virtually every driver would use.

    Let’s be honest, this is all about finding ways to manipulate the championship and keep things artificially close. Having vague, fluffy, unwritten rules is an excellent way to do it because you have to be around watching for a while to get similar situations where the rules were applied differently.

  11. madurai said on 16th September 2008, 12:41

    DJ This is what I am concerned about “Are they being made to penalise one team or one driver?”.Why is that one driver always being HAM and the TEAM Maclaren that everyone are concerned abt when many drivers also get penalities that..????

  12. Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 16th September 2008, 12:53

    Madurai – the suggestion that the governing body favours Ferrari over other teams started years, perhaps decades before Hamilton arrived on the scene.

  13. I am also thinking back to a few years ago. when Jenson Button started with Honda. His car was always chosen to be weighed at a critical time in Qualifying, and at one point he missed a vital time window. It may just have been coincidence, or the way the camera was pointing, but it did make me ponder……

  14. madurai said on 16th September 2008, 13:11

    But we get this furore only when it involves HAMILTON and MACLAREN in the recent….

  15. madurai said on 16th September 2008, 13:15

    if I can remember correctly HAM was just let off in FUJI gp after all other drivers reported of RASH driving…

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