The Qatar Grand Prix weekend was blighted by what most in the sport – at whatever level – deemed to be unacceptably long delays in reaching and publishing stewards’ verdicts.Max Verstappen’s robust lap 48 defence on Lewis Hamilton in Sao Paulo four days earlier, took all of 22.5 hours. The second, the alleged ignoring of yellow flags by three drivers including Verstappen, just two hours short of that.
Both cases set records for time taken, doing the sport no favours in the eyes of most fans, regardless of whether they are in the die-hard petrolhead category or part of the emerging group so often crowed about by F1 as proof that Liberty Media’s revamps of the support are bearing fruit. A number of ‘NextGen’ fans are probably already ‘ex-Gen’ fans.
Worse, pronouncing the former verdict in the middle of Friday’s FIA press conference featuring senior management of the two protagonist teams – with Netflix camera operator rather conveniently in attendance despite not being in the Covid ‘bubble’ – smacked of ‘Judge Judy’ antics that have no place in a round of a prestigious world championship series. Was the verdict honestly not available 15 minutes earlier? Pull the other one…
On the one side, one hears the commercial rights holder pushed for delays in order to maintain fan interest and suspense; on the other, F1 sources are adamant senior officials were furious about both situations. If the latter, a formal statement would set the record straight about the former; until then, perceptions that F1 crudely milked both hearings prevail.
Equally, given the independent status of the stewards panel the FIA, too, could have commented on delays rather than providing reasons for time taken, which many perceived as defence. The overriding problem with perceptions is that to most minds they are ‘reality’ until categorically disproven.
(The FIA has since provided RaceFans with the internal timeline of the stewards’ verdict, which shows that the document was provided to the FIA at 15:18 local and distributed via the FIA document management system two minutes later.)
To explain the role and independence of the stewards a parallel is best drawn with civilian legal systems through a comparison with the differing roles of police and the (independent, but state-appointed) judiciary. The former investigates and flags possible breaches, either through complaints or own initiatives, then packages the evidence for the appointed judges, who consider all angles and deliver their verdicts.
Depending upon the offence a verdict may be appealed, and in many instances the sentencing judges grant the right to appeal, although the matter may be referred to a higher court for both the right to appeal and the appeal itself. If one or other party feels aggrieved by any appeal court verdict the matter could be referred higher still, typically to a supreme or constitutional court or similar – provided new evidence is available.
Legal systems vary, of course, from country to country and culture to culture, but in the main most civilised countries operate as above. Crucially, the following doctrine holds true regardless of system: Justice delayed is justice denied.
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Substitute the FIA delegates for the police and the (independent, but FIA-appointed) stewards for judiciaries and their respective roles become clearer, with the FIA courts of appeal effectively performing the same roles as civilian appellate benches. If a party feels aggrieved by an appeal court verdict the matter may, depending upon legal system be referred higher still, typically to a constitutional court.
Former Renault team boss Flavio Briatore – banned indefinitely from FIA-sanctioned events for his alleged role in the ‘Crashgate’ scandal by the FIA World Motorsport Council – in 2009 the FIA’s highest court – did just that by petitioning the Court of Grand Instance in Paris. This court overturned the ban, but only after the Italian had exhausted all FIA avenues before petitioning the civilian judiciary.
Just as do judges in civilian courts, F1 stewards interpret and judge any matters brought before them on the basis of prevailing laws. These are the technical, sporting and, from this year, financial regulations, with the FIA international sporting code effectively being the constitution – which overrides all other regulations unless specifically stated to the contrary.
It was under ISC Article 14, which demands that “a significant and relevant new element is discovered which was unavailable to the parties seeking the review at the time of the decision concerned”, that Mercedes requested a review of the (unwritten) stewards’ decision that no further action be taken over Verstappen’s move, which took no more than 10 seconds. However, the footage of which was not available at the time; indeed, the overarching question is why it took 48-odd hours for footage to be made available.
Once the footage emerged via F1 broadcasters on social media Mercedes understandably requested a right of review. The last such request, involving Aston Martin’s fuel system after its third-placed car proved unable to deliver the required fuel sample, took around two hours to deny, having entailed a sealed car and various technical arguments and explanations.
The latest request for a review require examination of 10 seconds of footage. Such viewing would have been routine had said clip been available immediately after the incident. As it was not available until well after the race, the primary task of the stewards last Thursday evening – four days after the event – was to rule whether to grant a review; not to deliver a verdict on the incident itself.
That would come later if the review was granted. Thus, paddock folk not unreasonably expected a verdict an hour or so after the hearing commenced at 5pm, that appointment time having been determined a day in advance by the stewards.
Yet, at 8pm local time the media was told the hearing had “resumed after a break” and at 9:30pm that, “the stewards are now considering the matter and will publish their decision tomorrow.” What transpired in the intervening four-and-a-bit hours? For starters, proceedings were interrupted by a sporting directors meeting, the timing of which was, though, known at the time that the right of review timeline was determined.
