Why F1 drivers are still confused over racing rules

On Friday evening in Qatar the Formula 1 drivers gathered via video conference for their regular weekend briefing with FIA race director Michael Masi.

Why F1 drivers are still confused over racing rules

Often these occasions are a matter of routine and they are over fairly quickly, but this one ran on for a while as the discussion quickly turned to the racing rules, and specifically the fallout of the Max Verstappen/Lewis Hamilton incident in the Sao Paulo GP.

That matter had been discussed earlier in the day by the original FIA stewards of the Interlagos event. They rejected the request of a right to review submitted by Mercedes, essentially on the basis that the onboard footage from Verstappen’s car that they did not have at the time would not have changed their minds and led to a penalty for the Dutchman.

The hope of the drivers was that the review by the stewards – or the process that led to the review being rejected – would bring some clarity on what is and what isn’t allowed when racing wheel-to-wheel.

The subsequent briefing gave everyone a chance to air their views, and other previous incidents were brought up and dissected, including another in Brazil that earned Yuki Tsunoda a penalty after his collision with Lance Stroll.

There was also a chat about why the Verstappen onboard video was not available to the stewards at the time, with Ross Brawn giving an explanation on behalf of F1.

Verstappen, who naturally felt vindicated after the Interlagos stewards backed their original decision not to formally investigate the Turn 4 affair, understandably saw the Friday discussion as positive.

“I think it’s always trying to align everyone in having the same process in the way you think,” he said after qualifying in Qatar on Saturday.

“Everyone is different, right? And everybody I think has their own way of racing and defending and overtaking, and of course it’s very hard for the FIA as well to, how do you say it? To get everyone on the same line.

“Of course, they decide but every driver has a different opinion. And I think yesterday it was all about sharing their opinions, and then the FIA explaining their process of thought behind it.

“So, I think we came a long way, and it was a very long briefing. So, yeah, I think at the end it was pretty clear.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

However, few of Verstappen’s colleagues were as upbeat. Sitting next to him as he spoke those words Hamilton was rather less enthusiastic about the outcome of the briefing.

“No, it’s not clear," he said. "Every driver, except for Max, was asking just for clarity, most drivers were asking for clarity, but it wasn’t very clear. So, yeah, it’s still not clear what the limits of the track are. It’s clearly not the white line anymore, when overtaking, but… yeah, we just go for it.

“We just ask for consistency. So, if it’s the same as the last race then it should be the same for all of us in those scenarios, and it’s fine.”

The thrust of Masi’s argument, as has always been the case, is that every incident is different and has to be judged on its own merits.

There’s some logic to that approach, but it leaves many drivers wondering why outwardly similar situations can generate very different outcomes in the stewards’ room.

George Russell was not shy about suggesting that Verstappen had overstepped the mark in Brazil, and should have been penalised.

“I think, unfortunately, there was no outcome from Friday,” said the GPDA director. “I do appreciate you need to judge every single individual case-by-case, and circuit-by-circuit.

“But for me that was not even close to the line, it was well beyond the line, what went on. If that were the last lap of the race, in my opinion that would have been a slam-dunk penalty for Max. You can’t just outbrake yourself 25 metres and do that.

“Equally the incident with Tsunoda and Stroll, there was no way Tsunoda should have been penalised for that. He had absolutely the right to go for the move, wasn’t out of control, wasn’t locking up, and he still comfortably made the apex.

“That was a little bit unfortunate I think for all of us drivers, the outcome of a few results last week.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, battles with Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, battles with Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Russell suggested that there was no penalty for Verstappen because in the end, it didn’t make any difference to the outcome – a stark contrast to the clash at Silverstone, for example, when the Mercedes driver was penalised.

“I think Max wasn’t punished purely because Lewis won the race,” said Russell. “The consequences shouldn’t be a factor in the punishment, or the judgement of the incident. You should judge the incident on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s what they’ve always told us, it’s not the consequences of that incident, it is the incident itself. I don’t know, really. At the end of the day, we all want to race hard, but that was hard and unfair, and we want hard, fair racing.”

Carlos Sainz admitted that he still doesn’t know where the boundaries lie, and echoed Russell in saying that the Friday debate hadn’t brought that much-needed clarity.

“I agree with George,” said the Spaniard. “It looks like over the winter there's going to be some more deep conversations about how we go racing as a sport, if the car on the inside should leave space to a car on the outside in any case or not.

