Features - News Feature
APRIL 4, 2002
A pause for thought
BY WILL BUXTON
Call me a cynic but isn't Formula 1 meant to be a sport? The last time I checked, it was the ultimate unison of man and machine, the awe-inspiring spectacle of heroes risking life and limb to prove beyond all doubt that they were the best within their chosen field.
Can somebody, anybody, tell me when this glorious sport turned into 17 rounds of Judge Judy?
With two races of this season behind us, the FIA has apparently got itself into something of a pickle. There have been two first corner collisions, an uneven distribution of penalties and now, to put the icing on the cake, a new set of regulations that will put the proverbial spanner well and truly in the works.
There was a time, not too long ago, when a collision such as the one caused by Barrichello in Australia would have resulted in a few weeks away from the sport intended for rest and reflection. Hakkinen's penalty for his first corner lunge at Hockenheim a few years back is one such example. If a driver is going to change his line so sporadically that the car following has nowhere to go other than nose up, Cape Canaveral, "lift off in T minus 1 second" style, then some form of punishment needs to be implemented. After the tragic events of last year's race it seemed all the more bizarre that nobody was held accountable for what appeared to be an avoidable collision.
On the other hand, we have an incident such as that in Malaysia. Again involving a Ferrari and a Williams and again involving a seemingly awful decision. After a trademark Schumacher lunge at the start, Montoya took an outside line around turn one and the two touched. As Montoya pointed out, "I wasn't going to give him a lot of room - this is racing, isn't it?" It's a fair question and one made all the more striking by the Colombian's drive-through penalty.
Montoya's comment was perfectly valid. These guys aren't taking a gentle Sunday afternoon drive along the Pennines to go for tea with Granny. This is the pinnacle of world motorsport and they're being penalized for having the balls to race each other. The fact that the penalty was condemned by even Schumacher, the man who lost most from the collision, made the pill taste all the more bitter. If this brief coming together was more than a racing incident then where on the scale was the first corner incident in Melbourne?
The problem here lies not with the rules but with their implementation. What shocked me most was reading that the chief steward in Malaysia was none other than Mr. Nazir Hoosein, the man responsible for the insanity at the 1998 British Grand Prix where Schumacher won in the pits. In British soccer there is a system whereby a referee who makes too many mistakes is put down a few leagues for re-education in the sport.
And so the FIA has introduced some new rules to make the whole situation clearer. Bad driving at one race will result in a 10-place demotion on the grid for the next. This seems a strange decision to make, for if the stewards were having trouble implementing the simple stop-go penalties in an even-handed manner, why on earth would anyone want to give them more power and even stronger penalties?
Admittedly it's a better plan than banning drivers but it could cripple the sport.
With many already claiming that F1 is void of any excitement other than the politics and legal ramifications that erupt from every race decision, can stricter rules improve the spectacle? Despite the Malaysian director picking up little of Montoya and Schumacher's sensational drives from the back of the field to the top three, what is clear is that those who say there isn't any overtaking in modern F1 are mistaken.
For the last 12 months we have been treated to a new battle of supreme drivers. In the red corner we have Michael Schumacher, the driver of his generation and arguably one of the finest drivers ever to grace the planet. And in the blue corner we have the young, unpredictable but frighteningly fast Juan Pablo Montoya. It is shaping up to be one of those incredible cross-generational battles where the past master hands over his mantle to the next great. We never had a chance to really experience it with Senna and Schumacher, and what worries me is that too many rule changes will stagnate what could be one of the most exciting periods in modern motorsport.
If Montoya was penalized for his part in the first corner incident in Malaysia then what sort of precedent does that set for the rest of the season? With four different chief stewards and the other two stewards changing at each race can we really expect continuity in the handing out of punishments? With the huge penalty of a 10-place grid deficit looming for anyone found guilty of "bad driving", is there a driver around with the guts to race to his potential without the fear of incurring the wrath of the stewards?
These questions will all be answered in time. The problem for now lies in deciding exactly what constitutes a "racing incident". This isn't like soccer when decisions have to be made in an instant without the use of a video replay. With Bernie's almighty digital television monster in place, incidents can be viewed from every angle until the stewards are completely sure of their decision. A permanent adviser to the stewards might be a good idea if only for the sake of continuity.
The new rules seem gimmicky and we can only hope that they will act as a help rather than a hindrance to the spectacle of the sport. As Eddie Irvine put it, "F1 is a sport, not Hollywood. We have got to keep the spectacle as good as possible but not by being manufactured."