Monday 17 March 2014

Problem solving

Of course, Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix was a matter of considerable regret. And as a by-product it served to re-open the whole debate around possibly the one aspect of F1 that causes the most wrangling and self-disgust; perhaps most perplexes the uninitiated. That in this game we can have the event and in so doing establish the result apparently, only for it to be changed later by the stroke of an official's pen.

The Guardian's Paul Weaver for one railed on that very matter: 'Picking a winner from a heavyweight contest between silks is a hazardous business; identifying the loser is as easy as waving a chequered flag. It is the F1 fan...' he said. While the local paper in Melbourne the Herald Sun was more jarring in response to it all: displaying a large banner headline across its front page reading: 'Grand Farce'. Social media was laden with similar sentiment.

Despite all appearances, it turned out that
Daniel Ricciardo didn't finish second
 in the Australia Grand Prix after all
Photo: Octane Photography
But while we can cite this as a problem rather easily, and get embarrassed when it happens, is framing a solution to it all anything like as straightforward? No, is the short answer.

The time aspect can be criticised of course: quite why it took upwards of five hours to confirm what seemed a fairly clear decision regarding a breach that the stewards knew about during the race isn't obvious (the most probable explanation was Red Bull arguing). But beyond that what can be done?

At the most fundamental level F1 must have rules (as any sport must), the rule book must be enforced and breaches must have their consequences. To not have these would amount to anarchy. And F1 unlike a lot of sports has regulations both sporting and technical, adding a layer of (often considerable) complexity.

And while it may be hard to take, the emotional needs to be parked to a large extent in such considerations. It cannot be denied that at least some of the fallout of last Sunday's disqualification is related to the context: of the victim being the popular and ever-smiling Ricciardo, racing at home, scoring his first ever podium, and reacting to it all with such unconstrained joy which the assembled fans responded to in kind.

It's probable that the exclusion of any other driver in the race would have created less of a rumpus, in many cases much less. One thinks back to three years ago at the same venue wherein the two points-scoring Saubers were disqualified post hoc for having rear wings too high - and few outside of the Hinwil team batted an eyelid. Criticising the enforcement of rules on the grounds of not liking the specific outcome it creates in that case seems a little worthless. Doing so on the grounds that it'll peeve the fans always strikes me as rather like saying that you shouldn't send criminals to prison in case it upsets their wife and kids...

Some argue - including in this case given Ricicardo personally was an innocent party - that punishments should focus on the team rather than the driver. But the driver and team cannot easily be decoupled, plus punishing the team only would seem light retribution in more serious offences. Fines and the like rarely give the impression of being much of a deterrent at all.

An additional problem motor sport has is that it is not the sort of activity wherein instant justice can be handed out easily - unlike football, rugby and the like wherein the referee can blow the whistle at any point and administer reprisals. If we take one of the closer analogies horse racing just like motor sport has stewards' inquires after the race is over that have the potential to change the result.

Some have suggested that given the FIA technical representative and the stewards were aware of the fuel flow breach during the race that Ricciardo could have been black flagged (i.e. disqualified during the race). That might not have made the afore-mentioned fans any happier however, though at least it would have had the benefit of heading off a lot of the subsequent argument and uncertainty. After all, if a car is hauled in partway through the race that is it: you can't re-run the Grand Prix the next day with the black flag overturned.

But perhaps this is precisely why this wasn't done: it would have been a massive call. And to a large extent unprecedented: in all my time watching F1 (which stretches back to 1986) I struggle to think of a single instance of a black flag during the race for a technical breach, only for sporting ones.

NASCAR apparently does its scrutineering before the race, not after, so that system makes it more likely results established when the chequered flag falls remain untouched. But of course applied to F1 it wouldn't have helped in this specific case, something that only became apparent during the race.

So while we might be able to change the details the fundamental possibility of race results being changed after the event doesn't seem likely to change any time soon. We most probably have little choice but to conclude that - as Winston Churchill once did of democracy - it's the worst system, apart from all of the other ones.

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