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. May be Mclaren doesnot using it owns technology for developing its cars have caused FIA to react in such a way….Just a thought@@@@wat say….????

  2. Keith,

    I do enumerate a dozen of cases on the post about Vettel´s win so I must to say thank you for the article, it summarized my confuse and poorly written comment there.

    In the Lewis-Webber´s case, Coulthard, “Mr Movable Chicane” and Webber´s team-mate, has wrote this on his column at iTV about Kimi´s defensive line:

    “…Clearly Kimi took a defensive line into the corner, making Lewis go the long way around – but that was his right as the lead car, and HE DID NOTHING UNFAIR…”


    So, if there is “Driving etiquette” to Kimi´s defensive moves, why this can´t works to Lewis too?

    Is interesting how ones scrutiny Lewis moves while Kazuki try to dangerously overtake at Parabolic and none seems to “remember” the move. I guess what is behind this forgiving…

    Craig has mentioned GP2 and I must to say that the same Timo Glock who complained about Lewis, was the same one who crossed the white line and “defensively” pushed Lewis off the track dozens of times at Turkey in 2006.

    I could use another example of how “the rules could be held as consistent between GP2 and F1”: in Barcelona, Lewis were leading the race and fighting for the championship and his team-mate, Alex Premat, pushed him off track and won the race. Do you know what Lewis has said after the race?

    “This is racing…”

    Anyway, I know why some drivers are complaining. Looking back to the history, you can understand how sometimes they try to get together, acting like a corporation. I hate to make comparisons between Senna and Lewis, but we have the same fuss that we did see on the days of The Great Man. Alboreto has said that about Senna once:

    “…Senna acts like a bandit on track. I have the impression that, under his helmet, he drivers with a knife between his teethes (I do not know if there are this linguistic expression in English!)…”

  3. Niki Lauda made the best comment for the whole weekend which was to have full time racing stewards that are consistent from race to race rather than having different stewards at different events. If that can be done than many of these unwritten rules can remain unwritten.

  4. “Sounds more like a dictatorship than a governing body to me.”

    Funnily enough the ‘unwritten rules’ rather remind of the Westminister parliamentary system where many things are governed by conventions and practices that are not actually codified in any constitution or the like. Even, I believe, regarding such important things as the position and responsibility of the Prime Minister and how to Cabinet is appointed.

    Bit of an obtuse example, perhaps, but it just shows that Formula One is not the only case where things are sometimes governed by ‘unwritten rules.’ And we are talking about a sovereign nation, not just a sport!

  5. Keith,
    The unwritten rules were created alongside with the F1 Champ, back in the 50’s. Every driver knows the unwritten rules so damm well, they just pretend they don’t, to freeely push the boundaries.

    PS: Great article.

  6. Becken, very interesting post. Basically the rule is:

    Lewis Hamilton: scrutinise EVERYTHING he says and does on and off the track and twist it to show he is a bad and dangerous driver, he is a nasty person, he’s not as good as Vettel, Schumacher, Alonso, Senna, Massa (insert ANY driver’s name here), he has no respect, he doesn’t deserve to be in F1, blah-di-blah.

    Any other driver: if they win, great; if they lose, too bad. No interest in what they say or do off the track, are allowed to say whatever they please without criticism or analysis; they deserve to be in F1.

  7. @ S Hughes – well how did Hamilton successfully manage to create that rule you mentioned in less than 18 months since he arrived in F1 …

    sorry Keith , I know you had another post on this topic few months back :-)

    back to those written/unwritten rules – I think it is same in any business. if you deal with people who follow those “unwritten” rules you save yourself lots of paperwork and headache and generally conduct the business easier and quicker

    if you deal with people who pretend there are no unwritten rules and therefore there is nothing to follow, then you are asking for trouble. you either quickly adjust and start writing everything down (or at least start making everything crystal clear) or you do get yourself in trouble.

    and then you can also get in trouble, if you are new in town and no one told you about those unwritten rules :-)

  8. To S Hughes, all drivers moves should be scrutinise if they are infringing or very close to infringing. Other drivers as mentioned above have had infringements, not just Hamilton. To me, Hamilton is highlighted in many, may of these discussions for a number of reasons. Has another driver been involved in as many incidents this season as Hamilton, Kimi a couple, Massa maybe one, Hamilton at least 4 I can think of straightaway, so he is top of my list and therefore more likely to be discussed. The other issue is that Hamilton when interviewed is proud of his aggressive prowess or being on the borderline of infringing. So he is really inviting such scrutiny. Didn’t show one iota of remorse, embarrassment or humility after running into Kimi at a red light. Even the most die-hard Hamilton fan could argue that was his finest moment? If it was a pure accident, he looks foolish for a stupid mistake, if deliberate to avoid looking foolish, then he broke the unwritten rules and damaged another rivals race.

    I also think he broke an huge unwritten rule last season by driving and testing a car that he knew was created by using stolen work papers, still he probably thought he had no choice as he signed a contract with McClaren and he would be in breach of that contract. Again, even if under duress, not his finest moment?

