OCTOBER 4, 2007
Now Hamilton under attack
After the Japanese Grand Prix at Mount Fuji there was an investigation into the accident which resulted in the retirements of second and third placed drivers Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel while the field was running behind the Safety Car. Lewis Hamilton was involved in the proceedings but it was clear that he was nowhere near the accident when it occurred as he had taken a very wide line in the corner in question. As Hamilton explained after the event, it was not easy to run behind the Safety Car because it could not be driven any more quickly than it was being driven but was not quick enough for the cars behind.
"When we were behind the Safety Car for the second time I was constantly on to my engineers, telling them to tell Red Bull to get Mark [Webber] to make a bit more of gap between us," he said. "I couldn’t go any faster because of the Safety Car ahead of me. Then one time Mark just appeared alongside me, when he braked so late. He was just too close, then he braked really hard. I don’t know what happened, but my instinct said something was going to happen."
It did. Vettel was not paying attention and ran straight into the back of Webber, taking both men out of the race.
Webber is now blaming Hamilton. The Australian told a press conference in Shanghai that he thinks "Hamilton did a s*** job behind the Safety Car. I was challenging for a win but it was taken away and not in a racing incident but behind the Safety Car. It's hard to swallow but you can't get it back. I have to concentrate on the next race, that's all we can control."
Vettel has also joined the dispute, although after the event he was weeping because of his mistake rather than ranting and raving at something that Hamilton hade done.
"In the end it was my fault," he said. "I am not here to blame anybody but I think it is clear the rhythm was not there. We are all sitting in the same boat. At that point I was distracted, looking to the right. I was sure he (Hamilton) was retiring, he seemed to have no power any longer, but by the time I looked back I was already in Mark's rear end."
These things happen in racing but it is worrying that the affair is now being investigated again by the stewards
"New evidence has been brought to the stewards attention and they are currently investigating the matter," an FIA spokesman said.
Article 40.10 of the F1 Sporting Regulations states: "The safety car shall be used at least until the leader is behind it and all remaining cars are lined up behind him. Once behind the Safety Car, the race leader must keep within 5 car lengths of it."
With Vettel having already been given a 10-place grid penalty in China for his part in the accident, it appears that the stewards have already made up their mind and a video of the crash which appears on www.youtube.com does not really add a great deal. This reveals that Hamilton was wide and slow when the accident occurred but that would fit in with Hamilton's explanation that it was hard to stay close to the Safety Car without fear of hitting it. By going wide and slow he may have been giving himself a momentary break.
There are going to be people in F1 circles who will say that if Hamilton is now punished that it is manipulation of the World Championship. This may not be the case but there is certainly a perception given all the things that have been happening this year to McLaren. The one good thing that the World Championship has is that Hamilton the rookie is the favourite to win it. He has done a quite extraordinary job and it is a great and positive story in a sport that has too often been tainted in recent years with scandal and painted as being dull.
Perceptions are incredibly powerful in F1 circles and while the FIA tries hard to manage them, the recent events put the federation into an exposed position. There have been occasions in the past when there have been similar accusations of manipulation, notably in 1997 in Japan when Jacques Villeneuve was excluded from the Japanese GP for ignoring a yellow flag. This set up the celebrated World Championship showdown of 1997 when Michael Schumacher tried to run Villeneuve off the road.
The danger of being perceived to be manipulating the World Championship is best highlighted by what happened to Mosley's predecessor Jean-Marie Balestre after the events of 1989 when Ayrton Senna accused Balestre of manipulation following the collision between Senna and Alain Prost at Suzuka. Senna was later forced to back down but the activities resulted in Mosley deciding to run against Balestre for the post of FISA President.
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