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Sebastian Vettel to face FIA probe into 'potentially dangerous' Baku move - what lurks behind this?

Sebastian Vettel to face FIA probe into 'potentially dangerous' Baku move - what lurks behind this?
Jun 29, 2017, 11:06 AM

For all of my long career in F1 there have been moments of theatre and high drama around racing or political incidents in F1, which have ended up i...

For all of my long career in F1 there have been moments of theatre and high drama around racing or political incidents in F1, which have ended up in an FIA court and played out in the media for days and weeks.

For all of that time it was frequently Bernie Ecclestone in the background - working with his ally Max Mosley as FIA president from 1991 up to 2009 - stimulating the drama and excitement to keep his sport in the spotlight; being talked about.

We recall many a media scrum on the pavement outside the FIA HQ in Place de la Concorde - it all seemed so hugely important and dramatic at the time, the world revolving around this Paris hearing, but we struggle to remember in detail what many of the issues were about now!

But the last six months have been different.

F1 has new owners and they have been more involved in hiring professionals in digital media, research and marketing, than doing a "Barnum and Bailey circus' job, getting the sport talked about.

FIA Paris

The news that the FIA is to open a fresh probe next Monday into the Baku road rage incident involving Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton gives us the first opportunity in the new regime for a moment of F1 theatre; will Vettel get a further sanction? With Mercedes clearly in the ascendant in performance terms, would that kill the championship battle? Is Hamilton completely blameless in all this?

Other current F1 drivers have noted in their comments on the matter that Hamilton clearly was playing with Vettel with his driving into and out of the corner. Mercedes are sensitive on this and have spelled out that he did not brake unexpectedly - he did a normal deceleration, only that he didn't accelerate when Vettel thought he would and as the Ferrari was too close, it hit him. They argue that's his fault, not Hamilton's.

What followed was inexcusable, in the eyes of most F1 observers.

The FIA is the regulator of the sport and will do whatever it feels is necessary in examining this matter. To be clear, there is no suggestion that any of the new F1 executives installed by Liberty Media will have any hand in the outcome.

They are in net gain already; it is good for business, stimulating huge interest world wide - we have had 1,200 comments on single post on this subject - and this hearing keeps it all going nicely.

But there is another, wider, consideration lurking in the background that also interests me.

What happens next?

The FIA statement last night said:

“Following the recent incident at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in which Car 5 [Sebastian Vettel] was involved in a collision with Car 44 [Lewis Hamilton], on Monday 3rd July, the FIA will further examine the causes of the incident in order to evaluate whether further action is necessary. A statement regarding the outcome of this process will be made available before the upcoming Austrian Grand Prix.”

A hearing will be convened to examine in more detail what took place in Baku. The 10 second stop go penalty for Vettel was handed down by the FIA stewards in Baku, which include experienced men like Swiss steward Paul Gutjahr and Venezuelan Enzo Spano as well as Danny Sullivan as driver steward. They have more access to real time data from the cars the year than Stewards have ever had in the past.

But they had no chance to speak to the drivers in real time.

But now there is a chance to examine in greater detail and with no time pressures, exactly what went on and to get testimony from the drivers.

There needs to be an examination of whether Hamilton is indeed blameless, as the stewards found initially, or whether he deserves sanction as Vettel contends. Then there will be the question of whether the 10 second stop/go was sufficient penalty.

It seems odd that Vettel could do something so blatant and so clearly aggressive to another driver and yet to come away from the race with more points than Hamilton and to extend his championship lead. That doesn't seem right in terms of sporting equity.

We used the football analogy on Monday of this being rather like the 'head butt' gesture that players sometimes make in retaliation, or the famous 'kick out' from David Beckham in a 1998 World Cup game. These incidents always lead to a red card (sending off), which is the equivalent of a disqualification in F1.

The FIA is now part of the IOC family, as was showcased at the FIA Sport Conference last week in Geneva with IOC members present. This is all about good governance and sharing best practice with a united voice, where some sports federations have let the side down in recent years, like FIFA, IAAF and also the cycling federation.

So in this climate, what Vettel did and the level of sanction does clearly need to be re-examined.

The 2009 F1 world champion Jenson Button feels that the new hearing is unnecessary and that Vettel's emotion is what made it exciting, "Azerbaijan GP was a pleasure to watch," he Tweeted. "Why? Because adrenaline & emotions were high. What Vettel did was silly but he's been punished. Move on."

Sebastian Vettel

What is the risk for Vettel?

In this week's UBS Race Strategy Report we talked about this Baku race as being all about managing risk; risk of safety cars, red flags and risk of going off track on cold tyres behind the safety car.

Vettel took an unnecessary risk in driving alongside Hamilton and hitting him. Some will argue Hamilton created risk by not speeding up on corner exit - but as the leader he has the right to set the pace and to decide when to 'go' for the restart.

In the corridors of Maranello they will have their own view. Sergio Marchionne, the chairman of Ferrari, was reportedly very angry with Vettel after the incident on the radio in Mexico last season, where he swore at FIA race Director Charlie Whiting and he will not be happy now that Vettel could and should have won the Baku race and extended his points lead even more.

He didn't win only because of his temper. Hamilton lost the race because of probable 'finger trouble' as a Mercedes mechanic didn't fit the headrest correctly after the red flag stoppage, something which was outside his control.

If Vettel now gets a further sanction, such as disqualification, Marchionne's mood will darken further. With all the massive effort going into Ferrari's challenge this season, Vettel would have 12 points fewer and Hamilton would gain two.

They would be equal on 141 points, instead of being of 166 points to 139, as would have been the case if Vettel had won the race, as a cooler driver would have done. So what will be the ramifications?

Marchionne said recently that Vettel can stay at Ferrari as long as he wants and the vibes have been that a new contract is ready. But has it been signed yet? Is there scope for another example of extreme pragmatism from Marchionne as we have seen several times already?

Vettel has done a great job this season so far, winning three races, but he hasn't cleaned out Kimi Raikkonen his team mate and over the Monaco weekend there were some suggestions from trusted Italian sources that Fernando Alonso shouldn't be discounted where Ferrari is concerned.

Fernando Alonso

Alonso himself made some cryptic suggestions over the Baku weekend about his moves for next season, saying that things in other teams were not as fixed as they may appear. Has the Baku road rage incident opened things up there?

Alonso's quarrel was with Luca Montezemolo and the short lived Ferrari team boss Marco Mattiacci (above). Sources say that he is still extremely well regarded by Ferrari engineers and his performances this season in an uncompetitive McLaren have been superb.

The Indy 500 adventure was billed as a way to keep him motivated, but what it achieved was to remind everyone of his quality as well as what a huge draw he is globally as a sporting icon. It underlined his value to F1.

In purely pragmatic terms, F1 is poised to lose Alonso if a top seat doesn't open up.

Viewing figures in Spain are on the floor with little prospect of improving and F1 needs its superstar drivers to build for the next phase.

All those digital media experts, researchers and marketeers being hired by F1 and Liberty need 'names' to build the sport on.

F1 history has often pivoted on unexpected developments and unforeseen consequences. Is it too far fetched to see the Baku 'road rage' incident leading to another such unforeseen consequence?

What do you think will happen in Paris? Leave your comments below or head to the JA on F1 Facebook page for more discussion
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