Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

Penalty areas, Max's tactics, Vettel vs. the world

Four weeks after the Malaysian Grand Prix, it was sobering to watch the MotoGP race at Sepang and note that the place was full to the gunwales, with a crowd of 100,000: this at a time when the circuit authorities are debating, in the face of continuing disinterest from the locals, whether or not to continue with Formula 1.

It’s not too difficult to understand. For one thing, while the Mercedes W07s of Rosberg and Hamilton have taken – as I write – all but two of the Grands Prix in 2016, Honda, Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki have all triumphed in the top class of MotoGP this year, and at Sepang Andrea Dovizioso became the ninth different winner.

For another – and much more fundamental, this – for all motorcycle racing has necessarily undergone major technical change down the years, it remains essentially unchanged as a spectacle, while Formula 1 has, for many reasons, progressively slipped into a malaise from which it is proving difficult to escape.

On the same day that ‘Dovi’ was fighting it out with Rossi, Lorenzo et al in Malaysia, Rosberg and Hamilton were in Mexico for the latest round of their two-handed world championship, and it ended precisely as the US Grand Prix had done seven days earlier: Lewis first, Nico second.

While Formula 1 continues its struggle for attention in the USA, such has never been the case north and south of its borders. In Canada there has long been huge enthusiasm for it, and in Central and South America, be it Mexico, Brazil or Argentina, they have always been passionate: if football comes first, F1 is a strong second.

Thus, although the revised circuit in Mexico City is a travesty of the original, still there was the anticipated sell-out crowd – and that, sad to say, was the only thing it had in common with MotoGP in Malaysia. As at Austin, the race was a dull affair, enlivened – for no reason that was good – only by the last few laps.

In its fundamentals, motorcycle racing, as I say, has remained unchanged down the ages, not least in the sense that if a rider makes a mistake there is an immediate consequence. The padded sci-fi leathers of today may be light years from those that make you wince when you see past riders at Goodwood and, yes, there are run-off areas where once there were none, but still it’s a fact that an accident on a bike means parting company with it, and – quite often – getting hurt.

In his motorcycling days, Tazio Nuvolari once raced at Monza with two broken legs, and while that may be considered an extreme example invariably there are the walking wounded in a MotoGP paddock, damaged but still determined to race. 

In F1, meantime, it is these days considered heroic to race with a bad cold – or ‘a fever’, as it always called. If there necessarily remain aspects of motorcycle racing that can never be made safe, for those competing on four wheels the world has changed immeasurably, so that anything, however remote, that may be considered a risk is ruthlessly eliminated. 

On grounds of both spectacle and expense, suggest, for example, the banning of tyre-warmers, and immediately the shutters go up: too dangerous! In IndyCar racing, they have never had such things, and seem somehow able to cope, but there you are.

As Niki Lauda points out, the gladiatorial aspect of F1, traditionally essential to its fans, is long gone, and this is something the powers-that-be, obsessing about halos while at the same time wringing their hands at the steep decline in the sport’s popularity, might care to consider. 

“Everything has its price” is one of Mario Andretti’s favourite catchphrases, and – while it may be an unpalatable truth – today’s fixation with safety is no exception. Let’s issue the usual disclaimer, and say that of course no one wishes to see drivers get hurt or worse, but inescapably the more we sanitise F1 the more we lessen its appeal. In Montréal I talked to Lauda about this, and here – in précis – is what he said.

“First, the cars are too easy to drive now. In MotoGP they are fighting all the time not to crash, and this we have to get back in F1, because then you will see the difference between drivers again – that’s absolutely vital. 

“Of course there is still a danger involved, but fundamentally it’s very safe now, so the question is how far can we go on safety without losing the interest of the fans? I believe that the DNA of F1 should be maintained, and we’re destroying it if we keep on inventing what are – for me – too many safety issues, like this halo thing: I can understand why the drivers want it, but the fans hate it – and in the end it’s not only the drivers who are involved with this sport. If you go too far with these things, it’s no wonder that fewer people are watching.

