Tuesday 9 September 2014

Why does F1 love a conspiracy theory?

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

All concerned were justified in being incredulous afterwards. When the chequered flag fell in Monza those in the Mercedes camp no doubt heaved a sigh of relief. They had got their first one-two finish since June. Moreover they had got their first race devoid of any sources of bitterness and rancour since early May.

Lewis Hamilton's Italian Grand Prix win was
only the start of matters, in some ways
Photo: Octane Photography
That's what they thought anyway. As you'll know by now they didn't get it. Some had managed to find a source of bitterness and rancour. In how the lead switched from Nico Rosberg to Lewis Hamilton at mid-distance of Sunday's Italian Grand Prix proceedings, thanks to Nico outbraking himself at the first chicane, under pressure from a rapidly closing Lewis (who as Mark Hughes has outlined was faster in the Monza weekend for a few reasons). The resultant delay was more than enough for the latter to seize the lead, which proved decisive to the final result.

Not much to see it seemed; it looked to the unaided eye a genuine error. Indeed it was one that Nico made earlier in the race too (though he didn't lose a place that time). Plus he made similar errors in the races in Canada, Austria and in Hungary earlier this campaign, as well as in Hungary's qualifying (though in mitigation the Hungaroring ones were both in the wet). He came very close to the same in Spa, managing to give himself large flat spots on his tyres instead - which given the problems they caused him there may have swayed him to take the escape road this time. He did it in Monaco quali too, but perhaps we best not go there.

But a few maintained that there was something to see. That it was deliberate from Nico, a pre-arranged move to give the win to Lewis, as part of his retribution for Spa and all that.

As with the previous conspiracy theories directed at Mercedes this year I'm not buying this one, and on the grounds that in my view it does not begin to pass any sort of credibility test. And probably this particular one fails it the most miserably of the lot.

There has been some helpful debunking of the claims since, this one by James Allen is particularly good, so there's little that I can add to these beyond a brief retread.

The main problem with this conspiracy theory is, as Damon Hill noted on TV when it all was put to him, how exactly would you sell that to Nico Rosberg?

For him to, as the theorists have it, deliberately give the impression to the world that he'd cracked under pressure, one race after making another high profile mistake which he took the culpability for thus seemingly cementing the idea that he's a bit flaky at vital moments, would be to wilfully drive a sword into his own reputation. Add to that that the Monza result was potentially about much more than the 14 point swing resulting from Rosberg's mistake. The consensus is that it marked the passing of the psychological advantage baton, as well as the ever-crucial sense of momentum, to Lewis for the remainder of the championship battle. Make no mistake about it, if Lewis Hamilton does prevail in this 2014 world championship Monza will be looked at as a point - probably the point - upon which matters pivoted.

Nico Rosberg wasn't universally popular in Monza
Photo: Octane Photography
And all of this for an offence at Spa that in itself was rather trifling - clumsy rather than egregious. The sort that we see routinely race after race up and down the order. To cop all of that on that basis would be - as Mario Andretti once noted on another matter - like getting the death penalty for a parking offence.

And as Allen also outlined even if you were going to do something to ensure Lewis prevailed in the Monza race you wouldn't do it in such a risky fashion. To borrow from Sir Humphrey Appleby on Yes, Minister: 'if you insist on doing that damn foolish thing, don't do it in that damn foolish way.'

As with most conspiracy theories, inconvenient facts are either ignored, or somehow enough will is applied to contort them to suit nevertheless. As mentioned Nico made a close to identical error earlier in the race, as well as several other times in previous weekends. Perhaps it all was an elaborate attempt to put us off the scent. Then there was the radio message to Lewis from his engineer just before, which advised him to stay 2-2.5 seconds behind, which had Lewis complied with might have meant he wasn't near enough to jump Nico when he goofed. Perhaps that was an attempt to perform George Constanza-esque reverse psychology on Lewis. Terribly sophisticated these conspiracy theories these days, I'm sure you'll agree.

