If 2008 will be remembered for anything, it will be the ruthless decisions made by the stewards of the races. I don’t have hard numbers, but it would appear that this season has seen an uncharacteristic high number of fine and penalties imposed on drivers and teams. Misdemeanour’s range from being late to official meetings (morning briefings etc) to driving the wrong way up the track during a practice session. But are the punishments helping or hindering the overall spectacle?
Of course, it was Jarno Trulli who opted to drive back up the track during the first practice session at Singapore following a spin and the desire to get into the pitlane without having to complete another lap. For driving the wrong way around the race track, Trulli’s €10k fine was more than acceptable, even though the rules to allow his actions for extreme circumstances. But when it comes to race-day, it seems the stewards are flexing their muscles a little too much, in my opinion.
The incident on the penultimate lap of the Belgian Grand Prix still divides people the world over, and the fact that McLaren tried to appeal it in front of the International Court lets you know where they stood on the issue. For cutting the chicane and gaining an advantage without totally rescinding that advantage, Hamilton received a post-race drive-thru, which meant 25s was added to his complete race time. The result left McLaren without the win, and Ferrari suddenly with.
In Singapore, Felipe Massa was given a drive-thru for an unsafe release from a pitstop after the lighting system employed by the Scuderia let them down. Or to put it more accurately, the team member controlling the system let them down. Although Massa was relatively innocent in the infringement – he just goes when he’s told – the penalty was handed to Massa and therefore his team. In this case, a penalty is expected as Ferrari were being unnecessarily unsafe, but surely the punishment of waiting at the end of the pitlane for what seemed like an eternity was enough?
And then earlier today in Fuji, three drivers received penalties that have once again divided opinion the world over, and potentially ruined what could have been a great race at the front of the pack. Lewis Hamilton received a drive-thru for pushing Raikkonen off the track.
The penalty was given despite it happening at the start of the race while going into the first corner, and despite the fact that Ralf Schumacher (just to name one of many drivers) had committed the very same sin more times than I can remember without penalty.
Of course, the move by the McLaren driver was impetuous and immature, but at least he was racing, at least he was trying. Last season Hamilton’s startline antics were being compared to the most ruthless man to start a race in recent history, Michael Schumacher. Yet whenever Hamilton pushed then-team mate Fernando Alonso hard at the start or vice-versa, the stewards obviously overlooked it. In Belgium ’07, the pair had a fantastic ding-dong at the start which saw Hamilton get pushed right over the apron as Alonso gave his team mate no room. Was Alonso penalised? No, of course he wasn’t, it was superb racing.
Felipe Massa was then penalised at Fuji for having an avoidable accident with Lewis Hamilton. The Briton just about squeezed himself in front of the Ferrari, but Massa then went off, and upon his return to the track clouted the McLaren and sent Hamilton into a spin. Massa was given a drive-thru penalty for his offence.
And finally, after the completion of the race, Sebastien Bourdais was reprimanded for exiting the pitlane and driving the only line that was surely available to him. Massa was coming down the racetrack, Bourdais could do nothing but enter the first corner on the inside, and Massa it seemed just kept coming across until the pair collided and the Brazilian spun.
For his offence, as it happened just prior to the end of the race (apparently 13 laps isn’t enough time to make a decision), Bourdais was given a post-race drive-thru, which meant 25s was added to his total race time. For the second time in as many races, the result has been changed after the celebrations, and the change could prove critical in the outcome of the drivers championship, as Massa was promoted up the points order.
So, are the stewards ruining races by being trigger-happy with penalties?
At the Italian Grand Prix which followed Belgium, the drivers were clearly responding to the issue raised by the Hamilton/Raikkonen incident and every time a driver may have received an advantage for cutting corners, they were very careful to rescind all advantage before attacking again. In fact, one driver handed back a place seemingly unnecessarily.
Of course, cutting corners shouldn’t be allowed, but when drivers are forced to get out of the throttle and be overly polite to one another, it kinda takes the thrill out of racing a little. The obvioius solution is to build barriers around the inside of corners to prevent drivers from skipping them, but the safety-police will no doubt have something to say about that.
And the Bourdais incident is just unfathomable. I do not understand what the Frenchman was supposed to do. From the angle of the video we have seen, and admittedly without all the information the teams and stewards have, it should have been Massa who received a penalty over that incident before Bourdais! And of course, it was just a racing incident, so really, no penalty is justified in my mind. It was a case of wrong-place-wrong-time.
It is my belief that the stewards are currently hacking Formula One to pieces with silly little penalties that take away all that is good about motor racing. When drivers are being unnecessarily dangerous, then fine, hand them a penalty. But when it is just good racing or simple racing incidents, why can’t the stewards just keep out of it? They are turning the sport not only into a joke, but a dumbed-down version of what was once an awesome spectacle of bravery and skill. The stewards a politicising Formula One where it isn’t necessary, I don’t blame people when they say can no longer stand to watch it.
The stewards need overhauling as soon as possible. Not before the next season, but before the next race. Otherwise, I fear the 2008 championships will be decided in the courthouse and not on the racetrack. And that just isn’t racing.