Then, lateness of the hour and the fact that stewards were spread across three time zones – Europe, Brazil and the USA – were further contributing factors, as was the fact that Tim Mayer, chairman of the stewards and connected from his home in Atlanta, Georgia via the FIA’s ‘home stewarding’ system, was called up at short notice to steward in Qatar. Any wonder five hours elapsed and no verdict?
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The following morning (allegedly) got off to a delayed start due to time zone differences. Should crucial sporting decisions be delayed due to time zones, or should stewards be prepared to across these? Mayer was a ‘remote’ steward during the Le Mans 24 Hour and previously connected to other championship rounds, so deliberations could surely have continued through the night (or early morning).
Finally, authoring the stewards’ 1,550-word document clearly consumed time – heaps of it. Should not a summary ‘judgement’ outlining the ‘hard’ points have been issued immediately, with details available later, say within 24 hours? Such processes are in operation in most civilian systems and tick the speed and right-to-know boxes.
During his Sunday media briefing FIA race director Michael Masi argued that such a system would impact on the timelines for rights of appeal. But most sporting verdicts cannot be appealed, in particular yellow flag incidents and rights of review. Thus, the FIA should consider summary verdicts where no appeals are permitted.
Tellingly, the following [truncated] passage appears in the decision to not grant a review: “Whether or not stewards’ decisions are considered to be right or wrong… it does not seem desirable to be able to review… in‐race discretionary decisions up to two weeks after the fact and the stewards therefore seriously doubt the intent of the Right of Review… is to enable competitors to seek a review of such discretionary decisions that do not follow on from a formal inquiry by the stewards and do not result in a published document.”
Clearly, then, the stewards had no intention of granting a review, begging the question: why did four extremely busy men deliberate for hours over a matter that effectively had no legs? If the Aston Martin fuel tank matter could be dispensed within two hours, this one could surely have been sorted in half that time, i.e. before Mayer needed to attend any other meeting and well before bedtime for the rest of the stewards.
The delays over the yellow flag matter are even more baffling: social media buzzed with footage of the various incidents at least an hour before the first summons was issued. Indeed, Verstappen was again in the thick of it – and was eventually ‘done’ for ignoring double yellows – and admitted even before the first Twitter comments appeared that he feared the worst.
At best, he and the other two drivers could plead extenuating circumstances due to confusion but it seemed bang to rights for him and Valtteri Bottas, who was also penalised, albeit for not respecting a single yellow.
Yet, the first summonses were not issued until almost three hours after the alleged incidents; add in time zone differences and it is little wonder the verdicts dropped 20 hours after the incidents. Race director Michael Masi stated during his post-race media briefing that he personally checked the footage of all drivers – six, at most – who may have ignored yellow flags before referring the matter to the stewards.
That takes time, he said. True enough, but the stewards, who had all the required footage of the incidents – as did we in the media centre and all fans – simply did not need to wait for Masi to refer the incidents to them, as they don’t actually need to. Indeed, as they noted in their right of review decision:
“The stewards do not sit passively during a race and did not do so in [the case of Verstappen’s lap 48 manoeuvre]. By the time the race director asked the stewards for their view and stated that it was going to be ‘Noted’ on the timing screens, they were already looking at the available footage,”
“The race director may report any on‐track incident or suspected breach of these Sporting Regulations or the code (an ‘incident’) to the stewards. After review it shall be at the discretion of the stewards to decide whether or not to proceed with an investigation. The stewards may also investigate an incident noted by themselves.” (Emphasis added).
Against that background, did they not notice (and note) the yellow flag incidents; if so, why the three hour delays in issues the documents; if not, what were they up to? Had summonses been issued immediately after the incident with little or no delay the drivers would still have been in the paddock rather than at their hotels. Matters could arguably have been sorted by 9pm – and not required an early start for Mayer.
Saliently, the fact that drivers had left the circuit was previously not considered sufficient grounds to delay stewarding enquiries: In 2016 Nico Rosberg was hauled back to the Hungaroring from a Mercedes function in Budapest to answer yellow flag allegations filed not by the race director, but his own team mate, Lewis Hamilton! Time- and distance-wise a trip from the driver hotels in Doha was about the same.
Therein lies the rub: Recent stewarding decisions could have and should have been handed down faster without affecting their veracity and integrity. Perceptions – that word again – linger that with Covid the imperative for speedy decisions has slipped, with remote working compounding the challenges. However, F1 personnel and media adapted, and one wonders whether stewards have done so to the same degrees.
Having attended three stewarding seminars and having met most of the regular stewards I can vouch for their sacrifices, diligence, dedication to the monumental tasks and responsibilities of the duties inherent in refereeing a highly visible global championship – particularly during this most acrimonious of recent seasons – and their incredible love for the sport.
The foregoing is no criticism of their overall abilities or suitability, but the same cannot be said about delays. During the 2018 international stewarding seminar a driver steward with a winning record asked the media panel whether speed or consistency was of the essence when it came to verdicts. I replied that all team bosses demand both at all times – and that stewarding should be no different.
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