“My worry is that we go over the top, and the attraction of F1 slowly disappears: as well as the racing itself, there is also the aspect of what these guys are really doing, in the end risking their lives – and without that people are going to lose interest. If someone says he wants to make $40m a year, with an easy car to drive, and no risk… I’m sorry, this is not reality.”

Last month I quoted Stefan Johansson, who believes F1 has utterly lost its way. “High-speed aero grip is so enormous that there’s hardly a corner left where you have to ‘hang it out’, and as a result bravery is no longer part of a driver’s arsenal. Eau Rouge, for example, used to be a huge challenge to take flat, but today it’s barely a corner any more – even the least capable are flat through there by their third lap of practice.”

No one can reasonably take issue with that. Rose-tinted glasses play no part in my memories of Spa in the days when Eau Rouge was flat only for a Senna or a Prost – and then only once, maybe twice, in qualifying. You went down there to watch, shivering with delight when they went through, exhaust note unwavering.

“As well as that,” Stefan said, “tracks are now so sanitised that there is absolutely no punishment for going over the limit, and that cannot be right.” Lauda is in full agreement: “Generally speaking, F1 has never been as safe as it is today. Why? Because of improvements in the cars – and because over the years all these tracks have been designed by Mr Tilke, so there is no more guardrail you can hit because the run-offs are so wide: you go off, drive over asphalt, and come back on the track without even slowing down – maybe you even pass people like that!”

This has lately become one of many vexed questions in contemporary F1, which increasingly uses circuits designed to put fans to sleep, most notably Abu Dhabi, whose acres of asphalt are marked out by white lines constituting a general guide to the path drivers should follow.

Such places remind me of a spoof Western, Support Your Local Sheriff, which starred the much-missed James Garner. In his town a new jail is under construction, but the cell doors have not yet been installed, so he paints white lines on the floor, and issues instructions to the prisoners: “Now, you don’t cross those lines, OK…”

Not surprisingly they failed to take heed, and F1 drivers are similarly inclined. As Martin Brundle has observed, “The only reason they run wide out of a corner is because it’s faster...” Give them an inch, and they’ll take a couple of yards.

How, then, does one get them to observe track limits? In one of my last exchanges with the lamented Chris Amon, he came forth with a typically laconic response: “Well, trees and walls used to be pretty effective…”

That will resonate with Bernie Ecclestone, who recently proposed the installation of walls, but in today’s world such a measure is unlikely to be adopted, so – for want of anything else – surely the answer is to tear up these great expanses of tarmac run-off and revert to good old
gravel traps. Many purists like Stirling Moss deprecated their introduction years ago, and it’s undeniable that they lacked aesthetic appeal, but at least when a driver made a mistake and ventured into one he paid a price for it, at worst being unable to get out, at best losing time and positions.

“I’m a fan of gravel traps,” says Daniel Ricciardo, “because they punish you. If you don’t get stuck, you have stones on the tyres and in the sidepods, so there’s no way you get an advantage…” 

As it is, what we have at the moment is a bunch of stewards examining every – or nearly every – transgression of track limits, then coming to a decision as to whether or not the relevant driver should be penalised. Sometimes a conclusion is swiftly reached, whereupon he is given a time penalty or drive-through during the race, but on other occasions the matter is debated only after its conclusion, whereupon penalties, if considered justified, are applied retrospectively, often leading to changes in the finishing order.

This is by definition unsatisfactory, as also is the fact – unfathomable to most – that some weekends, at some circuits, exceeding track limits is scrutinised closely, and punished, where at others (like Austin) they are not. This is a curious anomaly, one demanding explanation, but only one of several inconsistencies in the way rules are applied.

Perhaps, as Johansson suggests, this is exacerbated by the practice of having a different ‘driver steward’ at every race, some inevitably stricter than others, particularly when it comes to apportioning blame in a two-car coming-together: some, it seems, have long forgotten that it remains entirely possible to have an old-fashioned ‘racing accident’, with no one especially at fault.

