A move too far: Schumacher forces stewards to take a stand

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Michael Schumacher, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2010

There was only one thing more shocking than Michael Schumacher’s move on Rubens Barrichello in the closing stages of the Hungarian Grand Prix.

It was the announcement a few hours later that he was being punished for it.

Previously it seemed drivers could do what they liked to defend position. Yesterday’s decision will hopefully set a new precedent for a better standard of driving in motor racing.

Time and again we have seen drivers make questionable defensive moves that have gone unpunished. It would be wrong to say Schumacher invented such driving, but many of the most shocking examples bear his name.

Yesterday’s attempt to intimidate Rubens Barrichello was straight out of the Schumacher playbook. He did much the same to Mika Hakkinen at Spa ten years ago, only on that occasion the track was bordered by grass and not a solid wall.

He dished out the same to his brother the following year and did it again to Fernando Alonso at Silverstone in 2003. The stewards turned a blind eye every time.

It’s scarcely surprising that drivers who wanted to beat Schumacher chose to do so by adopting his tactics. After all, it was clear the stewards weren’t going to stop them.

But we’ve rarely seen other drivers be quite as uncompromising at high speed as Schumacher. Remember how Mark Webber defended his position from Felipe Massa at Fuji two years ago:

Robust stuff and, like Schumacher on Sunday, Webber continued to move towards Massa even as the Ferrari drew alongside. The difference was that as Massa had already cleared the end of the pit lane he was not pinned up again a barrier as Webber leaned on him.

Schumacher said today he accepts the stewards’ decision. They have set a potentially significant precedent by punishing him, one that could force him and other drivers to be more restrained in similar situations in the future.

This is good news for two reasons. It’s clearly better from the point of view of safety. The crash in the Superleague Formula race at Brands Hatch this weekend showed the violent accidents that can happen when drivers veer towards each other during overtaking moves:

Driver Chris van der Drift, who was sent skywards by Julien Jousse, suffered a broken ankle and other minor injuries.

Clamping down on this sort of driving may also help encourage overtaking, as defending drivers know they mustn’t go too far in their efforts to keep an attacking driver behind.

The stewards – bolstered this year by the long-overdue inclusion of former racing drivers – deserve applause for taking a stand against reckless and dangerous driving such as this.

But the policing of driving standards in Formula 1 remains unsatisfactory, largely because so little of it is spelled out in the regulations. Schumacher was punished for “illegitimately preventing a legitimate overtaking manoeuvre”. But there are many questionable things drivers may do to keep rivals behind which are not considered “illegitimate”.

For example, pushing a rival clean off the track is allowed. We saw that when Robert Kubica did it to Fernando Alonso at Silverstone this year, and when Kimi R??ikk??nen did to Lewis Hamilton at Spa two years ago, to name just two particularly memorable examples.

And the rules about respecting the track’s limits make no sense at all, based on recent precedents.

Drivers may gain an advantage by going off the track on the outside of a corner (as Schumacher did at the start last weekend and as R??ikk??nen did at Spa last year) and they may cut corners when a rival is trying to overtake them to keep position (Schumacher defending in Canada this year).

But they may not gain a position by going off the track on the inside of the corner (Alonso at Silverstone this year) nor if both cars go off the track (Webber and Alonso at Singapore last year).

These are clear double standards. Either a driver is allowed to go off the track and gain an advantage or he isn’t. It shouldn’t matter whether they’re on the inside or outside of a corner.

There have been some improvements in the quality of stewarding this year, particularly as we have seen fewer penalties for minor infractions – a welcome relief after the excessively punishment-prone stewarding in recent years.

And I was impressed that the stewards intervened over Schumacher’s driving this weekend as it’s the sort of dangerous move they’ve turned a blind eye to too often in the past.

But a re-thinking of the rules of engagement is still needed to make racing fair between the drivers and clear for the fans to understand.

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219 comments on A move too far: Schumacher forces stewards to take a stand

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  1. Yes, I think Barrichello should have been forced to give the position back.

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