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Are the Stewards Bottling the Big Decisions?

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The controversial incident between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the São Paulo Grand Prix was the latest in a series of race-deciding moments which the Formula 1 stewards have left alone. So, are they scared to make the big calls?

It came as a surprise to many watching on when the stewards announced their decision that there was ‘no investigation necessary’ for the lap 48 incident.

After his astonishing fight from the back of the grid over the course of the Sprint Race and then Sunday’s Grand Prix, Hamilton had caught Verstappen as the pair were heading down the back straight.

The Mercedes pulled alongside and then ahead of the Red Bull, only for a late dive by Verstappen to force both cars off the track, with the Red Bull rejoining ahead.

Image credit to LAT Images.

The incident was noted, but the stewards very quickly came to the conclusion that a full investigation was unnecessary. “Of course”, came the sarcasm-laden reply from Hamilton to his engineer.

It later became apparent that they were missing a crucial piece of evidence – the front-facing onboard view from car number 33.

Whilst the stewards have copious amounts of data to sift through in these investigations, nothing can truly replicate watching the incident from as close to the driver’s view as possible. Without that, perhaps the right call should have been to investigate the incident after the race. But Formula 1 – understandably – seems to be wary of leaving the decision of an event hanging in the balance.

This all stems from the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix.

Two and a half years ago, Hamilton claimed victory in Montreal in very controversial circumstances after Sebastian Vettel was given a five-second penalty for obstructing the Mercedes as the German rejoined the circuit from the grass.

The decision was hugely unpopular, both with Vettel – who infamously switched the number 1 and 2 boards in parc fermé – and much of the viewing public.

Image credit to LAT Images.

With hindsight, it was probably the right decision: Did Vettel rejoin the track in an unsafe manner and cause Hamilton to take avoiding action? Yes. Did he have any control of that once off the track? No. Was it his fault that he was off the track and thus out of control? Yes.

The uproar came largely because viewers were sick of the early-season Mercedes dominance. The Silver Arrows had taken five consecutive 1-2s at the start of the year and, when it finally looked like somebody else might win, a debatable penalty restored the status quo of Hamilton on the top step.

Two races later, a new approach was clear to see as another late battle for victory played out.

Charles Leclerc, looking for his maiden victory after heartbreak in Bahrain, led most of the grand Austrian Grand Prix before being unceremoniously barged out of the way by Verstappen in trademark style with three laps remaining.

The incident was investigated after the race and Verstappen was eventually confirmed as the winner three hours later, perhaps with F1 bosses and stewards fearing the wrath of another controversial penalty.

Leclerc decided to go with a mantra of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and started to get his elbows out more on track. First, in a thrilling battle with Verstappen at the next race, and then when defending the lead from Hamilton in Monza.

The Monegasque squeezed the World Champion as they approached the second chicane, leaving less than a car’s width and forcing Hamilton onto the grass.

By the letter of the law, that is a slam-dunk penalty, but who would dare take away a Ferrari win on home soil in front of a wild Tifosi?! Leclerc escaped with a black-and-white flag and the victory.

Whilst we as fans are all for letting the drivers sort it out amongst themselves on track where possible, we also know that if you give anybody in F1 an inch, they will take a mile. And this turning a blind eye to the biggest calls in recent years has set a dangerous precedent.

One which appears to be benefitting Verstappen’s no-holds-barred approach.

Surely we all want to see our heroes battling wheel-to-wheel for a series of corners, rather than simply running the guy on the outside off the track.

Image credit to DPPI Images.

The solution has to be consistency.

It is confusing for new and old fans alike to see Lando Norris and Sergio Pérez receive penalties in Austria for almost carbon-copy incidents of the ones which are escaping punishment at the front.

These decisions would be far easier to understand and accept if the stewards were a consistent panel of respected figures who were fully accountable and explained exactly how and why they came to their decisions.

A role as important as this, in a sport as enormous and opulent as Formula 1, must be filled by the very best on a permanent basis.

Surely that’s not too hard for the senior leaders to put together – basically every other elite sport manages to do so.

There is also an issue with decisions seeming to depend on the outcome. If Hamilton had not taken avoiding action in Brazil and allowed Verstappen to make contact, the chances of a penalty for the Dutchman would appear to be far higher.

Michael Masi even said, during his explanation of the incident between Leclerc and Hamilton in Italy, that if the pair had made contact, the Ferrari driver would have received a penalty rather than a black-and-white flag.

This seems problematic – it is almost encouraging contact between drivers. In avoiding a dangerous move by another driver, the ‘victim’ of said move is putting themselves most likely off the track and doing the aggressor a favour at the same time. We are in danger of veering towards the diving issue in football where players are required to produce theatrics in order to force the officials to make the right decision…

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