As we wait for the stewards to decide if there is any basis for Mercedes’ request for a right to review the Brazil Hamilton/Verstappen incident, so F1 finds itself trapped in its own web of over-regulation.
Not that there is much doubt that Verstappen deliberately used the Turn 4 run-off area to prevent his rival’s overtaking attempt from working. He took the battle beyond the boundaries of the track when it looked as if otherwise he maybe would have lost position by remaining on-track. But it is the principle of coded penalties for such violations which has caused this particular incident to become stuck in the system. Because the relevant in-car footage wasn’t available to the stewards in live time, the incident wasn’t officially referred to the stewards. Now that the footage is available, Mercedes has asked that the decision for the stewards not to officially look at it be reversed. But of course the race has already happened and the way Verstappen and Red Bull ran the remainder of it post-incident was based on the stated decision that no further investigation was necessary.
Defining what is and isn’t acceptable racing by way of words is an impossible task and should never have been attempted. It was a response to some of the more outrageous moves introduced to the sport in a very high profile way by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, unsportsmanlike at best and downright dangerous at worst. As soon as you define in words what isn’t allowed you automatically create a space in the margins for anything which isn’t covered by that wording to be ok.
He will be qualified to distinguish between ‘just racing’, ‘a little naughty’ and ‘outright blatant foul’
Worse even than that, once a penalty has been applied for whatever regulation has been deemed to have been broken, you have established a precedent. The justification for any such penalty can then be applied to any other case – but no two incidents are the same. There are an infinity of ways they are each subtly different which run between the gaps of words. They are often intuitive, split-second decisions with totally different motivations. One incident which may arise through simple misjudgement in compromised circumstances might meet the exact same wording for penalty as another move just plain dirty and cynical.
The stewards – the driver stewards in particular – know this and try to rule fairly and rationally based upon that infinity of circumstance. But when they do so, they are then accused of inconsistency. The inconsistency is not with the stewards, it is with the inconsistent way incidents, by nature, present themselves and the inconvenient way they have of inconsistently meeting with the intent of the words.
So, what is the solution? The introduction of the black and white warning flag (which Verstappen did receive in Brazil, for his weaving on the straight prior to Turn 4) a couple of years ago was a move in the right direction, the equivalent of a yellow card on the football pitch. But it doesn’t go far enough. We need rotating roster of ex-drivers to be a tough but fair chief driving steward who will rule, just as a referee rules on the football pitch.