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Opinion: are FIA penalties secretly F1’s biggest problem?

We were robbed of a nail-biting climax to the 2019 F1 Canadian GP

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On lap 48 of 70, Lewis Hamilton won the 2019 Canadian F1 grand prix. 22 laps early. And while the Mercedes F1 car is fiendishly quick, it ain’t a time machine. 

What happened? Well the official account in the history books will read thusly. Race leader Sebastian Vettel, under pressure from second-placed Hamilton, lost the back end of his Ferrari at the entry to turn three. He bumped across the infield, had a little slide as his grass-covered tyres found the track again, and shut the door on Lewis just as it appeared the current championship leader might sneak past. 

You can watch the footage from several angles here

From that moment on, Vettel’s fate was sealed. It took the FIA governing body’s stewards nine laps to decide that Vettel had rejoined the track in an unsafe manner, forcing his rival dangerously off the track, and therefore, he had to pay. Not out of his pockets, but in F1’s most crucial currency: seconds. Five of ‘em, added to his race time. So, although the Ferrari beat the Mercedes to the line on lap 70 of 70, it didn’t have a five-second margin – which in F1 terms, is about a fortnight. 

Cue awkward celebration from Lewis on the radio, a disgusted reaction from beaten Seb, and an awful lot of F1 fans queueing up to tell the FIA to go and shove their penalties. 

Yes, it’s the same rule that’s penalised Max Verstappen for daring overtakes before. So the FIA says its hands are tied.

I’m not sure. I can see why the FIA didn’t as some have suggested, wait until the end of the race before blindsiding Vettel with a race-losing penalty. If the German and Brit had collided in a last-lap do-or-die duel, smashing up both cars and landing each team exactly zero points, imagine the fallout… 

“Ah yes, sorry chaps, We were, erm, actually going to kneecap Vettel anyway, so no need to fight so hard.” There’d have been riots in the pit lane. 

True, Vettel must be dizzy from the amount of times he’s spun his F1 car when a rival has come up behind him and said “boo”. His confidence is hardly sky-high right now. But with this latest incident, why even bother fighting? One tiny error, and even if he recovers as best anyone could in that split-second, the FIA are ready and waiting to pop a fire-blanket over his desire to race hard.

F1 gets a lot of stick, and there’s a lot we’d all change about it. We’d like more noise, less downforce, and fewer fiddly shards of carbon fibre making every car look like a Mardi Gras carnival float. 

But even though the cars are pigs to drive, the drivers are forced (publicly) to talk like sponsor-programmed robots and half the tracks are so flat and boring we’d rather see the cars race around the airport of the country they’ve landed in, the drivers so often managed to put on a cracking show. 

Daniel Riccardo’s divebomber overtakes. Lewis’ stunning qualifying pace. The downright rude racing of Verstappen. And the fascinating inter-team, inter-mid-field fights as the likes of Renault, Racing Point and Toro Rosso scrap for a measly point. Will McLaren’s redemption arc complete? Who’s the bigger rising star, King of Memes Lando Norris or the almost tragically soulful Charles Leclerc? 

And then, riding roughshod over all of it, pouring quick-drying concrete into any excitement and momentum the championship generates, is the FIA. Penalties for overtaking. Penalties for breaking down. Penalties for saying a naughty word on the team radio or having a fingerprint on your contract-endorsed designer sunglasses, the way we’re going. 

You have drivers arriving at qualifying knowing that they’re due a thirty- or forty-place grid drop because their ten-million quid engine went bang last time out. A forty-place penalty. In a field of twenty cars. What are they supposed to do, start the race on Monday afternoon when everyone else has gone home?

Canada 2019 proves the FIA is often the worst enemy of its blue riband tournament. It wasn’t just Vettel that was cruelly robbed in Canada. It was all of us: every single one who bothered to tune in. Right?

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