How to Solve a Problem Like the Stewards
F1 stewarding has rarely been consistent. That is something which fans and drivers have become used to over the years, but it should not be the case.
There have been plenty of baffling decisions this year. At the Styrian Grand Prix, Lance Stroll escaped punishment despite clearly forcing Daniel Ricciardo off the track whilst attempting an overtaking manoeuvre – leaving the track himself for good measure – and then keeping the position. It seemed a ‘slam dunk’ penalty to most of the paddock, thanks to the trifecta of forcing another car off the track, violating track limits, and completing an overtake off the track all in one move. As well as, arguably, rejoining in an unsafe manner as he blocked Lando Norris upon his return.
The stewards, however, saw things differently. As is often the case, there was not much of an explanation as to their decision, which deemed it a “racing incident where neither driver was wholly to blame”. Ricciardo said he thought it was “crystal clear” that it should have resulted in a penalty and, considering all he did was avoid a collision, it is difficult to see how the stewards apportioned any blame upon him.
This has long been the crux of the problem; the fans – and even the drivers – are often left bemused by the decisions and nobody stands up to justify them.
The aftermath of the safety car restart incident at Mugello. (Photo: www.altsantiri.gr.)
But then came the more recent issues. A multi-car pile-up in Tuscany led to numerous drivers blaming the safety car lights going out for the incident, but Race Director Michael Masi refused to take any responsibility and put the blame squarely on the drivers, in a somewhat derisive tone. And in Russia, we had the Lewis Hamilton practice start debacle. Conspiracy theories abound as decisions were reversed, comparisons drawn with similar Charles Leclerc incidents, and - the icing on the conspirator's cake - news broke of the Finnish commentary team learning of the penalties 15 minutes prior to their announcement, with part-time Finnish commentator Mika Salo in the stewards' office.
The already flawed system has now been further undermined.
NEW DIRECTOR, NEW DIRECTION
Charlie Whiting was always going to be an impossible act to follow; the man was Formula 1. Along with holding the all-important role of Race Director, he was safety delegate, chaired the driver briefings and wrote both the sporting and technical regulations – the ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper, attempting to keep the FIA a step ahead of the engineers looking for any possible loophole to exploit. Every driver had the utmost respect for him.
No one man would ever be able to fully replace Whiting but his most important role fell to Masi and, just seven races into his tenure, he was thrust abruptly into the spotlight.
Hamilton runs out of road at the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix. (Photo: The Guardian.)
At the Canadian Grand Prix, after six races utterly dominated by Mercedes, the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel was leading. However, on lap 48, he made a mistake under pressure from Lewis Hamilton and overcooked his entry into Turn 3, catching a snap of oversteer but in the process having to take to the grass. He rejoined the track very close to Hamilton, who tried to go around the outside but was forced to back out as he was squeezed towards the wall. The stewards gave Vettel a five-second time penalty which effectively handed Hamilton the win and, likely in some part sparked by the unceasing Mercedes supremacy, many F1 fans took to their keyboards to vent their anger via social media.
It was a very tough call, but the rules pointed to a penalty. It was uncannily similar to an incident in Japan 2018, between Max Verstappen and Kimi Räikkönen, which also resulted in a penalty and Whiting himself described as "a fairly straightforward one for the stewards".
At the very next race, Max Verstappen – coincidentally at the same corner of the same circuit as the Stroll-Ricciardo incident – forced Leclerc wide and took the lead, along with the victory. Whilst in that incident, the Dutchman at least stayed on the track himself, it did appear to contradict the ruling from just two weeks earlier.
Seemingly in response to the public backlash from the Canadian Grand Prix, Masi and the FIA then announced a change in their approach when it came to applying penalties – in essence, that they would be more lenient and let the drivers battle it out on track as much as possible.
Later in the season, Leclerc would experience the other side of the coin as he forced Hamilton off the track whilst defending his lead of the Italian Grand Prix and received only a black-and-white flag as a warning for unsportsmanlike behaviour. Whilst explaining their decision-making, Masi stated that if the pair had made contact then it would have been a penalty rather than the black-and-white flag.
Hamilton again runs out of road - this time at the 2019 Italian Grand Prix. (Photo: www.vbox7.com.)
This seems problematic. It is almost encouraging contact between drivers; in avoiding a dangerous move by another driver, the 'victim' of said move is putting themselves most likely off the track and doing the aggressor a favour at the same time. We are in danger of veering towards the diving issue prevalent in football where players are required to produce theatrics in order to force the officials to make the right decision...
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
We as fans must accept that the stewards have far more information than us to base their decisions on and that they are more experienced than 99% of us. That would be far easier, though, if the stewards were a consistent panel of respected figures who were fully accountable and explained exactly how and why they came to their decisions. A role as important as this, in a sport as enormous and opulent as F1, must be filled by the very best on a permanent basis. Surely that's not too hard for the senior leaders to put together - basically every other elite sport manages to do it.
The penalty points system may also need to be addressed as - whilst not inherently flawed - the application of points could probably be tweaked. The system was introduced in the wake of Romain Grosjean's hit-and-miss (quite literally, at times) 2012 season and, in particular, the huge crash at the start of that year's Belgian Grand Prix. The rationale behind it is to prevent dangerous driving, but they are now seemingly being handed out as standard with most penalties, even when it was the team at fault.
Hamilton and Antonio Giovinazzi were given two penalty points when following team orders to pit in Monza. Another two points in Austria for the World Champion understeering into Albon on cold tyres seems a little harsh - it was a long way from a dangerous act. The fact that one of the greatest drivers in the sport's history - who is also universally accepted as one of the cleanest drivers on the grid - stands on the brink of a ban implies that the system should perhaps be looked at.
In the immediate future, simply some consistent calls would do. At the Styrian Grand Prix, in addition to what has already been mentioned, Pérez was allowed to drive around for three laps with a damaged front wing without seeing the black-and-orange flag – indicating a driver has a mechanical issue and must return to the pits – whilst Leclerc was given a 10-second penalty for the same offence at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix. This is potentially due to the close call when Leclerc’s front wing end plate broke free and sliced off Hamilton’s wing mirror, but why are penalties suddenly being handed out dependent on the result rather than the letter of the law?
Consistency and transparency are vital. These are the basics and we should not have to be clamouring for them.