The Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Round 8 of the 2017 FIA Formula 1 World Championship, dished up an incredible spectacle that was a far cry from the relative snore-fest that we experienced in 2016, the first time the Baku GP was held. The ‘Land of Fire’, as Azerbaijan is known, offered up an incident-strewn race that provided a number of breathtaking moments and quite a few surprises (Some of them of the not-so-pleasant variety).
Daniel Ricciardo’s unexpected victory was a result of some truly exceptional overtaking, while the much-maligned Canadian rookie Lance Stroll followed up his first-ever finish in the points at his home Grand Prix with a measured and mature drive that delivered a superb third-place finish – And of course a shoey on the podium! That second place could have even been a runner up finish but for a superb recovery drive from Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, who was dead last early in the race after clashing with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. A spirited, never-say-die attitude saw the Finn overtake Stroll on the last lap to grab the second step on the podium.
However, in such a fascinating and incident-strewn race, one has overshadowed everything else. And no, it is not the brewing battle between the teammates at Force India, but rather what you no doubt have already heard plenty of – The incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Ah yes, the incident that has brought out the most rabid and tribal nature of F1 fans on social media, and sparked more opinions than Pirelli have tyre compounds. Trying to navigate individual viewpoints and avoid stepping on anyone’s toes has been tougher than Martin Brundle’s Grid Walk every race Sunday. Well, luckily for you, here at InTheStandSport we don’t shy away from the controversy – So here is another view on the entire incident and its fallout that attempts to provide perspective.
As you no doubt have seen by now, under the safety car on lap 19, Vettel was following leader Hamilton as the race was getting set to get back underway. As the German accelerated out of a corner, Hamilton’s Mercedes seemed to be moving very slowly, resulting in him running into the Briton, which enraged Vettel and instilled the belief that the Briton had intentionally brake-tested him – In other words backing up the pack and suddenly stepping on the brakes. What followed was a moment that will live long in F1 folklore, as Vettel, gesticulating wildly, pulled up alongside Hamilton’s Mercedes and seemingly rammed him intentionally. Later in the race, the Ferrari man was handed a ten-second stop-go penalty, and three points were added to his Superlicence’s disciplinary record.
Hamilton, during and after the race, was extremely upset, first complaining that a ten-second penalty was not enough, and afterwards indicating he considered it unfair that Vettel still finished ahead of him despite the act that, according to the Briton, “disgraced” the four-time world champion. Looking at it from Hamilton’s position, one can fully understand why he was upset with how things turned out. But was it the fault of the Stewards’ choice of punishment, or rather terribly bad luck? While leading and seemingly destined to win the race, Hamilton’s headrest came loose, necessitating a pit-stop that put him back in the pack and dashed his hopes of victory. In a cruelly ironic twist, Vettel had to serve his penalty at virtually the same time, and the German actually came out of the pits ahead of Hamilton, and as they progressed through the pack that is how it remained to the chequered flag. The big question is whether Hamilton would have still been so critical of Vettel’s penalty had that bit of misfortune not occurred and he raced off into the distance while his title rival dropped back due to the penalty? It’s something to consider.
Vettel, for his part, is definitely guilty of doing something incredibly stupid and allowing the red mist to take over. His insistence that Hamilton brake-tested him was debunked by the stewards, who looked at the data from the Mercedes and saw that he definitely did not suddenly brake, intentionally or unintentionally. However, the three-time world champion did not accelerate either, and if you look from Vettel’s on-board camera it is quite easy to think that Hamilton did, in fact, brake-test him because he showed basically no acceleration out of the corner which completely caught out the German, resulting in him running into the back of the Mercedes. Vettel then completely lost his temper, came up alongside Hamilton all while frantically gesturing with his hands, and bumped into his car. This, in itself, did not look fully intentional as it had more potential to damage Vettel’s car badly than Hamilton’s. It seemed like the German wanted to aggressively swerve near the Mercedes, but through his blind rage and not holding onto the steering wheel with both hands, he ended up making contact.
But why, then, did Hamilton not pull away out of the corner? Of course, it is well within his right as race leader to control the pace behind the safety car, but he had been forced to drive even slower than he would have liked by the safety car itself. Throughout the previous stints under the safety car, Hamilton in particular had complained about the slow pace being set. So from this even the most staunch Hamilton-opposed fan would have to admit that he didn’t really do anything wrong. However, the FIA then must then acknowledge the role that the safety car had played in this incident, which caused a whole domino effect and a major misunderstanding. That having been said, though, it doesn’t excuse Vettel’s stupidity, and his punishment was well-deserved.
Does that mean he has to be punished further? His refusal to admit guilt, and the fact that there has been no apology yet has not gone too well with most of the F1 community. But one has to keep perspective; if Vettel had collided with Hamilton at 200 miles per hour or actually put the Briton out of the race, then he certainly should have been black-flagged and given a ban. However, the fact of the matter is that what he did only damaged his own race, and not Hamilton’s in any way directly. So, his penalty, as the stewards stated, was for ‘Dangerous Driving’, from which no harm came, and obviously an extreme bit of poor sportsmanship. Of course, he has a bit of a history of having a temper and showing poor sportsmanship – Who can forget his epic team-radio meltdown toward Charlie Whiting at the 2016 Mexican Grand Prix? But calls for him to be banned for being a routine offender is silly, considering that such repeat offences are the exact reason why the FIA has the twelve-point disciplinary system. Vettel is, after this incident, on nine points, so he has not reached the twelve point mark. Banning him now, for example, would not be in keeping with the FIA’s own system and would render it pointless. This incident should actually be used as a catalyst to re-evaluate this whole system if it does not do its job.
The FIA deciding to now further investigate the incident a number of days after it happened is starting to look an awful lot like pandering to the baying masses who want Vettel well and truly pasted with penalties and the like. One feels that their window of opportunity to take further action has passed, though. The best thing that they can do now is use this incident as a precedent for any similar act in the future, and set down some concrete regulations for similar actions in the future.
But for fans, it was a moment that will live in memory. Would you really have wanted it to rather not happen? No, because it shows F1 drivers are humans, and do really stupid things and get angry when others do really stupid things to them. F1 is one of the sports most detached from the man-on-the-street, and these are the moments that show us how these seemingly infallible individuals are actually just people.
So let’s enjoy this new edge to the Championship battle, sit back and see how the rest of the season unfolds from here.