Ferrari may have lost the big points on Sunday. But they also won a few.
In contrast to Ferrari’s clumsy and ill-advised ‘review’ of the Canadian penalty, the stewards’ Austrian decision was accepted with as much good grace as anyone could muster under such disappointing circumstances.
Mattia Binotto’s dignified statement earned respect and made you wonder what it might have been like 12 months ago when Ferrari was under more surly stewardship.
Although he probably won’t see it this way, the outcome three hours after the event was good for Charles Leclerc. Had Max Verstappen received a penalty, Ferrari would have been pleased but Leclerc’s first victory deserves much more than a half-hearted celebration as the lights are turned out, the motorhome taken to pieces and the champagne packed away. A win may be a win but such a hardnosed summary would ignore the glorious emotion shared on the podium with team and fans just as surely the zealous application of the rules once again threatened to totally undermine the thrill of having two hugely talented drivers doing something called racing.
As ever these days, opinion is divided by the definition of ‘racing’ as determined by F1’s fat rule book. Leclerc left the door wide open but the issue immediately hinged on either Verstappen committing the supposedly heinous offence of forcing the Ferrari to run wide, or the fact that this should be expected and accepted in the final laps of a thrilling contest.
In some respects, it’s nothing new. 42 years ago, Niki Lauda’s win in the Dutch Grand Prix was largely ignored because of an incident involving James Hunt and Mario Andretti. It had not been a great season for the reigning World Champion but Hunt grabbed his chance to snatch an immediate lead from Andretti’s pole position Lotus, elbowing Mario onto the kerb at the exit of Tarzan, the first long right-hander.
Andretti, as uncompromising a racer as you could wish to find, had no complaint about this. But he did have something to say a few laps later when his attempt to run round the outside – the right-front of the Lotus alongside the McLaren’s left sidepod – resulted in a collision as Hunt maintained the racing line. Both cars were terminally damaged, Hunt retiring immediately.
James marched into the pit lane and remonstrated with the Lotus team before later confronting Mario, claiming he should never have attempted such a move. Andretti would have none of it, saying he was alongside and asked where he was supposed to go.
Apart from creating tasty headlines for the media, that was the end of an incident that, in truth, did not directly affect the final result. Even so, there were Judges of Fact, but no pernickety rule book demanding their opinion. Not an official word was said, the tacit conclusion being that this was racing, so what d’you expect?
The essence of hard racing began to change in the late 80s and into the 90s when contact occasionally regressed from circumstantial to deliberate. Damon Hill (a victim of intentional elimination in the past) summed it up when reviewing Sunday’s race (before the stewards’ verdict): “They [stewards] should be allowed to say it’s okay; it’s part of racing in that the drivers are not totally in control all of the time. Sometimes they go off and sometimes they bang wheels. But if you maliciously try to crowd someone and put them in the wall – then, no; the stewards can come down really heavily on that. But if it’s a racing incident, they should have the opportunity to say: ‘Play on. It’s all fair in love and war.’”
He’s right. But the problem is exacerbated as the line between the two becomes even more blurred by today’s need for some sort of justice over the slightest perceived indiscretion. It also meant credit for a dogged and brilliant effort by Honda was marginalised by F1’s Rule Book for Dummies.