Lest we forget, though, this is the era of ‘the blame culture’. In Austin it was ludicrous, for example, that the brief wheel-banging between Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa should have been subject to ‘investigation’, but fortunately the no-nonsense Mark Blundell was on duty and it was concluded that ‘no further action’ was required.

About the only recognisable remnant of the once daunting Autodromo Hermaños Rodríguez is the endless straight down to the first corner, and it was at the end of it, on the opening lap, that Lewis Hamilton, narrowly in the lead, applied his unequally heated front brakes, locked up and ploughed off into the car park-sized asphalt and grass run-off area. This route being somewhat shorter than the prescribed circuit, he rejoined with an enhanced lead, although he wisely backed off a touch to assuage the stewards.

I’ll confess that as I watched, I thought, “That’s a penalty – got to be…” I was not alone. Ricciardo, close at hand, was incensed that Hamilton was not penalised: “Put a f****** wall there, and they won’t do it. Kindergarten stuff...” Proper cross he was, in a manner we rarely see, and Nico Hülkenberg was similarly unimpressed.

Neither, however, was as livid about it as Max Verstappen, who later in the race made the same mistake as Hamilton, followed the same path over the run-off – and got a five-second penalty, which cost him a place on the podium. 

“Hamilton cut the first corner, and was not penalised,” said Verstappen, “but when I did exactly the same in my fight with Vettel I lost third place. This is a ridiculous situation, and it indicates that there are double standards. Rules are obviously needed, and I will always respect them – but it’s only fair if they’re the same for everyone.”

Difficult to argue. Afterwards there were murmurings about the drivers being cut more slack on the opening lap, when the cars are closely bunched, but Hamilton was in the lead when he made his mistake – and that thinking didn’t apply to Carlos Sainz, who put an admittedly dangerous move on Fernando Alonso and got penalised for it.

Had there been a gravel trap, there would have been no need for the stewards to get involved, to penalise Hamilton or Verstappen or anyone else, for they would already have taken pain from time and positions lost, which would have been even-handed and so much neater.

“It’s necessary,” commented Alain Prost, “to ask if there is a rule or not. At the start Lewis made a mistake, and got the advantage, but then there was a safety car so he lost that advantage. We have to ask the FIA and Charlie Whiting what would have happened with Hamilton if there had been no safety car? Otherwise, everyone who starts from pole position, but is afraid of losing their lead, should just cut the first corner…”

At Interlagos Whiting said that Hamilton had not been penalised in Mexico because he had not gained from his short cut across the corner, but that rather misses the point – which is that neither did he suffer, in terms of losing time and positions, from making a big mistake, and he should have done. That is how – until recently – it has always been in motor racing, and how it should remain. A gravel trap – rather than an expanse of asphalt and grass – would have taken care of it. 

Word is that Pirelli is opposed to gravel traps, complaining already that there are too many stones damaging their tyres, and that consequently the FIA has rejected calls to replace asphalt and grass run-off areas with gravel traps – let alone the walls suggested by
Mr E. Very FIA; very 2016. 

Lewis may have moaned endlessly about the misfortune he has suffered this season, but in Mexico he dodged a bullet – and his manner afterwards rather suggested he knew it.

* * *

There are those who suggest that, because current cars are both relatively easy to drive and not physically taxing on the driver, the performances of Max Verstappen have been somewhat overblown. It shouldn’t be possible, they contend, for a teenager to come into F1 and right away be on the pace.

Speak to someone like Gerhard Berger, who 30 years ago made the same transition from F3 to the sport’s top level, and you can see the point these people are trying to make. With the cars as they were in 1984 – turbocharged, with as much as 1400 horsepower on qualifying boost and not that much in the way of downforce – to come into Formula 1 from anywhere was a quantum leap.

It may not be that way these days, but still it seems to me that Verstappen’s fundamental talent is of the ‘other world’ kind that comes along only once or twice in a generation, as with Senna or Prost, Schumacher, Alonso or Hamilton. 

