F1 OF CON­TRO­VERSY AND KINGS MALAYSIA, JA­PAN, USA

IF YOU ARE READ­ING THIS PIECE AF­TER THE MEX­I­CAN GP, LEWIS HAMIL­TON MIGHT AL­READY HAVE BEEN CROWNED A QUADRU­PLE CHAM­PION. EG­MONT SIPPEL RE­FLECTS ON THE STATE OF F1 AF­FAIRS.

Driven - - Motorsport - Re­port by EG­MONT SIPPEL | Images © MERCEDES / GETTY IMAGES / RED BULL CON­TENT POOL/ FER­RARI

Now, that was an in­ter­est­ing line by com­men­ta­tor Martin Brun­dle half­way into the USA Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, when the cam­era fo­cussed on ex-F1 pi­lot Mika Häkki­nen.

“Bal­lis­ti­cally fast,” Brun­dle said of Mika. “The fastest team­mate I ever had.”

Which in it­self is per­haps not such a big thing. Brun­dle gave Ayr­ton Senna a good go in the 1983 Bri­tish F3 sea­son, but the Brit won’t be re­mem­bered as a true speed mer­chant.

What you can’t take away from Martin, though, is that he was the only man ever to have part­nered both Mika and Michael in F1.

And yes, we’re talk­ing Michael of the Schu­macher kind.

Be­ing the keen judge that Brun­dle is, how­ever, and hav­ing been team­mates to M&M, it was an in­sight­ful com­ment by the Brit, nam­ing Häkki­nen as the faster of the two.

Here is how he ex­pressed his views even back then, when Schu­macher was at his peak: “Mika will out-qual­ify Michael. Michael will out­race Mika. But Senna would have out-qual­i­fied and out­raced both.”

HAMIL­TON AND SENNA

In­ter­est­ing it was, then, to hear Jen­son But­ton say in his just-pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Life to the Limit, that Lewis Hamil­ton was up there with Senna in terms of sheer speed over a sin­gle lap, a view shared by Wil­liams tech­ni­cal director, Paddy Lowe, who, un­til last year, ful­filled the same role within the all-con­quer­ing Mercedes F1 team.

“Hamil­ton has the same raw speed as Senna had,” Lowe opines, “but Senna was more ruth­less.”

A bit rich, per­haps, com­ing from fel­lowBrits, to clas­sify Hamil­ton in the same speed bracket as Senna. The Ham­mer has been out-qual­i­fied by team­mates far more of­ten than the Brazil­ian ever was.

But this is the sta­tus of the game: Lewis is King.

At least for the mo­ment. By the time you read this, he might have been of­fi­cially anointed as this year’s F1 world cham­pion; the fourth time in a stel­lar rac­ing ca­reer that has now al­most ac­quired a life of its own out­side of the sport as well; Hamil­ton is well known for dab­bling in mu­sic and fash­ion; he is fully en­trenched in the glitzy set.

Is he al­ready one of the all-time F1 greats as well?

LAUDA’S MUS­INGS

In the opin­ion of this writer, yes, although Niki Lauda went a cou­ple of steps fur­ther by say­ing: “Lewis is now the great­est driver ever.”

Here’s the thing about Niki, though: he shoots from the hip, and he’s of­ten wrong.

“EX-F1 DRIVER MARK WEB­BER WAS EVEN MORE VO­CAL, CALL­ING IT “A SH*T

DE­CI­SION” ON WORLD­WIDE BBC TV.”

For a num­ber of rea­sons, he doesn’t get called out for this.

Niki’s the guy, firstly, who came back from the brink of death, re­mem­ber, sur­fac­ing from the slum­bers of his soul at the very mo­ment that a priest de­liv­ered the last rites.

That makes Niki a fighter, yes.

But it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make him a sage.

Yet, peo­ple re­act to him as if he was. They get mugged by the leg­end, see. The sub­lim­i­nal con­tention is that Niki’s life was pulled through so that he could, in later years, de­liver the gospel to us.