    I don’t think I’ve read any comment here that says he is a nasty person, or that he doesn’t deserve to be in F1. All I’ve read is that some of his driving incidents are questionable from a rules point of view and perhaps from unwritten rules point of view. As are other drivers questionable incidents. Why does it always come down to two sides, pro and anti Hamilton? No in-between???

    It depends on your perception, some think his technique has brought excitement to the circuit, others think too cocky & borderline at times. I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the John McEnroe of F1, in my opinion but he is not quite the Roger Federer either, still I would not never say he does not belong in F1 or is a nasty person. But hey, it is acknowledge that both you and Becken are Hamilton fans and will vigorously defend him :)

  9. I don’t think Hamilton will win his appeal because the FIA respects no procedural values and, as the site’s analysis shows, there is no recognizable substantive interpretation of the rules at issue.

    Proving this point further, the FIA is atempting to prejudice the appellate panel by issuing the Hamilton Rule, and the statements that Whiting’s opinions during a race are of no value. Issuing an attempted retroactive rule and announcing that your chief official is a not reliable authority on the rules is pretty pathetic. But the FIA does not want to be in the business of gainsaying the hacks it hires as stewards and creating some consistency because it would be in session all year—tf teams had any expectation of procedural justice there would be a raft of appeals after every race.

    If they lose this appeal, McLaren should appeal Massa’s penalty in Valencia. McLaren said not a word about this at the time, even though there is clear precedent for a time penalty for what Ferrari did and the fact that the fine was patently deminimis.

  10. Kate,

    Sorry for been “vigorous” on Lewis defense, but I don’t know what season are you watching. I must agree that Canada incident was stupid and Lewis were there in a good company with his mate Nico Rosberg. Do you remember that Nico did hit Lewis in the same way?

    But Lets take a look in what Kazuky Nakajima has made on this season so far:

    Australia: Hit Kubica
    Turkey: hit Fisichela
    Valencia: Hit Alonso in Spain and in the first lap
    Italia: hit Sutil in Parabolica

    Coulthard has a good collection of incidents this year:

    Australia: crash into Massa
    Bahrain: crash into Button

    After crash into Massa he said:

    “…I admit I did the same thing to Alex [Wurz] last year, but I admitted it and apologized. He had better. If he doesn’t, I’ll knock three colours of **** out of the little *******…”

    What you think about it?

    Sorry, Kate, but I can´t remember to read any of your comments about David or Kazuki incidents, or about Nico´s “finest moment”. Why target only Lewis? If you were between pro or anti Hamilton field you have had watched carefully others crashes and been scrutinizing the attitude of others drivers not only Lewis´s.

    About “Lewis driving and testing a car that he knew was created by using stolen work papers”, how do you know that? How can you state that Lewis already know that?

    The only driver who generated an evidence who could incriminate himself was Fernando with his exchange of e-mails with Pedro. Why didn´t you observe this about Alonso´s e-mails?

    …And so you state that you are between PRO and ANTI Hamilton field. Don´t make me laugh…

  11. There are clear reasons why the FIA don’t codify the clarifications. The general opinion how rules should be interpreted may change from time to time. If rules are completely written it may be too difficult to change them.

  12. @DMW – I don’t think McLaren can appeal the Massa Valencia penalty because they are a third party. This was why their appeal against the BMW and Williams cool fuel in Brazil last year was denied. And there’s also some rule about appeals to the stewards having to be made within 2 hours of their decision.

    @Kate – there is no unwritten rule about testing or driving a car built using another team’s data. The driver can only drive what he’s given to drive! In fact, there is absolutely no rule against industrial espionage at all. McLaren were found to have brought the sport into disrepute by the FIA, which is quite different. Industrial espionage is against the law, and a couple of Toyota engineers were indeed prosecuted in a court of law a few years ago. In that instance, though, the FIA showed no interest in whether or not Toyota had brought the sport into disrepute.

    @Madurai (#39) Nurburgring 07 actually showed that Hamilton did have a better understanding of the rules, or rather the apparent precedent that previous stewards decisions seem to set. The rules did appear to mitigate against staying in your car while the marshals moved it. However, Michael Schumacher had successfully done this previously without penalty, so Hamiliton assumed it was okay. This interpretation was subsequently amended and it is now ‘understood’ that you can no longer do this.

    As a more general point, Hamilton is quite right to stretch the rules to their logical extent, seeking out every possible advantage he can get. Just as the rules specify 2.4 litre V8s, none of the teams run 2.3 litre engines ‘to be on the safe side’. Similarly, if the rules state that you must keep at least one wheel within the white line when cutting a corner, none of the drivers will keep all four wheels at least 12 inches within the white line ‘just to be on the safe side’.