Which brings us to the main problem with such theories and not just in F1. As outlined Nico's error has a simple explanation - he erred by braking too late just as has been done for as long as cars have been raced. Particularly when under pressure. From a faster team mate. In a title battle.

But it is the way of the conspiracy theorist to discard the simple - and more probable - for the more complex. In Britain we like to say 'cock-up before conspiracy' (for the uninitiated, in Britain a 'cock-up' is a blunder), derived from the words of Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary Bernard Ingham: 'Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.' It most likely is the way in F1 too.

With all of this why do conspiracy theories persist? Particularly, it seems, in F1? Well, in a general sense conspiracy theories have always had their attractions. They tend to purport to explain the unexplainable; imply human control over everything rather than allow the possibly more bewildering (certainly more accurate) concept that some things just happen, as well as that we all are fallible. They also tend to be more interesting than the often mundane reality. So it is here. The best evidence is that the mundane reality is that Nico made a mistake, and that it just happened, and he's fallible.

Nico led early, but the switch of Mercs later got a few going
Photo: Octane Photography
They also as intimated tend to be neatly all-encompassing. Which as well as a key part of their attraction also ultimately tends to be their downfall, in that they're too all-encompassing. They're untestable; almost circular. They cannot be proved wrong, and with this you have no way of knowing if they are wrong. As the adage goes if you don't allow any opportunity of being proved wrong then you lose any opportunity of being proved right.

It's easy to blame the modern age and social media for such phenomena, but perhaps we overstate this. After all in this case the likes of Eddie Jordan and Jackie Stewart have stirred the pot via the old media, while The Times led its sports news coverage on its website on Sunday evening with the conspiracy claims. Plenty of other outposts of the written press did similar.

While plenty of commonly-aired conspiracies pre-date the social media age. And not just in F1. Just think of the JFK assassination and the moon landing for two. And within F1, going back years and decades they roll off the tongue: did Lorenzo Bandini know what he was doing when he collided with Graham Hill in the title-deciding round in 1964, which as it transpired aided his Ferrari team mate John Surtees's way towards the championship? Did Pedro Rodriguez win the 1970 Belgian Grand Prix with an oversized engine? Bernie's Brabham team had various acts of skulduggery attributed to it, at least one of which has since been admitted. Was Nigel Mansell correct that Honda diddled him out of the 1987 title, when it became clear that Nige and the Japanese concern wouldn't be together the following year? Then there's Benetton, 1994 etc. And various goings-on of both 'sides' in Jerez 1997.

But still, it seems beyond doubt that the internet and social media age lends greater potential than before for such theories to first be started as well as to be spread. And it is the case too that F1 likely has peculiar recent reasons - more so than in most activities - for its followers to assume that little can be placed beyond its participants. Most obviously Singapore 2008, with others such as 'Spygate' and and it being revealed that Ferrari has for years had a technical veto (curiously kept quiet from its contemporaries) also perhaps contributing. Heck, we've even found out since the Monza race just passed that Williams needs the permission of a Mercedes engineer to use its overtake setting (as every team does with its respective engine supplier engineer). And as Hughes noted someone in the team suspects the permission is curiously less forthcoming when the Williams is battling a Mercedes... So it's little wonder a few feel the need to be vigilant.

Add to this also that F1 there seems generally more potential than in most pursuits for the conspiracy to take place; at least it seems so to the public eye. If the conspiracy theory usually is complex then also few sports can be said to be as complex as F1; much goes on behind closed doors and inside the various black boxes that most of the rest of us know next to nothing about. The potential ways and means of getting up to no good are never-ending. The list of examples above - both historic an recent - demonstrates that.

So totalling all this up: we have a sport that is apparently fertile territory for conspiracy theories, watered by a few high profile cases recently and fertilised by a social media age that's rather big on such things. Perhaps with this it's no wonder that this season, and most lately in Monza, F1's conspiracy theory harvest has been a plentiful one.

1 comment:

  1. To summarize: never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.