Friday 30 August 2013

Further thoughts on the Belgian Grand Prix

Raising the standard
That Sebastian Vettel was faster than everyone, and Fernando Alonso faster than everyone aside from him, meant that up front the cars didn't often get close to one and other in last Sunday's Spa race. Those behind it seemed were determined to make up the deficit though, with much dicing among them and a few dollops of controversy. One of the most notable of the latter was that Sergio Perez picked up a drive through penalty for seeing fit to to squeeze Romain Grosjean off the track while passing him as they proceeded along the Kemmel straight and into Les Combes on lap 8. Not everyone agreed with the sanction - Martin Brundle for example on the Sky commentary said he thought it harsh, while Perez's boss Martin Whitmarsh suggested that it reflected Perez being somewhat targeted by stewards these days due to previous controversy.

Sergio Perez - in the wars at Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
I don't wish to hammer Whitmarsh, as it's his job to defend his driver - but I thought the penalty was fair enough. Not only is the rule about leaving a car's width at the side of the track clear, moreover I really cannot stand to see drivers squeezing others in a straight line. This is because, for all of the massive strides in motor sport safety, it is exposed wheels coming into contact, surface to surface, that remains a conspicuous danger, particularly around a braking zone where speed differences could be especially great. Such contact will likely send a car airborne, and therefore its driver into the lap of the Gods. Indeed we saw in Saturday's GP3 race at almost the exactly same point of the Spa circuit what sort of carnage can follow such squeezing, when Jack Harvey egregiously did so to Carlos Sainz Jr. And the consequences could have been much worse even than that.

Upon being told of his penalty Perez protested on the radio that he 'had the corner', but that in my view is no defence at all. Indeed in some ways it makes it worse, as given he was clearly going to pass Grosjean anyway it rendered the 'squeeze' as, on top of its other crimes, thoroughly pointless. And if it is believed within the McLaren team that Perez is a marked man - and Whitmarsh has indicated that it is - then that's surely all the more reason not to push your luck, to avoid giving the stewards a decision to make about you? If Perez wants a positive example of how to respond in such a predicament there was a time of course not so long ago wherein it was said that Lewis Hamilton was a marked man: he responded by cleaning up his act, and to my knowledge he's not had a driving penalty since 2011. He's also lost none of his speed or aggression in so doing.

And as for the defence that both Nico Hulkenberg and Jean-Eric Vergne did similar later in the race, yes they did, and that indeed again demonstrated the apparent inconsistency of the stewards. But in itself it doesn't justify Perez's actions, it only deflects them.

Jack Harvey - guilty of poor driving at Spa
Photo: Octane Photography
But more broadly it all strikes me as the latest episode wherein you are left suspecting that some drivers have got rather complacent on the safety of their on-track dicing. I don't wish to pick on Perez in particular as many seem guilty, the behaviour is common in GP2 and GP3 as well as among some younger F1 drivers too, perhaps by extension. Possibly it is an unintended consequence of the lengthy strides in safety standards, that the latest generation of drivers have less of a keen instinct of self-preservation than was once the case. John Watson for one agrees, saying on television earlier this week: 'Because of the era they live in they think they're utterly and totally bulletproof. I still think there's a potentially serious accident around, it's just waiting for the right ingredients to come together.'

Indeed I heard it said over the Spa weekend by someone who follows the two junior categories closer than I do that a fatal accident in GP2 or GP3 doesn't seem too far away right now, and that it could well come in the sort of circumstances that Perez's move on Grosjean (and Harvey on Sainz) threatened, such as with an airborne car perhaps landing cockpit-side first on the top of a barrier. I'd go even further and suggest, like Watson, that I don't think we can rule it out in F1 either. Moreover, it always chills me to recall how complacent the sport was in the months and years prior to early 1994, when most in F1 seemed under the impression that the sport had reached the end of history when it came to fatalities, only for a succession of harrowing accidents, injuries and deaths to snap everyone out of their collective stupor. Unlike then, let's hope this time that it doesn't take tragedy to happen for things to change.

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