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F1’s blame culture

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As you’ve probably already seen, this weekend’s Japanese GP was marred by a number of first lap incidents which led to two cars eliminated, two penalties and lots of instant chuntering on the internet. Such a reaction is typical of any crash in F1 today – anything that happens can be debated instantly because of social media.

What concerns me in particular, though, is the culture that has developed around this. It seems fans are constantly searching for someone to blame for anything that happens. Any crash or collision has to be someone’s fault. We saw this today – Romain Grosjean was in the firing line but Fernando Alonso was also blamed by some for his own demise. I cannot understand either. Firstly, the venomous reaction towards Grosjean seems misplaced and over-the-top – he is a young, inexperienced driver trying to win races at turn 1, which isn’t great but it’s not as though his career is irretrievable. The reigning world champion had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time on first laps during his first full season, while even F1 demigod Ayrton Senna was considered wild during his debut year. It’s easier to calm a quick driver down than it is to get a calm driver to go faster.

Alonso, on the other hand, wasn’t really responsible for the accident which eliminated him – it was a classic first corner incident where he was trying to find his way through avoiding all the traffic around him and in the end couldn’t see Raikkonen. Kimi was blameless and so was Fernando. It was just bad luck – a racing incident.

The problem is bad luck as a concept seems to have been forgotten by F1 fans due to their constant search for culpability. A bad pit stop? “Sack the pit crew member responsible.” Gearbox failure? “Sack the guy who made the gearbox.” Driver error? “Give the driver a grid penalty.” I’m not saying I haven’t done this myself – I think anyone who has participated in an F1 forum or has tweeted about an F1 race or commented on Facebook has almost certainly said something reactionary. But some take it a stage further and want someone to be culpable for everything, and that’s a slightly worrying trend.

It seems so long ago that even when drivers spun off of their own volition it would be described as “bad luck”, something that would be laughed at today – witness Perez’s accident and the instant judgement of some to condemn it as his own mistake, something that ought to go without saying. To a certain extent, perhaps I’m just looking at Murray Walker here, who never blamed anyone for anything because he was too nice, and it’s also worth bearing in mind that drivers did make more race-ending mistakes 15-20 years ago and beyond. But even so, I don’t believe that F1 fans were so keen to judge and blame drivers straight away – for one, so many careers would have ended after a season because of driver errors.

As well as social media, the FIA is partly to blame for fostering this culture because of the development of the penalty system. Grid penalties for incidents where one driver takes another out of the race are standard fare, especially if your name starts in S and ends in R and you driver a silver Germanic car. Drive-throughs are common for minor incidents. Bans remain rare, however, with Grosjean’s this year being the first to be handed out since Mika Hakkinen was banned for crashes deemed his fault in consecutive races in 1994 (though it’s worth remembering Yuji Ide lost his superlicense after colliding with Christijan Albers at Imola in 2006, which, to all intents and purposes, was the equivalent of a ban). The penalty system is a recent phenomenon – only with the addition of engine change penalties in the mid-2000s did grid penalties become common-place, and such penalties for driving incidents didn’t really take off until later (the re-introduction of free-for-all qualifying in 2006 was perhaps a factor).

With the amount of penalties dished out going through the roof in recent years, an expectation has developed that penalties should be handed out for incidents of an increasingly minor nature, to the point where I’m starting to wonder whether soon we’ll be seeing penalties for spinning off the track. We like to think that we’re more enlightened than we were 20, 30, 40 or more years ago, and yet I see the whole penalty business as a retrograde development. One could argue that it’s a safety measure to protect onlookers, but ultimately it seems to be there to appease reactionary armchair viewers who now expect punishment for error, in the same way that the public expect criminals to be sent to jail for years for relatively minor offences. If it’s a deterrant, it’s pointless and it’s not working.

Take Michael Schumacher, for instance. Michael is the second most experienced driver in F1 history and yet has received more penalties since his comeback than pretty much anyone else out there (though Maldonado’s giving him a good run for his money). In particular, he has been given two grid penalties this year for taking other drivers out of the previous race. But what’s the point? He’s not going to learn from them, because there’s nothing for him to learn after over 300 GPs. Essentially they were simple mistakes, in that he misjudged his breaking point and smashed into the back of Senna and Vergne, and that just happens sometimes in motor racing. He hasn’t done anything deliberately. He has already been punished by being eliminated from the race. A grid penalty is just additional punishment, and doesn’t restore Senna and Vergne to their respective races in retrospect. The penalties only serve to make qualifying incredibly confusing and ruin another weekend for the driver at fault.

Twenty years ago, such incidents would have been passed off as “just motor racing”, in the same way that Alonso magnanimously summed up his accident today. If it was a regular occurrence, the driver in question would be given a ban, but this was very rare – even in 1994 it would have been considered heavy-handed. That avoided the problems of objectivity, inconsistency and general confusion – the guy who finished qualifying as the fastest driver was on pole, regardless of what had happened in the previous race, which is perfectly logical, as opposed to the guy in 2nd getting pole because the guy in 1st had an accident in the previous race. How do you explain that to a casual follower of the sport? And that’s before we get onto whether or not the stewards’ decision was right in the first place.

It’s time that penalties for minor incidents in F1 are abolished – what do we gain from grid penalties other than a sense of satisfaction that “justice” has been done? This is not to say I want to encourage dangerous driving, by any means, but there are other ways to make it clear to young drivers that dangerous driving is unacceptable – the teams should take more responsibility for this, and the FIA should look into a new system, perhaps something like a “three strikes” rule or license points that would lead to an instant ban after a number of serious incidents, as is the case with UK national racing licenses.

Grosjean will learn nothing from his stop-go penalty today. The only way he will learn is if his team takes responsibility and rests him for a few races with the threat of dismissal if this continues. That’s the way it always used to be, and it’s not as if F1 had major problems with dangerous driving as a result of less punishments dished out – in fact, driving standards have arguably got worse since then, so a stricter approach clearly isn’t preventing overly-aggressive driving.

But the fans should take responsibility too. Drivers are now under enormous pressure not only from teams and sponsors but from people sat at home watching the race getting ready to text Jake Humphrey their views two minutes after the chequered flag has come out. Such trivialities may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but public reaction and the expectation that drivers should be punished inevitably puts pressure on the stewards and the FIA to hand out penalties.

It has become a spiralling scenario – the FIA started punishing drivers, which the fans became accustomed to and pressured the FIA into more and harsher punishments. Where is this going to lead to? Who knows, but I’d rather F1 didn’t go there, because taken to extremes, you could find something to punish every driver. Imagine a grid where every driver had a grid penalty – essentially you’d just have the same grid, which proves the logical fallacy of grid penalties.

PS Corner-cutting and going off the circuit to gain an advantage is a separate issue. I’m specifically talking about collisions and dangerous driving here.

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Written by James Bennett

October 7, 2012 at 17:17

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 politics

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