For all that, Max, now all of 19, has acquired an enfant terrible reputation, such as we have often seen before. I think back to Suzuka in 1991, Schumacher’s fifth F1 outing, in which he had an enormous accident in practice, causing Professor Sid Watkins to have a quiet word with him. “I said to him, ‘Michael, you’re a good-looking lad – and if you carry on like this, you’re going to be a good-looking corpse…’”

Did it have any effect? “Not really,” Sid smiled. “He got straight into the spare Benetton – and went faster! They’re not like you and me, these people…”

Verstappen is currently at that point now, savouring his new world, revelling in what he can do with a F1 car, fearful of nothing and nobody. His only real shortcoming, it seems to me, is sailing too close to the wind when defending his position. If you agree – as do I – with Johansson’s fundamental contention that ‘blocking sucks’, you won’t care for many of his antics, but it has long been standard practice in our sport.

Back at Estoril in 1988, Senna put a potentially lethal move on Prost, swerving him towards the pit wall to intimidate him into backing off. It didn’t work, but I well remember the outrage in the press room – this was something with which we were then unfamiliar, and we couldn’t quite take in what Ayrton had done. Neither, for that matter, could Alain, who went on to win the race. “I knew how much Ayrton wanted the championship,” he said to me afterwards, “but it wasn’t until today that I realised he was ready to die for it…”

Later others, notably Schumacher, adopted the practice and these days we take blocking as read. Verstappen, though, employs a particular way of doing it, sitting in the middle of the track, waiting for his rival to make his move – and then changing direction to stop him in the braking area.

“I think it’s a new way of racing,” Max grinned, but in fact it’s anything but. When, on the approach to Spa’s Les Combes, he all but put Kimi Räikkönen on the grass at 200mph, it was just as Schumacher had done to Mika Häkkinen in the same spot 16 years earlier. Had the stewards chosen to black-flag Max – or Michael – they would had no argument from me.

Not a few drivers have been upset by Verstappen’s driving manners, and while youthful hotshoes – particularly those of unusual speed – have always been subject to criticism by their elders, in this case there is some justification. 

Introducing the ‘one move’ rule years ago was always going to lead to controversy – did he move once, or more? – but after Austin a ‘clarifying’ amendment was announced, stipulating that changing line under braking was out. Among those most gratified was Vettel, a frequent critic of Verstappen, and thus it was with some surprise that in Mexico we saw Sebastian pull precisely that stunt on Ricciardo, who was angered as much by the hypocrisy as by the move itself: “Seb’s obviously a bit frustrated this year, but he did to me exactly what he has complained about with Max…”

It was a clumsy move, as if Vettel had been caught on the hop, and perhaps that was due in part to the fact that immediately before it happened he was on the radio, screaming abuse about all and sundry, one of his complaints being that Verstappen was ‘backing him up’ to team-mate Ricciardo.

So? Even if such were the case, there is nothing illegal or underhand – or new – about the practice: Max and Daniel drive for the same team. More than anything, Sebastian’s behaviour was further evidence of the persecution complex he has developed over the years, which this season has reached new heights. Even in practice sessions he is never off the radio, ranting that someone is holding him up, contemptuously giving the impression that other cars on the track are an inconvenience. As Fernando Alonso commented, “Vettel needs to understand that the track belongs to everybody…”

After the race in Mexico Sebastian at one point made something of a Freudian slip, saying ‘Mark’ instead of ‘Max’, and it’s a fact that his relationship with Webber, his Red Bull team-mate for several years, was never an easy one. Three years ago, after Mark’s retirement from Formula 1, we talked through his memories of Vettel.

“Seb’s got his weaknesses, the main one being really fast corners, but I’m the first to admit he’s bloody good at a lot of other things, particularly slow corners. But, mate, don’t be fooled by the cheeky schoolboy act! If something doesn’t go right for Seb… I have never seen toys come flying out of the pram like that! Over the years some of the radio conversations were classic…”

Interestingly, Webber suspected that Vettel might not be in F1 for the long haul. “I think Seb will do everything early in life: he got his wins and championships early, he’s going to have kids early, and I think he’ll retire early – probably a blast in the red car, and then sayonara…”

Mark was right about the red car – after a dispiriting final season with Red Bull, in which he was shaded by new team-mate Ricciardo, Vettel indeed moved to Ferrari for 2015 – and indeed had a blast, winning three races.

