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.
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?
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.