Saturday 17 September 2011

It's time to stop the block

The guys who finished in the top three at Monza last weekend have barely had a look in. Much of the comment about the race since has concerned the guys that came fourth and fifth: Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. Most pertinently, it concerned Schumacher's tactics in defending his place from Lewis Hamilton, a battle that lasted for half the race.

Schumi's extreme pushing of the boundaries of acceptability when defending is well-established, and as it was, not for the first time, he escaped serious punishment at Monza. This was an outcome that split F1 fans pretty much down the middle, between the 'it's racing, it's entertaining, let them get on with it' group in one corner and the 'it was dangerous and clearly outside the rules' in the other.

Michael Schumacher has again been in the news
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
In my view it's beyond doubt that, given the rules, Schumi should have received some censure for his tactics. The battle certainly provided entertainment, much of Schumi's defence of positioning his car on the inside line was, given the regs are as they are, in the 'hard but fair' category, and he was greatly assisted his his car's prodigious straightline speed. But even so some of Schumacher's moves in defending his place went beyond what the regulations say are acceptable.

Just as a reminder, article 20.2 of the sporting regulations states: 'Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as more than one change of direction to defend a position, deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.' Schumacher, most notably, moved twice in defending his place ahead of Hamilton on lap 20 approaching the first Lesmo, right to the inside of the track and immediately right back to the racing line to take his apex. He did something similar, though less extreme, on laps 10, 11, 13, 15 and 21 on the run down to the Ascari complex. And of course he edged Hamilton off the track at Curve Grande on lap 16, which looked both dangerous in itself and an example of 'crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track'. Indeed, he was warned more than once by race control for his driving, the first time was even before the worst case on lap 20, and it transpires that he in all probability would have received a penalty for the lap 20 move had the stewards' attention not been elsewhere at that point (something subsequently admitted by driver steward Derek Daly - Daly talks in detail and with commendable frankness on his stewarding at Monza on The Flying Lap below).

Episode 36: Italian De-brief with Derek and Conor Daly from Smibs TV on Vimeo.
But the discussion got me thinking more widely about what should be considered acceptable in F1 when defending your position from a competitor in a race.

First off, I'll nail my colours to the mast. While I of course want to see absorbing battles for position that last a long time in F1 races, I don't like blocking. As outlined above, only 'more than one change of direction to defend a position' is outlawed, so by definition one move is kosher. So, while the 'one move' rule has legally enshrined an F1 driver's right to move off their normal line in order to defend a place, I'm not 100% comfortable with it. And I'm not at all comfortable when such a move causes a driver to take evasive action, such as braking or swerving (including off the track). This sort of blocking is permitted in F1 now (so long as you only do it once) - I can't think of an instance of it being punished. I view blocking as ugly, unedifying, as well as potentially very dangerous if the driver behind has momentum when the 'one move' is made. I also see blocking as crude, something anyone could do if they had a will to, and not at all in keeping with F1's status about being a showcase for the best drivers and the best racing in the world.

It also strikes me as absurd in an age where the lack of overtaking in F1 problem has been wrestled with, and some radical solutions implemented, that blocking has continued to be permitted. Wouldn't a stricter outlawing of blocking, rather than DRS, have been a much simpler means of encouraging more overtaking in F1, as well as more in keeping with what F1 is about?

If it were up to me, defending a position in F1 (as well as elsewhere in motorsport) would be about braking late into a corner, going bravely around the outside of your opponent, not making mistakes, being quick in important areas of the track and the like, and not about moving off your line to make it harder for an opponent to get around you, and especially not about doing so in a way that causes your opponent to take evasive action.

You might think this is cloud cuckoo land, but it's not quite as unimaginable as you might think. Blocking in its various forms has long since been outlawed, and punished severely when it does happen, in many US racing series, and in F1 these sorts of tactics are very much a new thing when the expanse of F1 history is considered. Although it's always been the case throughout history that some drivers were known to be more robust in defending their place than others, blocking only really became common practice in the 1980s. Before that, it was widely considered a no-no.

To take one example, in the closing laps in the 1961 French Grand Prix at Reims Dan Gurney in his Porsche was battling with Giancarlo Baghetti in his Ferrari for victory. Reims was primarily made up of long straights, and Gurney led out of the last corner, but on the long drag down the finish Baghetti slipstreamed past him and won. Had Dan thought about blocking his rival? 'Oh, I thought about it!' said Dan. 'I hadn't won a Grand Prix yet, and I really wanted it. But it was only a flash through my mind - obviously, I couldn't do it, just as I wouldn't have wanted him to do it to me. I mean, there was no way...' How things change.