“And we need to rethink a bit the whole approach, because the way it's been working this year, I think, it's pretty clear that the drivers we don't fully understand what is going to happen depending on what you do.

“And yeah, let's see the last three races. Hopefully there are not too many more episodes like this, like what happened in Brazil or in Austria, to the contrary, and see if we can improve as a sport for next year.”

When they’re making those split-second, instinctive decisions in the heat of battle drivers want to understand where the limits are, and how far they can push them.

“We need to know,” said Sainz. “I need to know if I can push the car on the outside wide. And what am I going to get if I do so? Do you have a warning coming if you do it once?

“Do you have actually a possibility to do it a couple of times and then you get a warning and then you can do it a fourth time? Are you going to get a penalty straight away like in Austria?

“This is what we don't know was a sport or as drivers, and we were seeking for answers. We more or less got some from Michael [Masi], but we know that sometimes Michael and stewards are not always exactly the same. So we will see going into next year, I think next year we should do a good step.

“I think as a sport we need to try and make it as much black and white as possible.”

There’s been a lot of talk about how asphalt run-off areas invite more aggressive behaviour, and also how gravel traps on the outside hurt the driver pushed wide a lot more – thus potentially generating a tougher response against the driver doing the leaning.

“My humble opinion as a racing driver it should be no difference,” said Sainz. "Because outside of the track we're always going to have different run-off areas. And we should try and, for the fans to understand the sport, for drivers to understand the racing, shouldn't affect what's on the other side of the kerb.”

Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C41, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, and Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing C41, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, and Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Fernando Alonso was involved in an incident with Kimi Raikkonen in Austin that went unpunished at the time. Subsequently Masi told the drivers in the Mexico briefing that the Alpine driver leaned too much on the Finn, and that Raikkonen was also in the wrong for completing a pass off track. Alonso been left frustrated by a few decisions this year.

“I think we are all agreed that we need more consistency, we need black and white rules,” he said. “Because when they are grey, sometimes you feel you are benefitting from them, and sometimes you’ve been the bad [guy] or the idiot on-track again.

“It’s better when it’s black and white. Let’s see if we can improve altogether. I think it’s not only an FIA issue, it’s drivers, teams, FIA, we need to work together to have a better rule.”

Asked if the Friday discussion had made things clearer, he said: “It depends. Obviously when they explain it, they say why they do this, with the reasons. OK, understandable, but we are all saying why other times you thought the opposite? But they are always right. That is the problem!”

Like others Lando Norris was in two minds as to where the limits now stand.

“I think some things are a bit more clear, some things not,” he said. “I think what is clear is that not every incident will be the same, even if it looks identical, so it's hard to know what the different circumstances are.

“I think most things were cleared up, but it's hard to kind of ever give a definite point and say this is what you can and can't do.”

Drivers have appreciated the “let them race” principles that have been in use in recent years, and which Masi confirmed were applied by the stewards to the Turn 4 incident in Brazil. However, they don't seem to be applied consistently.

“It's right a penalty should be given, but a few years ago we did want a bit more of a freedom to race,” said Daniel Ricciardo. “And if someone has you over, then alright you have the right to have him over in the future.

“I’m all up for that, so I don't want to get too dulled in on what penalty is what, but I think the blatant ones will always get a penalty and maybe the ones that are a little more 50/50, then yeah, you might see some get away with it. I'm okay with it for the most part.”

The same rules should apply equally to drivers up and down the field. However, inevitably, the focus in Qatar and in the two races that follow will be on the Verstappen/Hamilton battle, and the potential flashpoint of yet another on track clash between the pair.

Masi and the FIA stewards will be under intense scrutiny as they try to ensure fair play, and it won’t be an easy task.

“I think it’s very dangerous,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff noted on Saturday evening. “I think what happened yesterday [the decision to reject the review] and also in Brazil is kicking the ball in the high grass, and hoping the ball disappears.

“If we were to have a controversial situation in any of the three races that are to come, can you imagine the polarisation and the controversy this will create, just simply because it wasn’t clearly formulated?

“I would have wished that even if the outcome was negative for us in Brazil, in terms of the immediate judgement, I would have taken that if the consequent analysis would have been it’s not on. Because I think that would have been easier for everybody for the next races.”

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