While writing a journalistic piece, it is sometimes essential to maintain distance and not try to mix personal emotions and contaminate a valid criticism, and so will happen today: this is not going to be a personal opinion, but a critic piece about a decision that changed the end of a race and touched the public image of Formula 1.
Ferrari is facing a hard season; it is not a mystery. From Baharain’s glimmer of light with Charles Leclerc, to the last big mistake in Monaco that has undermined the public figure of a team that has made history in Formula 1: once again, the 1-2 finish in both FP2 and FP3 seemed a blunder, an unrealistic classification made of low fuel load and softer tyres. Next to them, a team that didn’t need to show everything in Free Practice, a team that can always hide its true performance, Mercedes.
Sebastian Vettel’s Pole Position came as a surprise to everyone. It is true, every Ferrari fan is always there, blinded by Friday’s results, hoping for Vettel or Leclerc to take Pole and beat the unbeatable, Lewis Hamilton. In Canada, Sebastian Vettel grabbed Pole by being 0.206s faster than Hamilton. It was the first Pole for the Ferrari driver since last year’s German GP, also considered as the one where Vettel lost it all and gave away all the chances to win the championship.
But the points are assigned on Sunday, right? And so the race started, Vettel kept the lead until his pit stop during lap 26, and then came back in 1st position. Hamilton failed the undercut and followed the German staying inside a 1-1,5s gap.
During lap 48, Vettel lost the rear entering Turn 4. He hit the grass and tried to get back on track with dirty tyres. He seemed to have no control after his mistake, so that he tried to retake control of the car on the exit. While doing so, he slightly turned to the right, Hamilton was behind. He tried to avoid both Vettel and the wall, but the gap between the two didn’t change as much.
Hamilton soon called his engineer, and Toto Wolff immediately appealed to the Race Direction against Vettel’s move for unsafe rejoin.
The penalty soon came: 5 seconds for the German who, rightfully, didn’t left anything to the 5 time world champion: he kept his position, frighted until the end and crossed the line in first position.
"Where the hell am I supposed to go? I have grass on my wheels. If he had gone to the inside he could have gone past me. I am focused, but they are stealing the race from us!" Vettel said on the radio.
There are the extremes for Ferrari to bring the action, but the team seems not intentioned to do it.
Everyone knows what happened as soon as the race finished: Vettel parked his car at the pit lane entrance. As clarified later, he didn’t miss the weight procedure (no other penalties for him), but entered the Paddock soon after to go to Ferrari’s Hospitality.
Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton parked his Mercedes in front of the number 1 board and celebrated as he truly crossed the line as leader of the GP.
“That’s absolutely not the way I want to win” he said to Martin Brundle under the podium for the traditional interviews, “I forced the error and he went wide. We nearly collided, but that’s motor racing.”
Clearly, as he said on the radio, Sebastian Vettel didn’t think that was racing, as he said the Race Direction “killed the race spirit”. It is the second consecutive time that there is a close fight for the win, and the race direction has the final say on it: Max Verstappen was attacked to Hamilton’s rear all race long in Monaco, but he did have a penalty for an unsafe release after the pit, which caused a collusion with Valtteri Bottas. It is not the same situation, it is obvious, but it is similar in terms of the sport’s excitement for the fans.
But let’s come back to this Grand Prix: Sebastian Vettel was forced by his team to take part to the podium celebration and, before going upstair, he switched the boards in front of the Mercedes number 44, placing the number 2 in front of the Silver Arrows.
The German didn’t celebrate, he just waved the fans who applauded and cheered for him as soon as they saw him in the pit lane. They, then, booed Hamilton, who pulled Vettel on the highest spot of the podium. It would’ve been a nice gesture, if it wasn’t for the celebration he just did as soon as he got out his car.
Vettel didn’t spend much time celebrating or spraying champagne all around.
“The people shouldn’t boo at Lewis. I really enjoyed the race and the crowd. Lewis was a bit faster, but we were able to keep him behind. Ask the people what they think.” And he left the Podium.
There is obviously a lot to talk about. Being in the race direction is surely not easy: every case can be different from the other and it is sometimes hard to apply the same rules to different cases. But isn’t it what happens in some country’s court?
Let’s take as example Monaco 2016: Pool exit, Hamilton does a similar action as Sebastian’s, closing on the right on Daniel Ricciardo, who almost hit the barriers on the right. At the time, the Race Direction gave no penalty to Hamilton, even if Ricciardo clearly showed his disappointment against the Briton.
The Race Direction is made by competent people, there is no doubt about it.
But let’s consider, for a moment, the “race spirit”: in multiple occasions, Formula 1 has been criticized by its own fans for being too “boring”, with no overtakes, no variety for the winners, one or two dominant teams always in the top 3.
This is happening again this year, despite all the regulations changes made to make F1 more exciting. After 7 Grand Prix, only Mercedes has put one of their drivers on the highest spot of the podium; bow down to them for being dominant and always the fastest and most consistent team since 2014, but is this good for the sport? Having a Championship decided when we’re not even half in the season is good for the sport? Is it right to give this kind of penalties, killing the race spirit?
It is not our aim to say if the penalty was right or not. Formula 1 is obviously made in and out of track, by teams and engineers, but also by charismatic drivers like Hamilton or Vettel, considering how he acted today, or Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen. Formula 1 needs these kind of duels, and every romantic and nostalgic fan misses fights like the Senna - Prost, the Lauda - Hunt, and much more. The Hamilton - Vettel can be a huge conflict, and gestures like today’s are good for the media, but we must remember what we are talking about: racing, motor sport.
It is cool to see drama, everyone loves it and it is what journalists need, but is it way better to see drama, to watch the real action, on track, a place where drivers can fight each other for the win.