What helps is Lauda’s straight shoot­ing. He makes his points in the sim­plest of ways. He uses few words to do so. He never leaves room for in­nu­endo. He de­liv­ers in black and white.

His blunt­ness, fur­ther­more, is seen as hon­esty, which is equated with truth. Some­times, Niki is spot on, of course. But quite of­ten, he is about 180 de­grees out.

So, what to make of Ver­stap­pen’s pass on Räikkö­nen, in Austin, es­pe­cially in the light of Lauda la­belling the stew­ards’ de­ci­sion to pun­ish the Dutch­man with a five-sec­ond penalty as “the worst” ever.

Firstly, one has to as­sume that this de­ci­sion, in Lauda’s view, then sur­passed the level of in­com­pe­tence dis­played by the stew­ards of the Bel­gian GP in 2008, when Lewis Hamil­ton was stripped of vic­tory af­ter hav­ing passed Räikkö­nen on the pit straight, fol­low­ing an off-track ex­cur­sion by The Ham­mer which was – rightly– deemed to have been a short-cut.

In that case, Lauda also called it “the worst de­ci­sion in his­tory, a per­verted judg­ment”.

The lat­est furore erupted af­ter Ver­stap­pen was stripped of 3rd place in the USGP, af­ter hav­ing pulled off a spec­tac­u­lar pass on the in­side of the Rai’s Fer­rari.

But Max had all four wheels out­side the white line which, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial­dom, marked the edge of the track.

Many peo­ple agreed with the race stew­ards, no­tably Pat Sy­monds, Sky TV’s tech­ni­cal pun­dit. He loved the pass, Sy­monds de­clared, but rules are rules.

EX-CHAM­PI­ONS ON VER­STAP­PEN’S PASS

Three-times cham­pion Lauda ob­jected, and so did ex-champ Da­mon Hill and reign­ing F1 ti­tle­holder, Nico Ros­berg.

“Ver­stap­pen pass­ing Rai was awe­some!” the lat­ter tweeted. “He cut the cor­ner be­cause Rai was turn­ing into him and it looked like Rai would cause a crash.”

Ros­berg is pretty un­equiv­o­cal in his as­sess­ment.

Mario An­dretti went one step fur­ther by us­ing stronger lan­guage: “Could equally ar­gue Kimi forced him there. Best over­take of USGP. Feel sorry for Max. You got robbed.”

Both of th­ese for­mer F1 cham­pi­ons – from dif­fer­ent eras, it might be added (An­dretti was champ in 1978) – thus re­gard Max’s track po­si­tion, or per­haps his off-track po­si­tion, as a con­se­quence of eva­sive ac­tion taken to avoid con­tact with Räikkö­nen car.

If they’re right, the pass should have stood, and Max should have mounted the podium.

Ex-F1 driver Mark Web­ber was even more vo­cal, call­ing it “a sh*t de­ci­sion” on world­wide BBC TV. Iron­i­cally, Web­ber was stand­ing next to ex-Red Bull team mate-turned-com­men­ta­tor, David Coulthard, who rep­ri­manded Se­bas­tian Vet­tel a cou­ple of years ago for us­ing the self­same s-word on the podium in Abu Dhabi.

Red Bull team prin­ci­pal, Chris­tian Horner, was not shy ei­ther, in pointing out that the stew­ard re­spon­si­ble for slap­ping the fivesec­ond penalty on Ver­stap­pen was one with a his­tory of ad­verse de­ci­sions aimed at the Aus­trian team.

Horner ob­vi­ously didn’t name him, but the long and the short of Garry Con­nelly’s of­fi­ci­at­ing is that the Aussie seems to take the hard­est pos­si­ble line when­ever Red Bull driv­ers are in­volved, which is a shame.

The whole week­end long cars had been run­ning rings around track lim­its in Austin, yet no­body ever got pe­nalised – un­til Ver­stap­pen was, in An­dretti’s words, robbed of a podium af­ter a stun­ning come­back drive from 16th on the grid.

Lauda even went as far as sug­gest­ing that it had been agreed be­tween team prin­ci­ples and of­fi­cial­dom that all driv­able sur­faces would be re­garded as proper track ar­eas.

