The standards of refereeing in Formula 1 has been a hotly-disputed topic in recent years after a catalogue of controversial judgements.
For the first time this year experienced racing drivers have been brought in to advise the stewards. At the same time, the role of permanent steward previously occupied by Alan Donnelly has been abolished.
On the evidence so far this seems to have coincided with a badly-needed outbreak of calm and common sense.
Relying on reprimands
Over the first four races we’ve seen the stewards avoid using the strongest punishments available to them, opting instead for reprimands. Here’s a summary of the major decisions they’ve taken so far (ignoring speeding fines and yellow flag infractions outside of the race):
|Australia||Pedro de la Rosa||Impeded another driver in practice||Reprimand|
|Australia||Mark Webber||Collided with Lewis Hamilton||Reprimand|
|Malaysia||Lewis Hamilton||Weaving in front of Vitaly Petrov||Black and white flag|
|Malaysia||Sebastian Vettel||Overtook Jarno Trulli under yellow flags||None|
|China||Fernando Alonso||Jumped start||Drive-through|
|China||Lewis Hamilton||Dangerous driving in pit lane||Reprimand|
|China||Sebastian Vettel||Dangerous driving in pit lane||Reprimand|
In the case of Webber’s collision with Hamilton at Australia, this sort of thing has been penalised in the past – for example, when Heikki Kovalainen hit Webber at Spa in 2008.
Should a failed overtaking attempt that leads to a collision automatically incur a penalty? I’m not convinced it should, and if this is a new interpretation it’s one I’m entirely happy with.
First, let’s clear up the facts: McLaren released Hamilton only fractionally later than Red Bull let Vettel go, certainly not late enough for them to get a penalty for an ‘unsafe release’. Hamilton ended up side-by-side with Vettel because he got out of his pit box more slowly than the Red Bull driver did.
Hamilton should have eased off the throttle and let Vettel go, but he didn’t, so he got a reprimand. Vettel should not have edged Hamilton towards the (vacant) pit boxes of other teams, but he did, so he also got a reprimand.
I suggest we can only judge whether the stewards got this one right if their decision stops it happening again – because dangerous driving in the pit lane such as this clearly cannot be allowed.
Does a reprimand set a limit of what a driver can get away with? If so, then they’ve been too soft – it’s no different to giving no penalty.
But if these reprimands mean “if anyone does that again they’ll be punished”, then I think the stewards have laid down some useful markers. We shall see.
The Hamilton-Petrov incident at Sepang was discussed at length here: Drivers as stewards make presence felt as Hamilton gets black-and-white flag
It was inevitable that bringing in people with recent F1 experience to the stewards’ office was going to lead to accusations that they favour teams they used to work for and drivers they liked.
So far the drivers’ representatives have been chosen well. Alain Prost, Tom Kristensen, Johnny Herbert and Alexander Wurz cannot be accused of being short on experience (though I do wonder what Prost’s take would be one someone knocking their rival off the track to win a world championship).
Nor do they have any obvious axes to grind, or particular vested interests that should disqualify them from the job. Whereas putting someone like Keke Rosberg or Ron Dennis in the room – however knowledgeable and impartial they are – would send out the wrong message given their closeness to particular drivers and teams.
The suggestion from some quarters that Wurz might be inclined towards McLaren because he worked for them five years ago cannot be taken seriously. It’s not as if that was his last job, after all, he’s raced for Williams since then. And tellingly, no-one suggested it might be a conflict of interest before Wurz was asked to take any of his decisions (see here: Alexander Wurz joins Chinese GP stewards).
Weighed against the alternative – a return to the days of having decisions taken exclusively by people without top-line motor racing experience – the current solution is clearly preferable.
So far, so good
In recent seasons we couldn’t trust the stewards to stay out of even the most innocuous incidents, and swingeing penalties were often handed down with little rationale or consistency.
Fernando Alonso (Monza ’06), Lewis Hamilton (Spa ’08), Sebastien Bourdais (Fuji ’08) and others all received punishments that there totally out of proportion with their supposed infringements. Others got away with tactics indistinguishable from ones their rivals had been punished for.
The decision not to penalise Vettel for passing Trulli under yellow flags in Sepang is a good example of sensible stewarding. Had they dogmatically stuck to the rules, Vettel might have lost a deserved win. But they had the sense to see how much he’d slowed down by and made the right call.
It’s still early days – we’ve not yet seen how they handle a call on a driver going off-track and gaining an advantage – an area which has seen many dubious and controversial calls. And it remains to be seen whether some of these ‘reprimands’ will be open to abuse in the future. But I’m optimistic that F1 is heading in the right direction.
Do you think the standard of stewarding has improved in F1 this year? Have your say in the comments.
Stewarding in F1