F1: What can be learnt from American racing (part 1)

The recent wild finish at the NASCAR Watkins Glen road course brings memories of what happened in Hockenheim, where Sebastian Vettel was penalised for overtaking Jenson Button while going off track and was demoted from second to fourth as a result.

The NASCAR race at the Glen produced one of the best finishes in recent times with Marcos Ambrose moving from third to first in a short period of time, including an amazing battle with Brad Keselowski and an overtaking move that included, er, going off the track and back. But this is NASCAR and there wasn’t even a suggestion of a penalty.

NASCAR gets it right. Why?

Because as long as we have a level playing field, it’s fine. Drivers should be able to use all the track and a bit more, because that will generate more spectacular moments. Those magic moments where fans at the circuit or at home stand up and cheer. Moments they remember years later. They may even want to watch a video replay and pay for that content.

Of course, tracks should be designed in a way such that going off track does not yield an unreasonable advantage, like a massive shortcut. Most of them already are.

F1 should be much more pragmatic and less purist in its approach to racing. Penalising moves such as Vettel’s will make others think twice before trying something audacious, although in this instance Vettel had the chance to try and get out of it when it was clear he was going to run off track.

There is already a strong incentive to wait for a super safe opportunity to overtake in the DRS zone (curiously, that is where this incident occurred). Penalising ambitious but not unsafe moves isn’t exactly a good way to promote overtaking and the show.

Over-penalising also brings incentives for rival teams to protest as soon as there is something vaguely unusual about an overtaking move. For example, Button took less than a lap to complain to his team on the radio. Whilst these protests are within the rules, they are not positive for the sport, just as it is not positive when football players pressure the referee for a penalty as soon as something unusual takes place in the box.

Finally, the biggest negative of all is F1’s inability to deal with
incidents promptly. Even of Vettel were to be penalised, someone in race control should have demanded him to give up the position immediately back to Button. If teams have an army of dedicated strategists following the race, it is not unreasonable to have one dedicated individual to each driver in race control that would make this call within seconds of the incident. In this case, Vettel would have dropped back to third place which was still a fair outcome.

Instead, stewards added an arbitrary amount of time to his race, promoting Romain Grosjean, a man who was never in contention, to the podium.

That’s definitely not right.

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