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NOVEMBER 1, 2016

When safety gets in the way of racing


Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, Mexican GP 2016
© Active Pictures

What a shame those exciting last five laps of the Mexican Grand Prix were completely destroyed by red tape. When we should all be talking about the tremendous battle Sebastian Vettel and the two Red Bull drivers engaged in, everywhere on social media the subjects are the penalties handed to Max Verstappen and the German and then, of course, the use of very foul language by the four-times World Champion.

Vettel and Verstappen were not the only two drivers with added time to their final results, as both Toro Rosso drivers also received five seconds penalties much earlier on in the race. The young Spaniard clearly put Fernando Alonso on the grass on the run down to Turn Four during the opening lap, while Kvyat used the run off area on Turn 12 when he overtook local hero Esteban Gutierrez - but so did the Mexican as he tried to defend his position. Four time penalties in a race 21 cars finished may give you an idea the Mexican Grand Prix was some sort of destruction derby but, in reality, apart from the late battle for the final place in the podium, Sunday's was it was quite a mild race.

Of course everyone in the sport accepts safety is paramount and for that effect a lot has been done to protect the drivers and make sure they walk away from their cars after an accident. Headrest protections, the HANS device, retention cables to make sure the wheels don't fly off the cars, severe crash tests to the survival cell and so on have been part of the game for quite a while and they all serve the purpose they were brought in for - keep the drivers alive in case of a massive impact. Very early this year we could see those measures worked wonderfully well when Fernando Alonso walked out of his McLaren-Honda in Melbourne, after cart-wheeling a few times and hitting the wall after touching the back of Esteban Gutierrez's Haas-Ferrari.

If the cars and the drivers' equipment received massive safety improvements, the tracks also had to go through many transformations - where physically possible - to make sure cars wouldn't suffer big impacts anymore. Asphalted run-off areas are now the norm in every newly built track, so even the most crass mistakes don't take a driver out of a race - he just loses a few seconds by going wide into the run-off area before returning safely to the track.

While all this effort was made with the best of intentions, the consequence was that this new generation of drivers took the increased safety as an invitation to use run-off areas to their advantage, as we've seen in the last two Grand Prix, generating plenty of post-race controversies Formula One could well do without. After all, what is the image the sport gives when a driver has to leave the podium antechamber for receiving a post-race penalty and the other driver that takes his place on the podium loses his third place three and a half hours after the end of the race? Daniel Ricciardo finished third in Mexico but didn't have the privilege of standing on the podium in front of that amazing crowd that filled the Stadium area - and they were robbed of the Australian's antics, as were all the people sitting in front of their TV's.

Less than two weeks ago yet another rule clarification was introduced, to ban what was known as the "Verstappen move" - changing direction inside the braking area when under attack - adding to a list of rules, regulations, clarifications and so on that have made the sport way too complicated for anyone to really understand what's allowed and what's not. And because words cannot describe every possible circumstance in every single incident, interpretation comes into the equation and we all know what that means - controversy, endless discussions, accusations of favouritism and conspiracy theories. Again, something the sport could do without.

It would not be unreasonable to put part of the blame for the "Nanny State" Formula One has become on the drivers. After all, they are the ones demanding more and more safety measures and then driving each other off the road - into wide run-off areas - or changing direction when under attack, fully knowing contact may mean an early bath but it's highly unlikely to cause them even a broken nail... You can be sure those claiming Formula One must introduce the Halo as soon as possible, will be the first ones to drive a rival off the road or brake test him if that's necessary to gain a position or keep one.

But the drivers are fierce competitors and will do whatever it takes to reach their goals, the same way the teams will go to whatever lengths they have to, in order to get the results they want. In the end, it's the regulators' job to create and apply the rules and over the last two decades the FIA has acted in the belief that the more safety measures are introduced, the better racing will be and the more people will follow Formula One. Sadly, though, the opposite has happened, as most racing is now processional and when they aren't we have plenty of penalties plus complaints, and the TV viewing figures keep going down every year.

All this talk about track limits, unfair advantages and so on never come up when the Grand Prix are held in Melbourne, Monaco, Montreal, Singapore, Suzuka or Interlagos, do they? Why is that? Because anyone who uses a run-off area in those circuits either loses a tremendous amount of time or hits a wall.

At the end of the Mexican Grand Prix, Daniel Ricciardo stated that, "I am a bit of a fan of gravel traps. It is a proper deterrent because even if you get through the gravel trap at some speed and don't lose a whole lot of time, you still have stuff in your radiators, so there is more of a penalty. I don't like that a driver can defend lock ups, or make a mistake whilst defending, cut through and continue."

I couldn't agree more with the Australian and I'm delighted one of the best drivers of the new generation sees it as it is. It's clear the drivers cannot be trusted to do the right thing, as it's their instinct to take every possible advantage, so it's up to the FIA to put in place the physical deterrents to avoid below the belt manoeuvres. Asphalt run-off areas may be OK for Moto GP but not for Formula One, so we should get rid of them. There must a be a way to put asphalt or cement plaques over gravel traps, to be used when motorbikes are racing and removed, leaving a gravel trap in place, when car racing is on. Otherwise, the constant whining will remain a feature in Formula One and that's terrible for the popularity of the sport.