Following the historic occasion last Sunday when there were three different third-place finishers – Max Verstappen across the line, Sebastian Vettel on the podium and Daniel Ricciardo in the official results – there have been further calls for more consistency on driver penalties from race officials.
But consistency is not the core problem here. It’s a combination of track limits and the attempts to enshrine every conceivable racing situation into regulation.
As soon as there is regulation wording about something, it creates loopholes. Obviously, wording is needed in the technical regulations, but within the sporting regulations the answer is less wording combined with a greater readiness to use the black flag in response to outright dangerous driving (such as that of Verstappen against Kimi Raikkonen at Spa).
At Mexico, Hamilton missed the first two turns after locking up into Turn One second after the race started but received no penalty. In the late stages of the race Verstappen did the same as he defended from Vettel but had five-seconds added onto his race time. In the first instance the race director (Charlie Whiting) saw no need to act as the safety car that came out a few seconds later wiped away the time advantage of Hamilton’s short-cut.
By contrast, Whiting did report Verstappen’s short-cut. Whiting had simply used his judgement: first-lap incidents, with the traffic packed tight on cold brakes and tyres, are treated more sympathetically than those later in the race. Furthermore, he judged that Hamilton had not been on the verge of being passed when he locked up, whereas Verstappen might have been. We can agree or disagree with his judgement – but it shouldn’t matter. It’s his call to make.
But in passing the Verstappen decision to the stewards (rather than simply demanding that the place be surrendered) it created that awkward delay during which Verstappen continued to thwart Vettel which in turn led to the controversy that followed (Verstappen brake-testing Vettel, Vettel moving across on Ricciardo in the braking zone).
These sorts of situations could be avoided if the track limits were defined by gravel rather than painted lines on the tarmac. At any corner where advantage may currently be gained – or a disadvantage avoided – by going beyond the track limits, why not install gravel beds? At those places where corner exits are defined by relatively flat kerbs that can be ridden with impunity, why not replace them with grass, then gravel? Then any racing controversies sort themselves out without the artificial input of an official deciding if a move or a piece of driving was legitimate or not.
The folly of trying to capture every conceivable situation in wording was seen with the recently-introduced ‘Verstappen rule’ that prohibits the driver ahead from moving across in the braking zone. What Vettel did to Ricciardo was hardly outrageous – especially given the context of him just having been backed up into Ricciardo by Ricciardo’s team-mate, allegedly by means of a ‘brake test’ at the previous corner. But because the Verstappen rule was there, it was invoked. It could hardly not have been, given that it had only been introduced a week earlier.
Better by far to have the race director judge whether it was dangerous or not and simply make that call, popular or not. Even if he felt it might be dangerous but needed more time to review evidence, it would be better if there was no regulation pressuring him, almost demanding that he act. Verstappen’s move on Raikkonen at Spa was lethally dangerous and should have received a black flag. Vettel’s on Ricciardo was hard and borderline unfair but not particularly dangerous, and the subsequent wheel-rubbing between both drivers was wonderfully skilled as they each fought to avoid fully colliding. Moving in the braking zone should be understood by the drivers to be a possible invitation to a black flag, but in the knowledge that it won’t automatically be invoked.
The combination of a track defined by painted lines and racing etiquette defined by words rather than in-the-moment judgement will inevitably lead to where we are now.