The decision of the Interlagos stewards not to penalise Max Verstappen for his controversial lap 48 incident with Lewis Hamilton caused consternation among their rivals.
On Friday in Qatar the stewards spurned an opportunity to reconsider the hotly-disputed decision, which was brought about by Mercedes proffering previously unseen onboard footage from Verstappen’s car as new evidence. With that, the hope they would publicly clarify the call was gone.
However the matter was raised by many drivers during their regular briefing with FIA Formula 1 race director Michael Masi, held on Friday evening in Qatar, which lasted over an hour. Unsurprisingly, the two championship contenders subsequently gave very different accounts of what was discussed.
Verstappen gave the impression of productive session. He said the meeting was “all about sharing their opinions, and then the FIA explaining their process of thought behind it.” The Red Bull driver felt “we came a long way, it was a very long briefing, I think at the end it was pretty clear.”
Hamilton flatly contradicted Verstappen’s claim, and indicated their rivals felt the discussion failed to clarify a decision which contradicted past precedents, creating confusion over what is deemed fair racing. “No, it’s not clear,” Hamilton insisted. “Every driver, except for Max, was asking just for clarity. Most drivers were asking for clarity, but it wasn’t very clear.
“It’s still not clear what the limits of the track are. It’s clearly not the white line anymore, when overtaking. But we just go for it. We just ask for consistency.” Decisions “could be different with different stewards, is what they said” Hamilton added.
At this point Verstappen expressed his displeasure that the contents of the meeting were being shared publicly. “We discuss these kind of things and they don’t need to go to the media,” he said.
“We talk to the experts and I think it’s more important that we discuss these things with the experts and not just throw things around on social media for nothing.”
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But many of their rivals were quite happy to air their views on the discussion. Several of them shared Hamilton’s view that the meeting had failed to clarify an important area of the regulations.
“I don’t think we got really an explanation like what we actually can do, or not,” said Valtteri Bottas. The Mercedes driver felt the discussion at least meant drivers “know what Lewis and Max ended up having in Brazil, that is okay”. But others didn’t even feel that much had been established.
That included some drivers with no connection to the title contenders. Fernando Alonso, who has repeatedly aired grievances of his own over stewards’ decisions this year, reiterated his view that there are too many grey areas in the rules. “I think we are all agreed on that we need more consistency,” he said.
“We need black and white rules because when they are grey sometimes you feel you are benefiting from them and sometimes you’ve been the idiot on track again. So it’s better when it’s black and white.
“Let’s see if we can improve altogether. I think it’s not only an FIA issue, it’s drivers, teams, FIA, all we need to work together to have better rules.”
Justifications for the Verstappen decision had been given, said Alonso, but drivers had highlighted inconsistencies with past calls. “Obviously when they explain it they say why they do this and with the reason. So, okay, understandable. But we are all saying ‘but why other times you thought the opposite?’
“But they are always right,” he added, laughing: “That is the problem.”
Carlos Sainz Jnr believes the matter is far from settled, and expects more discussions over this fundamental aspect of the racing rules.
“It looks like over the winter there’s going to be some more deep conversations about how we go racing as a sport, if the car in the inside should leave space to the car on the outside, in any case or not,” said the Ferrari driver.
“We need to rethink a bit the whole approach because the way it’s been working this year, I think it’s pretty clear that the drivers really don’t fully understand what is going to happen depending on what you do.”
A comparable case from the Austrian Grand Prix, where Lando Norris was given a five-second time penalty after being ruled to have forced Sergio Perez wide into a gravel trap, was highlighted as an example of how the Verstappen decision contradicted past rulings of the stewards.
“Let’s see [in the final races], hopefully there are not too many more episodes like this, like what happened in Brazil or in Austria to the contrary, and see if we can improve as a sport for next year,” Sainz said.
“We need to know, I need to know if I can push the car on the outside wide, and what am I going to get if I do so,” he continued. “Do you have a warning coming if you do it once? Do you have actually a possibility to do it a couple of times and then you get a warning and then you can do it a fourth time? Are you going to get a penalty straight away, like in Austria?
