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The Controversial Mexican Grand Prix

#SJblog (source page)

The Controversial Mexican Grand Prix

Stefan Johansson

- #SJblog 79 -

JT – Last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix was an unqualified success in terms of the enthusiasm and large turnout of Mexican fans. But the race itself was a mess. The officiating of the grand prix proved to be confusing for both fans and drivers.

Lewis Hamilton won from the pole despite out-braking himself at Turn 1 and reentering the track at full speed in Turn 3. No penalty was assessed though Hamilton clearly gained advantage. Nico Rosberg finished a somewhat distant second after surviving a hit from Max Verstappen at Turn 2 which forced him off track.

The third spot on the podium wasn’t decided until hours after the podium celebrations. Daniel Ricciardo was awarded third place due to penalties handed out to his Red Bull Racing teammate and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

Battling for third with Vettel just behind in the last laps of the race, Max Verstappen blew Turn 1 in similar fashion to Hamilton, leaving the track and reentering at Turn 3. No penalty was issued as the laps wound down and Verstappen refused to cede the position to Vettel. This allowed Ricciardo to quickly catch Vettel and attempt to pass him for fourth position. Ricciardo saw an opening at Turn 4 and dived to the inside. Vettel squeezed him to the left under braking, making light contact with Ricciardo and held his position.

Post-race, the stewards handed Verstappen a five second penalty for blowing Turn 1 and pulled him from the podium, elevating Vettel to third place initially. But hours later Vettel was also penalized by the stewards, forfeiting 10-seconds “for driving in a potentially dangerous manner, making an abnormal change of direction, and causing another driver to take evasive action.”
Hence, Verstappen finished 4th while Vettel ended up 5th.

The lack of prompt action by the stewards for each infraction should be an embarrassment for Formula One principals. They failed to act when Hamilton made a mistake then waited to assess penalties on Verstappen and Vettel until after the race. There’s much to be said about the race and the inconsistent/un-timely rulings but I believe your thoughts begin with the track - Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – itself.

SJ – You are correct. I’ve been trying to arrive at an answer as to why the officiating of F1 has become such a mess all of a sudden. It’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen drivers duke it out with three or four laps to go. That’s the kind of close competition people want to see but this was compromised.

The new track designs with massive asphalt run off areas have slowly and systematically been introduced to every new track and modified on most of the old and existing tracks, mostly for safety reasons. Since this started to happen there has been no clearly defined rule about exceeding track limits or taking advantage of the runoff areas. Because of this the drivers have been able to do pretty much whatever they have wanted without being immediately punished for their mistakes or abuse of the track limits, by simply continuing to race even though they’ve gone off-track.

In other words, the only punishment you can get now is what comes from the control tower rather than an immediate consequence for running off-track. Formula One needs to figure out how to reintroduce an immediate and natural punishment for going off-track.

Take, for instance, Lewis’ mistake at the start of the race. He braked too late, locked up, missed the corner and carried on without even losing a position. At a few other tracks if he’d done the same thing, missing the corner entry by breaking to late and then leaving the track, the best case scenario would be that he knocked off a front-wing endplate or something and would have to pit. Or he might have gotten stuck in a gravel trap. Maybe he gets towed out of it but loses lots of positions or even a lap.

In the past, even when you had an area where there was a clear runoff or an “escape road” as it used to be called, the rule was always that you had to wait to rejoin the track until the marshals waved you on – in other words, when the track was clear. I can’t actually remember why and when that rule changed or was no longer enforced but it used to always be the rule. Knowing this, you had no choice but to be a lot more cautious of missing the entry to the corner as it effectively would ruin your race in many cases. What used to be the escape road is now effectively the entire area past the track limit as there is no longer any definition beyond that point but instead just one huge patch of asphalt in most cases, which of course make the re-entry to the track much more difficult to control. Now drivers just keep their boot in it and keep going, entering the track wherever it suits them.

