By now all of you have surely seen the clash between Sebastian Vettel and his championship rival Lewis Hamilton. Well, today it was announced that Vettel has formally apologized for the incident in Baku. In my opinion this is exactly what is wrong with Formula One, and possibly the worst thing that could happen to the series right now.
First of all, if you haven’t see the incident yet kindly crawl out from under the rock you must be living and watch this video:
Essentially what happened was that while behind the safety car Vettel collided with the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes causing damage to his front wing, while inducing slight damage to the rear of Hamilton’s car. Vettel believed Hamilton had brake checked him, resulting in an outburst that caused another collision between the two. Vettel was then forced to take a 10-second penalty in the pits for his actions. Things really started to come off the rails after the race, with the FIA investigating the incident for possible further punishment.
I have many strong opinions regarding several aspects of this incident. Let’s start at the top. One of the first rules of racing is that it’s the person behinds job to avoid contact. That stands regardless of the situation, including the safety car. Hamilton could have come to a stop mid corner and it’s Vettel’s job not to touch him, even if it’s wrong what the leader is doing. So in that right, Seb was totally at fault for the collision. BUT, and this is a big but, Hamilton definitely played a little dirty. Racing is very much a game of cat and mouse, where you are constantly trying to cleverly trick your opponent. Hamilton’s approach to this second restart was drastically different to his first, and that is no doubt on purpose.
During the first safety car period, Hamilton kept an extremely steady pace, until he didn’t. He stayed slow and consistent before blitzing to the restart. And it worked, leaving Vettel well behind in second. So of course for this next safety car, Vettel wised up to stay much closer to his British rival. What Hamilton did next is actually quite brilliant. You see, Vettel accused Hamilton of brake checking him which isn’t true, but not far off. What Hamilton actually used was a lack of acceleration, not his brakes. As they entered the second to last corner before the restart Hamilton entered the corner as usual but instead of accelerating out of it like normal he instead remained idle. Vettel, on the other hand, was prepared to jump resulting in the speed gap that caused the collision.
This is actually a very common tactic. It can be used for two things. One is to gain some more space. The car behind gets a little too close for comfort resulting in them backing off a bit, leaving a bigger gap. Or the second which is the trickiest. If you time it perfectly the person behind will get too close and have to brake, and right as they do the person in front is able to put the hammer down and pull away. It’s a little dirty, but totally legal to a certain extent. Since there happened to be an entire straight away after the incident I think Hamilton was merely trying to gain some room.
So Vettel is still at fault, which means his actions after the collision were egregious, right? Yes and no. Look I’m not going to sit here and say what Vettel did was right. because it’s not. But it was the heat of the moment. It was kind of nice seeing a little emotion in the overly sedated series. And for those of you that say it was a ‘dangerous move!’ let’s get real. They were going slower than a couple of turtles stampeding through peanut butter. The only thing at risk was a potential damaged car and a slap on the wrist from the FIA.
And that is exactly where the problem lies. The stewards jumped in immediately, as they should, and gave Vettel a 10-second box penalty. Which equates to almost 30-seconds on track time. That is massive, yet it perfectly fit the situation. But then after the race, there were talks of investigations. More penalties, and rumor of a possible suspension for the angry German. That is the issue I have. If this had happened at the end of the straight while traveling at full clip, then I could see that. But at 5mph? C’mon guys, let’s grow up a little bit.
It’s not unreasonable to have some heat between competitors at this level of the game, F1 is the pinnacle of open wheel racing after all. But to have a championship charged to this level one must expect it to boil over from time to time. That in itself is the issue with formula one. It is so pompous that it becomes un-relatable. I’m not saying we need let the drivers brawl like a Pepsi 500, but letting them show a little bit of emotion is not such a bad thing. When you look back over the history of the sport, some of the most notable moments came when drivers lost their cool just a little bit.
My other issue is that Sebastian Vettel actually apologized. I get it, he’s in for a championship and the FIA could have destroyed that with a swift tap of the gavel. But his post race interviews suggest that he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong, and to me he should stick to his convictions. If the FIA was even a little bit more lenient we wouldn’t need racers to lie after the fact just to keep from being put in timeout. We all know Seb isn’t sorry, and part of me thinks that’s okay.
It’s the little things that this incident represents that are truly striking a nerve. F1 may be the cream of the crop in the racing world, but that doesn’t mean it has to be obscure. If we wanted to watch a bunch of politics in play we could easily watch CNN. Instead, we are here to see racing at its very best, and for that to happen the organization as a whole needs to loosen the reigns a little bit. On top of this all the timing couldn’t have been worse. The series is currently doing well, but the changes to the cars for 2017 has already sparked enough debate. The key component that is currently keeping the 2017 season exciting was the back and forth championship battle between these two rivals.
But now we are left with Vettel on the brink of major discipline, and Hamilton who looks like he’s willing to take any chance he can to get his rival in trouble. Hamilton voiced his displeasure after the race in a very uninspiring way. He lamented about how this could cause a ripple effect throughout our racing youths before complaining about the penalty that was given to Vettel and his ability to still finish 4th. Hamilton himself could have set a better example by taking it on the chin and respecting the fact that the incident did not go unnoticed, even if he doesn’t agree with the penalty that was handed out.
We sometimes forget how far we have come. Automotive racing and early Formula 1 can be traced back to the brave soldiers racing after returning from the World Wars. These men were battle-hardened, just seeking a new adrenaline rush to keep them going. Do you think they ever complained about a little contact here and there? Hardly. They likely solved disputes via a round of fisticuffs before making up over a bottle of whiskey. And while I don’t think we need another Nascar, we also don’t need an automotive equivalent of golf.
Here’s to hoping the rest of the season isn’t scarred by this blown out of proportion incident.