The 2017 Formula One season finally reached ignition point in Baku and what a glorious conflagration it has started. Who can not be revelling in the prospect of a championship fight between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel defined not by the buddy movie soundbites of mutual respect that had preceded it but by the edge and needle that characterises F1’s truly great rivalries. What had been a gripping tussle for the title now might just have the ingredients to match the heights of Senna v Prost and Piquet v Mansell.
It was, fittingly, a heated moment itself that brought the bromance to an end. When Vettel swerved into Hamilton’s car in Azerbaijan the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. “The gloves are off” was the pleasingly gleeful response from the Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff. We shall have to wait until Austria to see what happens next time the two get in the ring but in the meantime the incident remains controversial and still potentially has greater ramifications – not least with the announcement on Wednesday that the incident will now be examined by the FIA to decide whether to take further action.
The former driver Mark Blundell said: “It was like two boxers and one gives the other a shot below the belt. I am not sure what went on. To a degree the penalty [a 10-second drive-through penalty] does not fit the crime.”
Blundell, who drove in F1 for four years, the US Cart series and won Le Mans, has more to bring to this debate than that of ringside commentator, however. Since it happened the incident has polarised opinion and brought forth all sorts of differing perspectives on both cause and consequence.
Among them is the FIA president, Jean Todt, who is reported to share Blundell’s opinion of the crime and penalty failing to be in proportion. Vettel may yet still find himself in front of the FIA’s international tribunal – subject to the FIA’s investigation now taking place and from which a decision is expected before Austria. That has, in turn, brought the stewards’ decision-making back under the spotlight.
The FIA instituted the system of having a different former driver at each race as a steward in 2010. In Baku it was the US racer Danny Sullivan, a former F1 driver and the 1985 Indy 500 winner. Blundell served as one for the first time at Barcelona in 2011, has reprised the role several times since and is sympathetic to their plight. “I would not want to be the guys sitting in that room,” he says. “It’s not an easy role or an easy decision to make and it’s not done lightly. It’s not an area of the sport where you make friends that’s for sure.”
Criticism of the stewards has been widespread but Blundell is careful to point out they make collective decisions on incidents and the degree of sanction, informed by TV, radio transmissions and data and then guided by F1’s sporting code. It is perhaps a lack of transparency that exacerbates the situation.
“So many people are quick to jump up and down but unless you have been in that situation you are never going to have the insight,” he says. “Maybe that’s part of the process, the insight should be more open so people can understand the decision. In a rugby match when the ref makes a decision it is there for the world to listen to.”
It is certainly a suggestion that would be welcomed by fans and perhaps alleviate some of the approbation heaped, usually, on the driver steward’s shoulders.
A further solution, which has been aired and has weight, is to use drivers who have only recently retired as their experience is more relevant to making decisions now. A potential issue with that, however, as Blundell notes, is that drivers who have just retired are normally still heavily connected to the sport, as ambassadors for sponsors or for teams and thus potentially unable to bring the required subjectivity.
Alongside openness, greater consistency seems key to improving the process. “The driver steward should be someone that is there at all grands prix. I don’t think it’s a good idea to change the stewards around,” Blundell says. “If you are going to take on the role you are going to stand there and be counted. You get to understand what certain drivers are like, how they react, they get to understand that and there is consistency and continuity.”
Which solution would require the role to be salaried to the extent of compensating the incumbent for the resultant time and loss of income such a commitment would require. Not something beyond the means of the FIA or indeed the Formula One Group, for whom the publicity from flare-ups such as last Sunday’s and from a great title rivalry will be priceless.
But for this fight to be truly one of the greats, Baku’s incendiary opening must continue and if that is the case judgments made on everyone who takes to the track must be consistent, understandable and open to drivers and fans alike.