Stefan Johansson - McLaren F1 - MonacoGP - 1987

Stefan Johansson - McLaren F1 - MonacoGP - 1987

And really, so would I. Because if you can get away with that, that’s what you do. Anyone with even an inkling of competitive spirit would do the same thing. Without clearly defined rules as to what you can and can’t do, this is what happens.

Lewis did exactly the same thing as Verstappen. Both of them blew Turn 1 but Verstappen was penalized and Lewis wasn’t. The rulings are completely random, all over the map.

What I’m getting at is that the fact that these situations now have to be controlled and decided by a human being is wrong. There should be an immediate, natural consequence for screwing up. They need to figure out a way to redesign these modern race tracks to bring that about. The way things are now makes it a complete mockery of the sport. The drivers don’t know if they’re coming or going.

At the end of this race time penalties were handed out. Whether what Verstappen did was right or wrong – personally, I think it was wrong but it’s not for me to decide – he should have been told to immediately give up his position to Vettel if he was judged to be wrong. In the end, instead he lost two places. He gave up a position to Vettel and then lost one to Ricciardo. This is not fair on Verstappen’s part as he lost one position more than he should have and gave an unfair benefit to Ricciardo who had nothing to do with the battle between Vettel and Verstappen but gained one position more than he should have thanks to the time penalty. There is no science behind these time penalties but just a random number picked out of the blue. Who says 5 seconds is the correct penalty, why not instead 10 seconds, or 3, they’re all completely random numbers and does not relate to the “crime” in any way.

By being wishy-washy and not having consistency in the officiating, F1 has allowed the situation to get out of control. We need to find a way to go back to basics and try to avoid having to make calls from the control tower when they should be decided on or by the race track itself.

We have street circuits on the F1 calendar. They don’t have runoff areas and at each one you avoid these situations because there’s nowhere to go beyond the track limits, if you do you hit a wall. Look at old pictures of circuits where the curbs are a foot high at a 45-degree angle. You sure as hell weren’t going to run over those curbs. You had to adapt and drive accordingly. Interestingly, if you look back and do the statistics, I don’t think there were any more incidents or serious accident because of these kerbs, because people simply had to drive with this in mind, which again sorted the good ones from the average in a much better way.

JT – There are multiple specific examples of F1’s inconsistency in officiating that stem from rulings/non-rulings in Mexico. Another you mention is their ruling on Vettel’s battle with Ricciardo.

SJ – With two laps to go, Vettel basically did what Verstappen has done in most races this year and he gets penalized. Verstappen is yet to receive a penalty for the same actions.

Yes, they changed the rule about moving in a braking zone, or said they would enforce it harder from Texas onwards but all they’re doing is just adding another element of confusion. There are so many ways to interpret this same issue that it’s become an almost impossible task to hand out a fair penalty. At some point they just need to let the drivers get on with it.

Assume for a moment that Verstappen was racing in NASCAR. He wouldn’t have finished one race this season. He would have been in the wall every single race if he had applied the same attitude he’s shown in F1 so far. The other drivers would have sorted him out in no time until he would have shown a mutual level of respect that the other competitors showed to him. Of course, you can’t do that in open wheel cars but I remember numerous times when there were a very frank conversation at the back of a truck (hauler) somewhere. That’s how it used to get sorted out if someone stepped out of line. And before you knew it everyone was falling into line. Look at the guys who’ve gone into NASCAR from other series – Montoya, Tony Stewart, all of these great drivers. They all had to pay their dues. Correct the problem with the tracks and let the drivers sort on-track behavior out among themselves. They’re supposed to be the best in the world and it wouldn’t take long for a pattern to form where everyone would be on the same page. There are always exceptions of course and every generation seems to have a resident idiot in the field, but generally speaking, they are rarely one of the top guys as they are clever enough to understand that those methods are not winning you races and championships in the long run.

JT – Do you think the varied challenge of IndyCar racing enhances race-craft? On ovals for example, you either learn to respect the track and the other drivers or you don’t last long.

