Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Further thoughts on the Indian Grand Prix

White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)
In most sports lines cannot be argued with. In football, if the ball crosses the line that marks the edge of the pitch then it's out, it's a throw in to the other team and there's no argument. Same in tennis, if the ball bounces over the line then it's out - end of story. So it is in rugby, so in fact it is in pretty much any sport you could mention: the line is sacrosanct.

And from a look at the F1 regulations there is very little to lead you to think that things are any different herein. Here, verbatim, is FIA Sporting Regulations Article 20.2: 'Drivers must use the track at all times. For the avoidance of doubt the white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not. A driver will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with the track. Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any advantage. A driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.'

Race Director Charlie Whiting -
doesn't come out of this well
Credit: Morio / CC
Not much to argue with there surely? But, as we're growing used to, F1 manages somehow to be different to other sports; as we're also growing used to, in this game things aren't always what they seem - as anyone who watched Saturday's qualifying session at the Buddh International Circuit could tell you. It turns out the apparently innocuous words 'without gaining an advantage' are in fact a gaping get-out.

In the Indian qualifying session the white lines around the Buddh track barely were heeded by any driver, only seeming to have worth in offering the loosest guide of the direction that the cars should be going in. At several corners every car ran completely - with all four wheels - wide of the lines on the outside; some corners were similarly cut routinely. It looked terrible, and watching on I imagined someone viewing F1 for the first time in this session - they'd have been forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on.

But apparently it was all above board; there was no retribution for any driver. The FIA's Race Director Charlie Whiting, the sport's equivalent of the police officer, in the drivers' briefing on Friday night deemed that just about anything would go in qualifying. And when interviewed on television he shed a bit more light: upon being shown footage of drivers putting all four wheels off the track in previous years at this track he declared that in his view such lines simply could not result in an advantage, and that the design of the kerbs and AstroTurf strips outside of the track specifically ensure that this is so.

But clearly this is a nonsense, judging but how all 22 drivers voted with their feet - or should that be with their wheels - in Saturday's qualifying. As most watching on noted, such as Gary Paffet, Martin Brundle and others, the drivers simply would not have been out there if they didn't think it was quicker.

Vettel - as did everyone else - routinely ignored
the track limits in qualifying
Photo: Octane Photography
I don't feel any ill-will towards the drivers in all of this. They were seeking any advantage that they could - in this case in cutting corners and making the angle of corners as shallow as possible in order to carry more speed - and seeking any advantage within the conditions that prevail is their job. Instead, what really concerns me is that F1's police, judging by Whiting's conclusion in this case, is apparently so unaware of and so behind the curve (pardon the pun) on what the drivers and modern cars are capable of. It doesn't reflect well on how it goes about its duties.

It also disturbed me that it was reported that Whiting defended the decision by stating that some of the corner exits were blind and therefore it was hard to stay within their limits. Um, they're meant to be the best drivers in the world, and there are only so many corners on the track to memorise (and the FIA approved the track). And if a driver cannot stay within the corners' boundaries then they should slow down.

There were familiar cries in response to all of this, such as 'bring back gravel traps/grass' and/or 'put a wall there'. But as far as I'm concern the solution is much simpler, and doesn't involve digging up F1 circuits (as well as allows for the fact that walls and gravel traps were done away with for a reason): enforce the rules that exist. As the Sporting Regulations Article 20.2 indicates, the existing rules' wording doesn't leave much room for ambiguity. And enforcing them is hardly rocket science: I marshal at Brands Hatch fairly regularly and there even in the most modest and low-budget motorsport event rules over respecting the track limits are enforced successfully. Drivers that persistently put all four wheels off (usually at Paddock Hill Bend) are penalised: in a race - often on a three strikes and you're out basis - it tends to result in a time penalty like a drive-through; any qualifying lap in which they do so has its time scratched. If they did similar in F1 I'm certain the drivers would learn pretty quickly.

A hat-tip to Sarto Mutiny for coming up with the really rather wonderful title for this article. If you're wondering what the heck we're talking about, listen here and enjoy.

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