Crime and punishment

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Increasingly, it seems that there is need for a formally structured disciplinary code in motor racing, where the participants, whether professional or amateur, are at risk enough without some of the extraordinary episodes that have occurred during the past few months. Ironically, and unforgivably, some of the worst examples of apparent recklessness have been seen at the very pinnacle of the sport. Take Gerhard Berger, for instance.

He laughed off his accident with Mark Blundell towards the end of the Belgian GP. Couldn’t understand what Mark was so unhappy about. They had, after all, only been disputing 10th place . . .

Blundell’s Ligier was written off in the high-speed impact, although to be fair Gerhard blames him as much as Mark blames Gerhard.

At Monza, Berger’s shunt at the end of the second official qualifying session was, on the face of it, the consequence of a simple misunderstanding with team-mate lean Alesi.

You just wondered what the Austrian was doing travelling at full racing speed after the chequered flag had been waved to signify the end of the session. Alesi had spotted it, and had dropped his speed accordingly, but Gerhard hadn’t. Nor had he seen his Lap board.

The incident earned him a ‘serious reprimand’ from the stewards of the meeting, but that is a weak solution. In Hungary he had blatantly shoved Martin Brundle out of the way, justifying the action by saying Ferrari doesn’t pay him to stay behind other drivers and besides, what else do you do at the Hungaroring? A race earlier, Blundell alleged that Berger had forced him on to the grass at over 200 mph. Earlier in the year, an ill-executed overtaking attempt by the Austrian at Monaco almost cost Damon Hill second place.

In the past we have seen the risks inherent in Draconian disciplinary action, but equally slapped wrists aren’t the answer either. Nor, given leading F1 drivers’ inflated salaries, are nominal fines. Deprive them of $10,000 and most simply aren’t going to notice. And the abiding problem is that younger drivers take their cue from their F1 role models, so bad habits breed quickly. The time has come to introduce a penalty system similar to those used in football (three points if you’re booked, an automatic suspension if you’re sent off) or, indeed, in everyday motoring, with sliding scale points penalties according to the severity of the infringement. Once an offending driver tallies 10 points, he’s banned for three races minimum. There are plenty of good young drivers waiting on the sidelines to fill any vacancies that arise as a result; some of them might actually get to keep their drives on merit, who knows?

While recent evidence (not purely from F1, it’s just that the aforementioned incidents were more public) suggests that such a system should be adopted sooner, rather than later, it will require careful and judicious administration.

If certain drivers have been less than angelic of late, there have also been cases of myopic government by stewards. Witness the debacle with Prost and Brundle at Hockenheim. Then at Spa Formula 3000, driver Paolo delle Plane was fined $1000 for overtaking under yellow flags during the race warm-up. Fair enough, he had committed a clear transgression of recognised motor racing regulations. However, the man he’d overtaken was his team-mate, who, being on his way slowly back to the pits, had waved him through. An offence had been committed, but there were mitigating circumstances. More importantly, this minor misdemeanour endangered no one. Team and driver accepted, however, that rules are rules.

Later that day, series front-runner Pedro Lamy drove one of his rivals off the circuit for the second time in as many races and, as happened to Berger in Monza, was hauled off to the stewards for nothing worse than a half-hearted lecture.

That they deemed it worth their while talking to him at all was proof enough that they judged him culpable; a shame that they didn’t have the bottle to suspend him for a race.

That’s the sort of deterrent which might, get through to a driver in the formative stages of his career, particularly when he’s in pursuit of a major championship title. But equally, it clearly demotivated the Portuguese driver at Monza, on his F1 debut, to. be be told in no uncertain terms that FISA was watching him like a hawk. We’re not suggesting that racing drivers should be put on the rack every time there’s an accident. They happen and, in motor racing, they are sometimes unavoidable. But there’s obviously some sort of line that needs to be drawn. Our concern is that there have been too many incidents of late which have been avoidable, and it’s time that the authorities took appropriate action to prevent an epidemic. For a time last year Peter Warr was appointed as permanent FISA chief steward. That position didn’t last, and his promises to inflict significant penalties on transgressors didn’t materialise either, but we like the idea of having one recognised figure of authority. The underlying problem is selecting the right one. S A