  13. HAM should absolutely win the case in court primarily on two counts.

    1. The FIA agreed that his overtaking was correct TWICE.

    2. If they had not agreed, at least they would have told him to let RAI pass him again. But, then he crashed.

    Given the two, he would have finished second. Now, out of no where, MAS is being given a win and HAM a third position. Doesn’t even make sense.

    FIA cannot say one thing during the race and retroactively take it back, and penalize the driver. That’s simply not correct.

  14. Since Hamiton and Raikkonen have been racing, Raikkonen has overtaken Hamilton twice (Silverstone 2007 & China 2007), while Hamilton has overtaken Raikkonen:

    Malaysia 2007
    Italy 2007
    Manaco 2008 (at the start)
    Silverstone 2008 (at the start)
    Italy 2008
    Spa 2008*

    *pending :)

  15. @ Becken
    “…Senna acts like a bandit on track. I have the impression that, under his helmet, he drivers with a knife between his teethes (I do not know if there are this linguistic expression in English!)…”

    that made me laugh out loud! haha….he was a pirate!

  16. Oh, Yeah, Wesley… ; )

    Nonsense from the sadly missed Alboreto. But the expression means, in Portuguese, braveness…

  17. I love that people are still going on about McLaren stealing data. Ferrari, Renault and others are running J-dampers which were stolen from McLaren and details of the design published by Max. But McLaren are the bad guys and Renault’s indiscretion is ignored. Ferrari gained from Renault’s theft because Max decided they were an interested party and so gave them full access to the hearings. Why are Ferrari an interested party? Would McLaren or any other team be given similar rights in any other case?

    I love that Schumacher fans are criticising Hamilton’s on track etiquette. Some of his moves may be borderline but he has not deliberatley rammed anyone yet.

    The unwritten rules are there so that Max can manipulate things to suit himself. He said years ago that he prefers not to be written rigidly so that they can’t be interepreted for a particular situation. Add to that we have Alan Donnelly whose job is to help the stewards consider the implications of their decision. I thought the idea was that an incident was supposed to be considered on its merits alone but that is apparently not the case anymore.

    Anyone who thinks people have only been complaining about Ferrari since Hamilton turned up in F1 need to read a few history books.

    Any site I visited in the wake of the Michelin tyre ban, the mass damper ban and Alonso’s aerodynamic blocking of Massa at Monza was full of equally irate comments. Equally there was outrage that Ferrari were allowed to use their brake cooling devices when it was quite clear they were illegal aerodynamic devices. This has been proved this year when twice the brake cooling devices have had to be removed to stop brakes overheating. But has Max taken any action or is he happy that Ferrari have been proven to be liars and made him look like an idiot for either buying their ridiculous story or being complicit in it?

    Colin Chapman who owned Lotus was the most innovative designer in the history of F1. Frequently in the 60s and 70s his innovations were protested by Ferrari and banned on grounds that didn’t exist. Chapman was asked once after another banned development if he could modify it to make it legal was that at the next race he would paint it red and it would be legal. Lewis Hamilton was not even born then but the reaction was the same albeit that the internet etc was not around for people to dicuss it to the level we do today. I could give examples from further back but since I have already given examples that happened before Hamilton was born there seems little point.

  18. S Hughes – Did race control definitely tell Massa to give the place back? Or did he give it back himself, fearing a penalty?

    Becken – The Hamilton-Premat collision is an interesting one. I though Premat was out of line there but he didn’t get a penalty. It’ll be a busy day on here if that ever happens in F1…

    Pingguest – I understand that rules may need to be changed but changing them in secret and not telling the public or media, or maybe even all of the drivers, is patently ludicrous.

    Steven – I’ve sketched the outline of a post covering the accusations of Ferrari bias but it would take ages to do properly. I’ll save it for the winter I think. (Of course if you wanted to write something by all means drop me a line: Contact Form)

  19. @Keith Collantine (#58) – “I’ve sketched the outline of a post covering the accusations of Ferrari bias” – (!) You could write a book on this one. The problem is in doing it objectively. It’s easy (if time consuming) to dig up all the cases when stewards have imposed penalties, consider the evidence, and work out if one team has been penalised more or less than others. But it’s a whole lot harder to find incidents which have not been referred to the stewards and drivers have not been penalised when arguably they should have been, unless there was an outcry at the time. And how far back in time do you go? Surely the YouTube footage begins to run dry.

    Alternatively, you could just collate a few select Moseley quotes in which he tacitly admits Ferrari bias. He’s quite short with people nowadays, calling them stupid instead of giving incisive lawyerly reposts, but in the past his stock response to accusations of Ferrari bias was as follows (and I apologise that I cannot find a reference or link readily to hand): “Because most of the teams in F1 are British or based in the UK, and the management of FIA is British (Moseley), and F1 is controlled by a Briton (Ecclestone), it is of paramount importance to ensure that there is no apparent bias against the largest non-British team.”

  20. This is a well-done piece.

    I think Max himself illustrates the problem best by belittling the people that most want transparency so that the difficult decision becomes easier to understand. It is already clear that the letter of law is violated in every race.

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