'After you.' 'No, I insist; after you.'
NOVEMBER 9, 2011
Doing my homework for this weekend's Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, I came across an interesting clip from coverage of last year's race.
Sebastian Vettel was on pole (his tenth of 2010) with Lewis Hamilton on the left-hand side of the front row. Both drivers made good starts and Hamilton took a serious look down the inside for the first corner, a left-hander. Vettel, meanwhile, was showing no sign of giving way even though the Red Bull driver, in championship terms, had more to lose.
Viewed from on board Hamilton's McLaren, the situation looked remarkably like two weeks ago in India as Hamilton took a run at Felipe Massa going into a left-hander. In each case, the leading driver took his line - and stuck to it. The difference was that Hamilton backed out of it in Abu Dhabi to the extent of locking his left-front and getting up on the kerb. In India? We all know the result as these two played out another instalment of intimate synchronised scuffling.
It's been a while - well Canada, actually, when Jenson Button and Hamilton collided - since an incident has divided opinion so sharply. Within the BBC, for instance, you had Martin Brundle and David Coulthard blaming Hamilton during their TV commentary. Meanwhile, in the BBC Radio booth next door, Anthony Davidson was in 100 per cent agreement with the stewards (advised by Johnny Herbert) when they handed Massa a drive-through.
Looking at it from Hamilton's point of view, I've always believed the onus is on the guy attacking not to put himself, as Sir Jackie Stewart always says, in a vulnerable position at the mercy of the other driver. Agreed, there was plenty of room on the left and Hamilton did, at one point, get his right-front wheel beyond Massa's left-rear. But then, as BBC TV's commentary advisor and journalist Mark Hughes points out, Hamilton ran out of KERS. Massa, meanwhile, was on the racing line, had more grip and could brake later. Having done that, he turned in to the corner in the normal way.
Hamilton realised what was going on and tried, too late, to back out. I don't accept the argument that he was alongside, and the corner was therefore his. My definition of that is to have your front wheel at least halfway along your rival's sidepod. That was not the case in India.
Either way, Hamilton should have known the likely outcome given his recent and extensive history with Massa. In other words, he put himself at unnecessary risk. Or, you could say, he made a mistake as he tried to get out of it too late - and not for the first time in a season when a sense of desperation seems to have impaired his previous fine judgement.
But this is not to say that Massa is blame-free. He admits to knowing Hamilton was somewhere on his left but thought he had done enough by braking later to allow pursuit of the normal racing line. The same argument about recent history applies here too; Massa should have known that he was dealing with a fairly volatile and unpredictable rival.
Saying that, I do not accept the argument that Massa should have effectively stood back and said: "After you, Lewis; m'dear chap." It's nonsense to suggest that drivers should start going wide just because a rival is having a sniff up the inside. How, exactly, would that be defined? A nose wing alongside a rear wheel? A front wheel alongside? The space big enough on the inside to accept the attacking car should he decide to keep coming? And how is the leading driver expected to judge that, given the hopeless vision from his mirrors and the further impediment of high cockpit sides? To suggest he should give way as a matter of course is racing political correctness gone mad.
Going back to the review of last year's Abu Dhabi GP, there is another moment when a hard-charging (and much-missed) Robert Kubica is attacking Kamui Kobayashi going into Turn 11. Having had several attempts up the inside, Kubica takes the outside (racing) line, gets ahead under braking and turns in. But - and here's the thing - he leaves Kobayashi JUST enough room to survive and avoid a collision. Much as you've seen Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso do during some if their epic confrontations.
Returning to India (and impending incidents at Yas Marina, a track where overtaking is almost impossible), I'd say Hamilton and Massa were both at fault and made misjudgements. It was a messy fight; an unnecessary racing incident - but not worthy of a penalty for either driver. This is motor racing, for goodness sake. They're adult racing drivers; let them sort it out for themselves.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.