The procession nature of Formula One in recent years – with the same cars at the front, the same teams running just behind, then daylight to the best of the rest where racing actually happens – doesn’t make for great motorsport viewing.
If you were monitoring that renowned bastion of reasonable and level-headed debate known as Twitter during the Canadian Grand Prix, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Formula One had folded overnight, never to be seen again among the ranks of top-tier motorsport.
Such was the unbridled outrage in some quarters of the short-form commentariat that F1 can no longer be considered a sport.
Some contended viewers would be switching off in droves, hastening the already apparently assured demise of the world’s most popular racing category.
The source of the incredible consternation? A five-second penalty, perhaps the most commonly doled-out punishment among the stewards’ arsenal.
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 9, 2019
To recap: on lap 48, under pressure from the chasing Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel attempted to carry too much speed into turn three. His SF90 snapping with oversteer, he careered over the grass to cut the inside of turn four.
It opened the door for Hamilton to pounce for the race lead, but Vettel clambered back onto the track and slid perilously close to the Briton on corner exit, forcing him onto the kerbs. Required to choose between either being sandwiched between the Ferrari and the wall or backing out, Hamilton opted to hit the brakes, slotting back behind the red car for turn five.
As is standard for all drivers, Hamilton radioed his pit wall to voice his displeasure, and as is standard for all teams, Mercedes informed race control, who passed the incident to the stewards.
The stewards investigated and found Vettel had “rejoined the track … in an unsafe manner and forced [Hamilton] off track,” noting also that Hamilton “had to take evasive action to avoid a collision”.
"The stewards reviewed video evidence and determined that Car 5, left the track at turn 3, rejoined the track at turn 4 in an unsafe manner and forced car 44 off track. Car 44 had to take evasive action to avoid a collision." #F1 #CanadianGP???????? pic.twitter.com/eiu1kEC3JO
— Michael Lamonato (@MichaelLamonato) June 9, 2019
“You need to be an absolute blind man to think that you can go through the grass and then control your car,” a furious Vettel vented to his team.
“I was lucky that I didn’t hit the wall. Where the hell am I supposed to go?”
Vettel obviously wasn’t alone in his condemnation of the decision, with criticism ranging from the reasoned to the totally irrational, but there are three clear reasons the stewards were absolutely entitled to rule against the German.
First, and a principal of racing, is that Hamilton was entitled to space. He had pulled alongside Vettel in a passing manoeuvre, but the German did not allow him space to race.
The FIA International Sporting Code states: “Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track … are strictly prohibited”.
If Hamilton was pushed off the track — see the photo below, showing Vettel forcing Hamilton completely over the circuit boundary — and had to take evasive action to avoid crashing with Vettel, the regulations come down in favour of the Briton.
— Autosport (@autosport) June 9, 2019
There are of course some extenuating circumstances at play.
Vettel was not in full control of his car, for example, having just detoured over the grass, and had to manage another snap of oversteer as he drifted towards Hamilton on the racing line.
But even this is clearly a breach of the sporting regulations, which state, “Should a car leave the track, the driver may rejoin; however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so”. If Vettel was not in control of his car — a fact he openly admitted by claiming it as a mitigating factor — he was by definition rejoining the track unsafely.
That’s not to say what he did was unsporting — indeed Hamilton supposed he likely would have done the same thing in Vettel’s position — but that doesn’t absolve him from responsibility.
However, the prevalent counter-argument is that the penalty is contrary racing, particularly given there was clearly no malicious intent and both drivers escaped unscathed. Indeed Vettel himself lamented, “It’s not making our sport popular, is it, with these kinds of decisions? People want to see us race and that was I think racing.”
The ‘spirit of racing’ argument is an easy one to throw around — think about how many times it was desperately used to argue against the halo — but when the stewards are the guardians of this so-called spirit and the FIA insists on a rotating roster of stewards rather than a permanent panel, it’s easy to see why we arrive at seemingly inconsistent rulings apparently incongruous with prevailing sentiment.
But even this emotional appeal fails to fully convince, because there’s a far more persuasive argument to made by stepping back from the fight for the lead and considering the broader situation.
The fundamental fact is that Sebastian Vettel made another mistake under pressure from Lewis Hamilton. Again.
Hamilton was the quicker driver in that phase of the race, his unrelenting pursuit forced Vettel into a first mistake — carrying too much speed into turn three — and then a series of subsequent mistakes while attempting to recover. Had it not been for Hamilton choosing to back out, those mistakes could have ended both drivers’ races.
Flipped the other way, had Vettel kept control of his car, there would have been no penalty. None of this drama would have ever happened.
The fact Mercedes has stretched its victory streak to seven wins just when Ferrari seemed destined to finally claim one back may have been an unpopular outcome, and the mechanics of Hamilton’s victory may have soured the end of the race.
But really, the takeaway from the Canadian Grand Prix is that — penalty or not — Hamilton has Vettel’s measure in a straight fight.
He deserved to win on Sunday.