He probably won’t see it this way, but Sebastian Vettel was lucky on Sunday. Lucky because Lewis Hamilton backed out of a seemingly inevitable collision after Seb ran wide at Turns 3 and 4.
Had the two made contact and damaged Hamilton’s Mercedes, Vettel would probably have received a drive-through, the severest punishment the stewards can hand down under the circumstances. But thanking Lewis was clearly the last thing on Sebastian’s mind when he finally reached the green room and continued to let off steam over a victory denied by a five-second penalty.
I only mention it, not to praise my namesake but to add a different perspective to the widespread feeling that a cracking race was ruined by the penalty. The fact is, it could have been much worse.
‘Could’ve; would’ve.’ Possible consequences should have little room in this discussion any more than they must not influence official deliberations. The Montreal stewards decided Vettel rejoined in an unsafe manner even though, as many – but not all – former drivers pointed out, he couldn’t help but end up where he did, squeezing Hamilton in the process.
The suggestion is that Seb kept his foot in it when, in the perfect world of regulatory process, he should have lifted off and said: ‘After you Lewis’. But the same driver pundits will admit they would have done exactly the same thing, because this is what racing is all about when, to paraphrase a betting advert on the tele, gut beats smarts.
The stewards do not take emotion into account and, judging by what happened on Sunday, they’re not too bothered about the racing itself. Nor, strictly speaking, should they be.
Saying that, the rules are advisory and open to interpretation. The issue seems to be clouded at the moment by the question of whether or not stewards should apply a ‘let them race’ caveat to marginal cases such as this one.
From what I have been able to ascertain, there seems to be doubt about whether or not to allow racing to override the rules; a controversial area that inevitably brings accusations of inconsistency (for example: Hamilton getting away with squeezing Daniel Ricciardo while recovering from an off at Monaco in 2016). Nonetheless, nuanced decisions ought to be applied when appropriate, rather than officials being tied to the rigid letter of the law.
Part of the problem in this instance was the circumstance leading up to Sunday’s race. After months of Mercedes domination, it was a relief to see a Ferrari – anything! – lead a Merc. Bringing further spice, Hamilton and Vettel were engaged in the sort of intense game of giving and receiving pressure that makes F1 the enthralling sport it should be.
When the five-second penalty was announced, I admit to being affronted. I’d been waiting a long time for this; how dare the stewards ruin my race! Whether we admit it or not, subjective bias probably tainted much of the condemnatory comment that followed.
There’s no question that Vettel also took this one personally – arguably to the detriment of his race when he should have been focussed on opening a 5.1s gap rather than moaning about it.
It’s not difficult to imagine what must have been going on in his head. He’s on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the track where he lost the race to Jenson Button in 2011 after making a misjudgement on the last lap. Now he’s driving for Ferrari (no pressure, Seb) and he’s neither won a race for ages and on pole for the first time in 17 races. Under pressure, he makes yet another simple mistake.
The result could have been much, much worse; possibly no points at all. So every reason to say: ‘Thanks Lewis, for baling me out of that one.’