SJ – Absolutely, no question about it. A large degree of this deficit of skill or race craft is once again partly due to the design of modern circuits, and the relatively equal character to every track they race on. Finding the limit on these tracks is too easy. That of course promotes more irresponsible behavior because the risk and often even penalties, are removed from the equation. Again, there is no punishment. There are a couple of the current F1 drivers, without mentioning any names, that are absolutely brilliant in the Simulator and also as test drivers, but as soon as they get into a position where they have to race someone hard or have a few cars around them everything just goes to pieces. I have had discussions with the team principals about this and they are completely baffled about their lack of basic race craft.

JT – Going back to the Mexican GP, one has to wonder why the FIA waited to issue penalties until after the race? Why couldn’t they have been issued immediately – particularly regarding Verstappen or Hamilton. Those were clear-cut infractions. And if a penalty had been issued in timely fashion, wouldn’t that have diffused the situation that arose between Vettel and Ricciardo?

SJ – Exactly, as I said before, the penalty should have been immediate. Within a lap they should have got on the radio and told Verstappen to let Vettel go by.

What choice did Vettel have? He gets backed up into Ricciardo and he’s all of a sudden looking at losing 4th place and being 5th when he should have been in 3rd place. Any driver would have had the same level of frustration, it goes without saying and that leads to my next point.

I don’t remember when this whole open-radio policy began where the public can hear conversations between the drivers and teams. I guess that’s part of the entertainment now but if you allow and promote that then you’re going to have to expect that drivers are going to show their frustration now and then. Why should that surprise anyone? At least you’re hearing a live, breathing human being showing real emotion instead of drivers thanking the team, sponsors, their parents, etc – all that stuff you normally hear on the slowing down lap has become almost meaningless.

What Vettel said shows what’s actually going on in the car and I can relate to it 100 percent. Normally when you get on the radio like that, you just want to blow off some steam. Yes of course, you have to try to control yourself but I’ve certainly been guilty of using far worse language than Vettel did.

Stefan Johansson - Ferrari - Italian GP - 1986

Stefan Johansson - Ferrari - Italian GP - 1986

JT – Some commentators are now publicly recognizing what you have been commenting on for months. The 2017 rules package for F1 which allows a significant increase in downforce levels will do little if anything to improve the racing. However, those inside F1 still don’t seem to see this, correct?

SJ – The general consensus seems to be that the cars will become more difficult to drive next year because of the added downforce, and the really brave and good one will stand out much more than they do now.

I disagree completely. Anyone can drive a high downforce car. There’s no bravery involved when the car’s completely stuck to the track. It will just make the racing even more like a video game. Bravery comes into it when you’re balancing a car right on the edge of adhesion going through a high speed corner on the very limit. Like Eau Rouge used to be. It’s already almost not a corner anymore, I can’t even think of what it will be like next year. All this will do is make the minimum speed mid corner in the slow stuff even more critical and there will be absolutely no way to make up any time in the high speed stuff as the car will be completely stuck. The cars will outgrow the tracks even more than what is currently the case.

Pedro Rodriguez - Ferrari - MexicanGP - 1965

Pedro Rodriguez - Ferrari - MexicanGP - 1965

The technical rules in Formula One have gotten so complicated that the only people who really understand them are the engineers. That’s why they are the main people involved in writing the technical rules. I guess in a way it’s job security for them. I keep repeating myself over and over, Aerodynamics and the endless search for more downforce will kill the sport if they don’t do something about it. It serves no purpose but to make a race car go faster, but at a cost that will make your eyes water. The top teams now employ something like 200 people in the Design and Engineering departments, of which half are aerodynamicists. And all they are allowed to do is fine tune and hone an aero package that is so strictly defined that I beg anyone to tell me which car is which if they painted them all white. There is no innovation anymore, just and endless tinkering to gain an extra half percent here and another quarter percent there.