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NOVEMBER 2, 2011

Analysis: Coulthard backs Massa

David Coulthard has come out firmly on the side of Felipe Massa over the Indian GP penalty that left anyone with eyes in their head incredulous.

Thirteen-time GP winner Coulthard, now a TV pundit for BBC television, said immediately after the incident that he feared a penalty for Hamilton.

"For me it was a racing incident," Coulthard said in his UK Daily Telegraph newspaper column. "At worst I felt Lewis was more to blame. I simply can't understand how Felipe could have been deemed the guilty party.

"As drivers we are always taught that the car behind is responsible so to my mind the stewards misinterpreted what happened.

"If Lewis had got that far up alongside Felipe into a tight hairpin, where the braking zone is maybe 100 metres and lasts for a few seconds, then I think Massa would have been right to give way. But heading into a fourth gear left-hander at maybe 150-160km/h? Where the braking zone lasts for one second? I don't think Massa can be held responsible."

Coulthard added: "It was almost as if they felt that with Lewis receiving so many decisions against him this year, they were trying to redress the balance."

Johnny Herbert, the driver steward on the FIA panel in India, has said since the race: "The decision to penalise Massa for his contact with Hamilton came down to one simple fact - it could have been avoided. I know Massa was upset by our decision, but I believe we made the right call.

"After looking at it from different camera angles and studying all the data, it was clear that Massa knew where Hamilton was before he chose to turn across him. There was nothing Hamilton could have done to avoid it. He did try to get out of the move but it was too late."

There aren't so much holes in Herbert's justification, as craters. Of course it could have been avoided, but why does that make it Massa's fault? Hamilton should have backed out of it much sooner. He shouldn't have still been there when it became clear he wasn't going to make the move stick.

The key point is Coulthard's comment about the driver behind being responsible. This would appear to be news to a depressingly large number of people posting rubbish on sundry websites and bulletin boards, but is obvious to anyone who has competed in anything beyond the school sack race.

The fact is that Hamilton almost got alongside Massa early in the run to Turn 5 by deploying KERS. That then ran out and he no longer had the additional momentum that would have brought him fully alongside, as would have occurred had, for example, he had a much better exit from Turn 4.

Compounding that, Hamilton was on the dirty side of the track, as evidenced by the dust he was kicking up, while Massa went right to take the normal racing line. Those combined factors afforded the Ferrari much more grip and therefore the opportunity to brake later and reclaim the initial ground that Hamilton had made before they reached the turn-in point.

It is the position of the cars at the turn-in point that matters and as can be clearly seen from video footage of the incident, Hamilton's right front makes contact with Massa's left rear. End of story.

Forget the personalities involved or any of that, any racing driver who cedes a corner from the position Massa was in, needs to quickly look for an alternative career.

The reasoning behind such etiquette is simple enough. On the run up a straight to a corner you can jockey for position, check your mirrors, attack, defend, do whetever, but when you reach the turn-in point and commit, you are looking ahead of you.

A full field of peripheral vision is 180 degrees. Not many have it. For most people it's somewhere between 140 degrees and 180 degrees. And hence, if you are looking ahead and someone is not right alongside you, you are not going to see them. Of course you might know they are there but you are not obliged to accommodate them.

Hence the existence of the universally accepted rule that the guy behind is responsible. If the guy is all but alongside you, you may in some cases cede, for instance if he's on a grippier bit of road or a better line. But cede position when the guy's front is level with your rear and you are on the racing line? Not a chance.

Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali was humorously ironic when it was pointed out that Hamilton and Massa seemed to be attracted like magnets.

"Yes," he laughed, "but which one is the positive and which one the negative!"

He added: "I have to respect the decision of the referee even if I was very surprised. Felipe was ahead at the entrance to the corner and had the line..."

The situation between the two drivers is starting to go a bit beyond a joke. Thankfully, McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh says it's not the time to stage a hand-shake outside the garage. That would be about as credible as the one between Ron Dennis and Max Mosley at Spa in '07 after Spygate...

But they probably do need to have a quiet chat and get it sorted. It's all getting a bit tedious even if it is manna for the tabloids.