No­body – ex­cept Lauda – there­fore dis­putes that Ver­stap­pen had been “in the gar­den”, as Web­ber de­scribed the Dutch­man’s po­si­tion­ing.

The ar­gu­ment is rather about gain­ing an un­fair and even il­le­gal ad­van­tage.

DE­STROY­ING THE SPIRIT OF F1

Those against the penalty point out, in ac­cor­dance with quite con­vinc­ing video ev­i­dence, that Max had to take eva­sive ac­tion to avoid crash­ing into the Fer­rari when Kimi started to tighten his line.

Those for the penalty say that Räikkö­nen was ahead and on the rac­ing line, and Max, there­fore, had to back off; be­ing on Kimi’s in­side with all four wheels over the white line amounted to tak­ing a short­cut.

But what then, to say of the stew­ards’ de­ci­sion in 2013 when Gros­jean had ex­e­cuted a quite bril­liant and breath-tak­ing pass through the Hun­garor­ing’s dif­fi­cult Turn 4, tak­ing the long way around the out­side of Massa, who car­ried so much speed into the cor­ner him­self that he drifted wide and in ef­fect pushed Gros­jean into no-man’s land.

Tech­ni­cally, Gros­jean fell foul of the rule; he had all four wheels out­side the white line. In terms of gain­ing an un­fair ad­van­tage, there was none; the French­man had taken the long route around Massa.

Yet, the stew­ards, by be­ing nar­row­minded and stick­ing to the let­ter of the law, pun­ished his ini­tia­tive and in so do­ing de­liv­ered a body blow to the spirit of the sport.

Even Massa was gob-smacked, not only by Gros­jean’s brav­ery and skill, but also by the stu­pid­ity of the de­ci­sion.

Like Massa, the Kim­ster rather ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for the skill in­volved.

And let’s face it: in terms of what rac­ing is all about, and in terms of what fans are des­per­ate to see more of, the stew­ards can do no harm by think­ing a lit­tle bit out­side the box, or out­side the white lines, as it were.

So, if there is a fair ar­gu­ment to be made for a driver ex­ceed­ing track lim­its as a con­se­quence of hav­ing to take eva­sive ac­tion – as there was in the case of Hun­gary 2013 and USA 2017 – the driver who ex­e­cuted the pass should get the ben­e­fit of the doubt, just as the bats­man gets it in cricket.

F1 spends mil­lions of dol­lars in try­ing to come up with bet­ter ways for cars to pass each other.

And just like that, when driv­ers pluck a breath-tak­ing pass from thin air, they get pe­nalised!

FER­RARI’S BAD KARMA

Fer­rari, though, didn’t need any penal­ties from of­fi­cial­dom to drop out of the 2017 race.

Vet­tel kick-started a string of bad re­sults by push­ing Ver­stap­pen into Räikkö­nen in Sin­ga­pore, tak­ing all three cars out of the race.

The mis­ery was then com­pounded by Vet­tel’s turbo fail­ure in Malaysia’s FP3, leav­ing the team pre­cious lit­tle time to change the en­gine for qual­i­fy­ing. They suc­ceeded, only for the new power plant to give up the ghost in Q1, as well – which meant that the Ger­man ace started the Grand Prix from dead last.

At least Räikkö­nen, who shared the front row with Hamil­ton, was ide­ally

“BUT THIS IS THE STA­TUS OF

THE GAME: LEWIS IS KING.”

Be­low A smile and a spray greet Hamil­ton fans as they clam­our to get his at­ten­tion af­ter he wins the US Grand Prix.

Right Vet­tel’s wounded steed on the start­ing grid of the Ja­panese Grand Prix.

Left Race win­ner Max Ver­stap­pen cel­e­brates in parc ferme dur­ing the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Be­low Right Lewis wraps up the US Grand Prix lead­ing Mercedes to their fourth con­sec­u­tive con­struc­tors ti­tle.

Above Malaise for Kimi as his Fer­rari gets carted off the start­ing grid in Malaysia.

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