I've read more than one comment since Monza last weekend that Schumacher's actions merely reflect the robust defence of a position practiced by most of the sport's great drivers in history. Rubbish.

And as for those who think that motor racing shorn of its 'one move' in defending a place would be boring and the racing devalued, I direct you towards the fight for second place by Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux in the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix. It's a battle of extreme aggression and desperation, who knows who many times they banged wheels, pass and re-pass in the final laps. It's rightly gone down as one of the best, if not the best, example of a classic F1 racing battle. But watch again, never once does either swerve at their opponent, or take an abnormal line to keep the other behind. That's the sort of racing I want to see.

Even if all this were not possible, too much of a leap, there are surely sensible moves that could be made fairly easily to move in the right direction. The most obvious one, which was betrayed somewhat at Monza, is that extent that a driver can return to their usual racing line having made their 'one move'. Schumacher repeatedly moved all the way back to the racing line after making his 'one move' at Monza, as mentioned, yet received no more than warnings via his team principal. Indeed, Derek Daly admitted on The Flying Lap that what is allowed in returning to your normal line is 'a bit of a grey area', despite him asking the chief steward specifically what is permitted. Mark Webber expressed surprise: 'There were a few times when Michael returned to the normal line having defended. That's the point of interest because it's not what most drivers understand to be acceptable.' This certainly is an area that needs to be clarified.

And if we must keep 'one move', I'd like some kind of alteration to say that the move should have to come early, so it amounts to a covering of the inside line, giving your opponent the choice of going around the other way. Derek Daly's right that the 'one move' rule has been abused, and been used as a means for drivers to 'chop' an opponent, essentially giving them an opportunity to take avoiding action or crash. As outlined, I feel such tactics have no place in Formula One as I know it.

We could also do a bit better in enforcing the rules that currently exist. As mentioned, Schumacher repeatedly breached the 'one move' rule, yet received no more than warnings (which I doubt would be much of a deterrent to someone like Schumi). The 'deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction' element of the rules was introduced at the start of this season, yet I cannot think of a single instance of it being enforced. Monza would have been a good place to start.

And if nothing else, 'one move' in its currently-accepted form is dangerous. We live in age wherein F1 is, thankfully, safer than it has ever been, benefiting from giant strides over time in safety standards. It seems astonishing therefore that, at roughly the same time, the legally-enshrined right to aim a car at another has been developed. These things are still dangerous, drivers can still get hurt (or killed) and, worst of all, cars can end up in the crowd. I'm inclined to agree with what Martin Brundle commented upon in the Italian Grand Prix commentary last weekend, that you wonder if contemporary F1 has got a little complacent on the safety of their on-track dicing (and many drivers are guilty). And if you're thinking 'don't be ridiculous', I recall how complacent most of us (including me) were on safety prior to 1994. Unlike then, let's hope it doesn't take a tragedy for things to change.

It's about time that 'one move' was restricted or, better, ditched altogether.


  1. Well argued. Defensive lines are one thing, squeezing a car until there is no choice but to back off or returning to the racing line after having abandoned it is unsporting Playstation-esque behaviour. And I certainly agree about complacency pre-94, we should learn as much from the mis-guided attitudes of the time as we take from the technical failings of the era.

  2. What about the practice when holding the inside line of pushing a driver to the outside and beyond after the apex of a corner ?

    I must admit when I first saw the rules above quoted at the beginning of the season I thought the intention was that if you'd managed to hang on around the outside you could not then, as so often in f1, be simply pushed off the track on the exit. The onus being on the guy on the inside to leave a cars width on the exit if required. It appears currently that if you're on the inside at the apex you are perceived to have the racing line and can pretty do much what you want on the exit regardless of the consequences to the "other guy".

  3. Completely agree - it was plain from Michael's actions early in the year that he just didn't get it, and was liable to kill somebody before the hint sank in. What he did to Petrov (in Turkey, I believe) was ridiculous, and in a world with DRS's closing rates, massively dangerous.

    Aero has created the inability to pass, and so now aero is being used to facilitate it. It's certainly not the most "pure" solution, and its effects have been too dramatic at times this year, but in a world with DRS, the rules should make it very clear that blocking of any kind on the approach to a corner is forbidden. As you note, if the move to block the inside is made early enough, I can see an exception being allowed, but Michael's tactic of simply diving toward the inside line on the approach to a corner to discourage overtaking is clearly outside the current spirit of the rules, and should be made to be outside the letter going forward.