In Maranello they therefore had very high hopes for this season, but those hopes have not been realised: the car has been thereabouts most of the time, but never there, and the looming shadow of Sergio Marchionne has exerted a pressure that may have been less than helpful: motor racing is not Marchionne’s natural habitat, and apparently he has yet to understand that making a F1 car faster is not the same as improving sales figures.

Not surprisingly Maurizio Arrivabene has appeared ill at ease throughout the year, and if Kimi Räikkönen is immune to pressure of any kind, his team-mate is not. Back in 2014, the first year of the hybrid era, Vettel was anything but a happy figure at Red Bull, repeatedly saying he hated the new rules, missing the ‘blown floor’ with which he had excelled, and – as we said earlier – not enjoying being blown off by Ricciardo.

Sebastian’s move to Ferrari was masterminded – if such a word may be used of him – by Marco Mattiacci, who had proved adept at flogging Ferraris to rich Americans, but knew nothing about racing. When Marchionne inexplicably brought him in to run the team, it took Alonso very little time to see this had not been a good idea. Mattiacci’s ignorance of F1 matters was matched only by his arrogance, and as 2014 rolled on it became ever more apparent that if he stayed Alonso would not.

Thus Fernando renewed the McLaren talks begun the previous year with Martin Whitmarsh, and although Whitmarsh was now gone from the team, and Ron Dennis – long considered an impediment to Alonso’s rejoining McLaren – was back, a deal was concluded for 2015 and beyond.

The combination of Alonso, McLaren and Honda may yet bear fruit, but many a time – particularly last year – I have thought how in the long night watches Fernando must be regretting his decision to leave Ferrari. Whenever I have mentioned it, though, he won’t have it: despite more than once coming so close to a world championship with Ferrari, he points out it never happened and, despite the horrors of the last two years with McLaren-Honda, he continues to insist that down the road this is his best hope of taking on Mercedes.

At Ferrari, meantime, many insiders still privately lament Alonso’s departure two years ago, and why would they not? As I write, in qualifying this year Vettel and Räikkönen sit at 10-10; in 2014, their single season as team-mates, Fernando beat Kimi 16-3.

Perhaps more to the point, as Whitmarsh has pointed out, there is no one like Alonso for scoring points a car does not deserve. This year, after 20 races, Vettel has 197 points, Räikkönen 178; at the conclusion of 2014 – when Ferrari had a very poor car – Alonso had 161 points, Räikkönen 55.

* * *

If Ferrari has been a disappointment this season, so, it must be said, has Vettel, who has rarely driven as we know he can. In the paddock, he frequently comes across as churlish – and this apparently carries over into his behaviour in the car. Not at all, one thinks, a man at peace with himself. As Hülkenberg has said, “In Vettel’s eyes, the whole world is always against him…”

Constantly Sebastian is on the radio, broadcasting his discontent with other drivers, as with “He’s an idiot!” when Alonso momentarily delayed him in a free practice session in Mexico. These two scarcely constitute a mutual admiration society – they loathe each other – and probably it didn’t help Seb’s frame of mind when Fernando laughed it off, commenting that he understood the pressure he was under… 

Perhaps, like so many before him, Vettel took a look at the Ferrari operation, and concluded there was no reason they should ever lose a race. I remember Gilles Villeneuve saying that, and Jody Scheckter and Alain Prost, too. Sebastian, who hero-worshipped Schumacher as a kid, always had a yearning eventually to drive for Ferrari, and presumably hoped that the liaison would lead to the sort of success Michael had there.

Those, though, were different times. It needs to be remembered that, if Schumacher won five world championships on the trot with Ferrari, he had been there four years before the first one came – and the glory seasons, when they started, had Ross Brawn as technical director, and Jean Todt calmly, ruthlessly, masterminding the operation as a whole.

