British news outlets have recently reported suggestions that prison sentences of six months or less should be scrapped. Apart from helping seriously overcrowded prisons, reports say this would also reduce reoffending thanks to the more positive influence of community service on the lawbreakers.
It’s a contentious subject that has familiar if much less serious resonance in the world of motor sport as we consider the case of Max Verstappen.
Following a collision during last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the Red Bull driver was reprimanded for his subsequent physical altercation with Esteban Ocon at the weighbridge. The first part of the penalty – I won’t call it punishment – was handed down last weekend when Verstappen spent a day as an observer with stewards at the Formula E event in Marrakesh. Predictably, that caused more outrage than approval across the social media comment columns.
Critical views ranged from this being a ‘nice paid-for weekend in the sun’ to ‘a complete joke’. Apart from seeing Formula E as a wonderful racing formula, Verstappen claimed it had been a useful experience. His almost obligatory public praising of Formula E aside, that’s probably true.
In the normal course of events during a Grand Prix weekend, if Max found himself spending the best part of a day with the stewards then he would probably have caused enough offence to be shipped back home on the first available plane. Given that drivers are totally focussed and live in a bubble, it does no harm to get the bigger picture and understand how other people are making equally important decisions in their respective fields. The race weekend is not just about you and your highly paid mates in the front half of the grid.
It’s significant that past FIA president Max Mosley, also a former lawyer, initiated this alternative thinking in 1997 when Michael Schumacher was given the equivalent of community service for colliding with Jacques Villeneuve during their championship finale at Jerez. Schumacher was stripped of his points total for finishing second in the championship; the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, particularly when he was allowed to keep his five wins that year.
In his autobiography, Mosley commented on the powerful effect of Schumacher’s endorsement of road safety and the fact that he not only freely gave time far beyond the seven-day sentence but also prompted other drivers to support the FIA’s safety campaign. When all was said and done, that had to be better than sending F1’s leading driver back to Germany to quietly rage over any perceived unfairness of the sport’s judicial system.
The effect of Verstappen’s version of after-hours detention remains to be seen. It wasn’t helped on the day by Sam Bird (starting from pole and finishing third) being quoted as saying: ‘To call coming to a Formula E race “community service” I think does Formula E a bit of a dis-justice (sic). It shouldn’t be punishment to come here. I hope he enjoyed it, and I hope he will give good feedback to some of his colleagues.’
Be careful what you wish for. The irony probably won’t have escaped Max that two of the so-called highlights of Saturday’s race were a clash on the first lap and an even more desperate collision near the end. But at least there was no silly pushing and shoving at the weigh-in.