Tuesday, 4 June 2013

More safety and less respect: How driver penalties in Formula One have evolved.

Evolution is omnipresent in the fast paced world of Formula One.  The evolution cogs constantly turn with each cog demanding and causing the next to follow.  Everything moving, changing for the better, extracting more performance.  However, as the years go by, the evolution wheels seem to cease turning when they reach the issue of driver’s respect for each other. In the early days of Formula One, respect for fellow drivers was paramount in order to fight the threat of fatality they faced every time they entered their car.  Knowing a collision could result in serious injury or death, they had tremendous respect for each other; fighting hard, wheel to wheel but always leaving room.  Whether it was a battle between Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorne at Silverstone in 1954 or Fangio and Moss at Monaco in 1956, consideration for each other was evident in their gentlemanly racing.  As safety has evolved positively since then, the level of respect between drivers has moved in the opposite direction.

Moss and Fangio battling in Monaco.  Photo: www.stirling moss.com

Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna showed little respect for each other when fighting for the title in 1989 and 1990.  The collision with Senna that gifted the Frenchman the World Driver’s Championship in 1989 and the resulting first corner incident the following year, revealed to all that rivalry had completely engulfed any respect there was between them.  Between 1978 and the time these battles took place, the only fatalities the world of Formula One had had to mourn were those of Gilles Villenueve and Ricardo Paletti , allowing drivers to relax into a false sense of security.  With the possibility of death not as menacing as in earlier days it was perhaps easy to lose respect.

The aftermath of contact between feuding team mates Prost and Senna :  Photo: www.richardsf1.com 

And so driver penalties were born.  1991 saw the first stop/go penalty in Formula One history handed out to Peirluigi Martini at Monaco.  The stop/ go or ten second penalty requires drivers to drive into the pits, stop at their own box for ten seconds before rejoining the race. 

1994 was the year for race bans.  Having caused a collision between Jos Verstappen, Martin Brundle and Eric Bernard in Brazil, Eddie Irvine was given a one race ban and fine of £10000; a reprimand that was later increased to three races following an unsuccessful appeal by the Irishman.  At Silverstone, Michael Schumacher was black flagged after ignoring a stop/go issued to him for overtaking on the parade lap.  As in the case of Irvine, an appeal failed and he was banned for two races.  Not wanting to be left out, Mika Hakkinen was also dealt a race ban for causing a collision at the first corner in Hockenheim. 

The first lap of the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2002 was the scene of contact between the Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya and the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher, resulting in the first drive through penalty being given to the Columbian.  A year later in the US Grand Prix, Montoya tangled with another Ferrari , this time Rubens Barrichello, to earn himself another drive through. 

At Monaco 2006 Michael Schumacher was sent to the back of the grid for blocking during qualifying, followed by Fernando Alonso in Monza who was ordered back ten places after he was accused of blocking Felipe Massa.

As the years have passed since 2007, the number of driver penalties handed out has increased and with the respect cog continuing to turn negatively, evolution of the penalty system is in motion again.  A new penalty points system, which will empower the stewards with the ability to dish out points in addition to the familiar penalties for driving misdemeanours, was agreed by the majority of teams at the beginning of May.  Although guidance will be given as the number of points to be imposed for driving crimes committed, the final judgements will be made by the stewards.  A one race ban will be the sentence awaiting any sinners reaching twelve points within as many months.  The proposal will be on the agenda at the FIA's World Council Meeting this month.    

A return to the gallant and noble days of the fifties, sixties and seventies where respect was the foundation to motor racing seems to be an ever decreasing possibility, and with drivers like Romain Grosjean and , to a slightly lesser extent, Pastor Maldonado, consistently causing careless collisions, it is a necessity that driver penalties should evolve along with everything else in the sport.  

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