For all some Ferrari people might seek to play it down, undoubtedly the midseason departure of James Allison has hampered the team’s progress, but much else is wrong, too, not least occasionally unfathomable strategy calls. The F16-H may not be a great car, but inescapably one has the feeling it should have achieved much more.

In Mexico Vettel’s temper completely got the better of him, so that throughout the race he was raving away on the radio when one thought he might better have devoted his time to concentrating on his driving.

Particularly ill-advised was his response, upon being told Verstappen was to receive no immediate penalty for cutting across the run-off at Turn One: “Well, here’s a message for Charlie [Whiting]: f*** off!” This, for good measure, he then repeated, prompting Arrivabene to say, “Calm down, Seb! Just get your head down – we’ll talk about it later…”

On reflection, Vettel concluded it hadn’t been the wisest thing to say, and as soon as the race was over he rushed to apologise to Whiting. “Given that Sebastian said sorry, I’m not too hung up on it personally,” said Charlie, “but it remains to be seen how my boss may wish to pursue the matter...”

Todt was furious, and most in the paddock – not least Seb’s former cheerleaders Christian Horner and Helmut Marko – said they thought it inevitable that some punishment would follow. In the end, though, a statement from the FIA announced that he had been let off the hook.

“Immediately after the race Sebastian Vettel spontaneously sought out Charlie Whiting to express his regrets for his behaviour in person. He then, again on his own initiative, sent letters to the FIA President Jean Todt and to Charlie Whiting, in which he apologised profusely for his actions. He also indicated that he would likewise be contacting Max Verstappen, and vowed that such an incident would never occur again.

“In light of this sincere apology and strong commitment, the FIA president has decided, on an exceptional basis, not to take disciplinary action against Mr Vettel by bringing this matter before the FIA International Tribunal.

‘The FIA takes this opportunity to advise that, in the event of any future incident similar to the one that occurred in Mexico, disciplinary action will be taken by bringing such incident before the FIA International Tribunal to be judged.”

‘On an exceptional basis’ it says in the second paragraph: what, pray, would that be – and why would it not apply to subsequent behaviour of this kind? When people ask me – as they quite often do – why some of today’s drivers behave like spoiled brats, I give them the only answer that comes to mind: “Because they can…”

As we saw with Hamilton’s childish antics in Japan, bad behaviour is invariably excused by a lot of PR twaddle about ‘the pressure these guys are under…’ I have no memory of Jim Clark carrying on like that.

* * *

After endless uncertainty about weather forecasts and track conditions, after two red flags following accidents, after angry jeering from the crowd, the Brazilian Grand Prix was finally restarted, and swiftly – thankfully, for the reputation of the sport – settled into a classic race, such as Interlagos has so often produced.

It will be remembered, rightly, for a stupefying drive by Verstappen, who in a dozen laps fought back, after a late tyre stop, from 14th to third. While drivers complained that Pirelli’s poor ‘full wets’ lacked adhesion and exacerbated the aquaplaning problem, Max put his karting experience to work, constantly experimenting with alternative lines in his search for grip: his overtaking moves – incisive, but never questionable – made most of his rivals look pedestrian.

Only once did he drop it, on the steep climb at the end of the lap, and if there was some luck involved in missing the guardrail, there was also sublime skill. Instantly he was back on it, and only four seconds lost. 

In the frenzy around Verstappen after the race, it was easy to forget the other outstanding drive this day, perhaps because we had already seen many like it. Hamilton came to Brazil in need of another victory to keep his title hopes alive, duly took pole and then walked the race. Lewis didn’t drive like Max, but he didn’t need to: he simply drove away.

On weekends like this – and Austin and Mexico – you wonder why he also has weekends like Baku and Suzuka. At Interlagos, where he had somehow never triumphed before, on a treacherous track he made winning look easy, almost matter of fact. The drive put one in mind of Senna at Estoril in 1985, of Schumacher at Barcelona in ’96, and not much more need be said. The last thing you need for good motor racing is grip, but I think we knew that, didn’t we?