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“This is what we don’t know as a sport or as drivers. We were seeking for answers. We more or less got some from Michael, but we know that sometimes Michael and stewards are not always exactly the same. So we will see going into next year. I think next year we should do a good step. These last three races we will see.”
Norris said the meeting led him to conclude the reason Verstappen went unpunished in Brazil, while he was penalised in Austria, was that the run-off at Interlagos was asphalt rather than gravel. The McLaren driver felt it was unfair to penalise him because there happened to be a gravel bed where Perez went wide in Austria, a view Sainz agreed with.
“In my humble opinion as a racing driver, it should be no difference because [of the] outside of the track,” he said. “We’re always going to have different run-off areas and we should try, for the fans to understand the sport, for the drivers to understand the racing, it shouldn’t [be affected by] what’s on the other side of the kerb.”
Others pointed out Hamilton used the asphalt run-off to avoid a collision with Verstappen. “Lewis was watching the mirror and avoided a crash,” pointed out Yuki Tsunoda, who was penalised after a tangle with Lance Stroll in the same race.
“If he was not looking, like Stroll, definitely they would have had a crash. And they didn’t give any penalty and I get 10 seconds penalty, which is a massive difference, so it’s quite inconsistent, to be honest.”
Daniel Ricciardo, said the issue “still seems unclear” following the meeting. However he felt another incident involving the Ferrari drivers in Brazil was comparable to the Verstappen-Hamilton encounter.
“In a way they were consistent with two of the same moves in Brazil, with Charles [Leclerc] and Carlos, and Max and Lewis. They didn’t give penalties or make them swap positions for those two. Whether that was right or wrong, at least they showed consistency in two very, very similar incidents.”
He compared the Interlagos incidents to Stroll forcing him off in Austria last year. His rival gained the position and the stewards allowed him to keep it, but a subsequent meeting with Masi led Ricciardo to believe they later changed their minds over the decision.
“I think the fact that he attempted the past and didn’t make it – he went off track and that’s not a pass,” said Ricciardo. “So there’s no way someone should be able to keep a position by lunging from miles back and not stay on-track.
“Now if he stayed on track and I went off, that’s hard racing, but that’s fair. He still made the corner and it’s my fault for leaving the door open. But if I had less awareness and just turned in on him, then we have a crash and he probably is getting a penalty and it’s maybe the same as the situations [in Interlagos].”
Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez also wants more consistency and clarity from the stewards. “Just the same penalties throughout, you know, no difference from one race or the other,” he said.
“What we’ve been trying to push is just to have more consistency out there, which is obviously very hard because every circuit is very different.”
Masi acknowledged there had been disagreement over the call, but said “it’s been made clear to them what is expected.”
“I think the other part is some of them agree, some of them disagree, and always with each and every one of them they have agreed and disagreed all the way through. We’ve given them some overall guidance but also been very clear on the fact that each and every case will be judged on its merits.”
He confirmed the question of when drivers were allowed to force rivals wide would be influenced by the type of run-off at the corner. “You need to look at the whole situation and scenario: weather, run-off et cetera, et cetera,” said Masi.
However, as the race director, the ultimate question of what constitutes a legal move rests not in Masi’s hands, but the stewards’. As the Verstappen incident was not investigated, there was no explanation from the stewards to indicate why they waved ‘play on’.
For example, did they feel Hamilton had over-committed to the corner and wasn’t going to make it whatever Verstappen did? “I don’t know,” said Masi, “I can’t give you the exact consideration. I wasn’t sitting in there when they made that decision. I was sitting in the first part of the right of review as an observer but nothing more.”
“There is a panel of independent stewards,” he explained. “Contrary to what many people think, I’m not the one sitting there as judge and jury, we have a panel of stewards that review each and every incident, and then as we saw last weekend, they determine if it’s worthy of an investigation. If they do, it gets investigated and then determine if there’s a breach or not a breach.”
The decision not even to investigate the incident left a cloud of uncertainty over the racing rules which Friday’s meeting apparently did little to dissipate, despite Verstappen’s insistence otherwise.
The Losail International Circuit was not expected to produce much wheel-to-wheel racing, and so it proved. The Interlagos case which puzzled so many drivers was not tested.
The question now is whether it will be over the final rounds of the season, and even play a role in deciding the finely-poised championship fight.