FIA changing of the guard, means a big rule interpretation change…
Having had my fair share of run in’s with Charlie Whiting, his passing this year was not anything I would wish on another individual. Despite Charlie’s often ‘Bernie-esqu’e misguided and stubborn proclamations, his passion for F1 was embodied by a bold statement he made to me at the last Jerez testing: “I am Mr. F1”.
Incremental regulating against perceived aggressive driver racing behavior was something Whiting waged war on over the past couple of decades, and may of remember the Hamilton/Massa duals of 2011.
At that time both Lewis and Philipe were heavily cricticised for what maybe in the 1980’s was deemed normative behavior. During the first 6 races of that season, Hamitlon was called before the stewards 5 times in 6 races to explain his on track ‘aggression’ and following the chequered flag at the 2011 Monaco GP, Lewis joked the post race stewards scrutiny of his behavior on track was “maybe because I’m black”.
The past two decades which saw F1 racing regulations developed under Whiting to promote better on track driver behavior was an attempt to systemise and explain the decisions made by the stewards. However, in reality every F1 racing incident is unique and requires not a process where precedent is examined and referred to, but a proper analysis of that one off circumstance and an appropriate and professional stewards’ decision being taken.
The baton passing to Michael Masi as the new F1 race director to has seen a shift in emphasis for the better regarding the interpretation of driver race behavior. Masi has proven to be a breath of fresh air exemplified following the 2019 Austrian GP, where Max Verstappen drove with real aggression to win the race. The new F1 race director defended accusations that the stewards failed to properly sanction the Dutchman and even rescind his race win as follows.
Masi explained, “Even with incidents and bits and pieces in practice, we’re very much trying to do our best that silly, menial things – as much as they are – that maybe two or three years ago would have earned a penalty, these days don’t have an impact or as much of an impact.” “I hate people going back a number of years, because the rulebook’s evolved, the manner in which they’ve been interpreted has evolved with everyone being involved in that discussion.
“When we start talking about precedent and incidents occurring three years ago, what may have been a breach then because of the way it’s been interpreted has evolved and may have become lessened in some ways.
“It’s a balancing act.”
Love him or otherwise, Lewis Hamilton recognized this shift in the steward’s attitude to what’s acceptable F1 defensive driving. In Monza this year, Charles LeClerc defended his race lead from the Brit in a move which saw Hamilton forced to miss a chicane and ultimately fail in his bid to pass the exciting young Ferrari driver.
Resigned to his fate, Hamilton responded to the stewards’ decision not to sanction LeClerc by stating, “I don’t think there’s an issue, if that’s how we’re able to race then I’ll race like it. As long as we know you’re allowed to not leave a car’s width, and you don’t have to do that now.”
Over the years, Charlie Whiting, maybe inadvertently or not, developed regulations and interpretations of driver behaviour which in effect restricted the ability to drive defensively. Regulations such as preventing “moving under braking” and forcing the lead driver in a battle to allow “space” for the attacking driver all contributed to an contrived and sanitised approach to adjudicating on track action.
This development of such rules in F1 should be set against the backdrop of an era where overtaking became nigh on impossible, unless the following car has a pace advantage of around 2 seconds a lap. The new regulatory dawn under race director Masi which lets drivers both race hard and also deploy all the defensive weapons they can muster to prevent being overtaken was epitomised in this weeks Japanese GP.
Under pressure new boy at RBR, Alex Albon arrived upon the tail of McLaren’s star of the future – Lando Norris. The Thai driver dived up the inside of the Brit, and the two made contact. Under the Whiting regime, this move may easily have been adjudicated to fault of the attacking Red Bull driver for falling to leave enough space for Norris who was merely making his natural turn in.
The stewards failed to sanction the Albon move and refreshingly in the post race driver interviews, Lando Norris admitted he had not seen Alex Albon move up the inside of his car. Implied, was he would have behaved differently had the Brit been more aware of the developing situation.
Defensive driving is exciting for us F1 fans to watch, as Sebastian Vettel demonstrated this in the closing laps of the 2019 race in Suzuka. Lewis Hamilton was clearly quicker than the Ferrari, yet Vettel cleverly positioned his car at the apex of the slow corners, forcing Hamilton to lose all his momentum and therefore repeatedly fail to maintain momentum and get a run on the German. The FIA needs to regulate for cars that are able to run close to each other and overtake.
They need to not regulate against classical defensive driving to compensate for poor F1 car designs.
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