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Martin Brundle on the Mexican GP stewards’ decisions and why Lewis Hamilton wasn’t penalised

Martin Brundle on the Mexican GP stewards’ decisions and why Lewis Hamilton wasn’t penalised
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Apologies for the late column, I picked up a bug in Mexico and I’m still recovering. 

The last time I felt that bad on the grid was Suzuka 1992 where my grid neighbours and adrenalin somehow allowed me to finish third. Nobody stole my podium step or swore at me though. 

It was brutal but respectful back then, and instant retirement or the thought of hospital food tended to fix the track limits issue.

The Mexican Grand Prix was one angry motor race it seems and has stirred up people’s passion, anger and emotions all around the world. It was the same at the airport post race among the paddock folk too. I suspect we’ve not heard the last about what occurred or was said.

So here goes. I believe the stewards and Race Control overall did a good job.

By sheer coincidence on Saturday I was invited to see all the tools and data Race Control have at their disposal. 

It’s spectacular: as well as full access to all of the cameras we see on TV, they have access to complete circuit CCTV, a camera above every pit stop zone and on every car, full access to every radio transmission, and every time a car goes past Race Control they receive a data burst of steering angle, throttle, brakes etc – and they can drill down much further if required. 

They can interview both drivers together and demand further data from teams post race.

Their software correlates this immense amount of information to a timeline so that every incident can be collectively reviewed in it’s entirety almost instantly – which I must admit alarmed me because in commentary we usually have to voice an opinion within a few seconds based on just one or two camera angles.

Race Control is privy to far more information than we are. For example, I asked them about Rosberg’s penalty when passing Verstappen in July’s German GP. It took them five seconds to pull up the entire timelined and correlated case history, but of course any discussion about it was out of the question. 

This gave me the impression that continuity of decision making is possible, but given different steward combinations race to race and the fact that all this data in the end needs a human interpretation and action, like any sport the referee’s decision is always going to please some more than others.

Naturally not every decision is clear-cut, and a lot of fans have been asking why Max Verstappen was penalised for missing the first corner when Lewis Hamilton wasn’t punished for also going across the grass at the start of the race.

On a related note, I would have penalised Lewis back at Monaco in May for cutting the chicane when Danny Ric was chasing him down.  

I have believed for many years that in those situations a driver should be made to go through a penalty box area at pit lane speed limit so that he takes some serious pain for his mistake. 

But after speaking to Charlie Whiting on Sunday night I can explain why Lewis wasn’t penalised. 

The stewards usually give some leeway in the mad dash at the start of a race and through the first lap, there’s so much going on that they would be overwhelmed with potential enquiries. That’s what happens when you line 22 cars up together and start as one.

The key consideration in these types of incidents is whether a ‘lasting advantage’ is deemed to have been gained. But the data sent back to Race Control from Hamilton’s Mercedes showed that he got off the throttle when he came back on track to take himself back towards the pack even before the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. 

It was also the case that the two cars behind him were squabbling for position with one cutting the corner and not challenging him for the lead of the race. So hence he wasn’t penalised. 

Also the grassy nature of the Mexican Turn One run-off means that we can’t have a penalty zone or slalom such as we see in Sochi and Monza, and the drivers are all too well aware of that, as well as the geography of the bumps and kerbs involved such that they won’t break their car…

What’s important to stress is that at no point did Race Control instruct Verstappen to give back position to Sebastian Vettel near the end of the race. He was only told to do so by his team, sensibly in my view. I’m not sure that distinction was made clear to Sebastian and then he got very upset over team radio.

The great irony of the penalty then handed out against the Ferrari driver late on Sunday night, demoting him from third to fifth, for moving in the braking zone when challenged by Daniel Ricciardo is that Seb is the driver who complained most about Verstappen doing such things and then he was the first driver to suffer under the new regulation.

This particular incident is the great conundrum; we want hard racing, it’s essential for the credibility and excitement of the sport, but where do we draw the line in over-regulation? But if we allow lateral movement in the braking zone in side-by-side combat then you simply can’t race.

Charlie has assured me that Vettel’s verbal outburst had absolutely no bearing on the penalty he eventually received, but I suspect we haven’t heard the last about those radio messages. Jean Todt, the FIA president, was watching the race and he was understandably unimpressed with what he heard. What would happen in rugby or football if a player abused a referee like that? They would be facing a ban.

Most of us swear from time to time, and walking down the high street it’s sadly common language, but if I was watching the race with young children I would have been embarrassed. I expect more from Seb, despite his anger and adrenalin.

Quite frankly, he lost his head at the end of the race.

When I think back to just a few years ago, the Sebastian I remember was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid who would bounce into the paddock with his rucksack on looking like a student.

The threats about ‘punching someone’ and the words about Charlie were simply unacceptable. Seb is a four-time world champion and as such he has a responsibility and a professional role to play in our sport, whether he likes it or not.

Lewis Hamilton lost the plot at Suzuka after being robbed of victory in Malaysia, but he has settled down in the last couple of weeks and returned to his untouchable self. 

It’s still possible that Nico Rosberg will be crowned world champion after four consecutive victories for Lewis but I can’t look at Nico, with all his wins, podiums and pole positions, and just think ‘you’re a lucky driver’.
 
Nico joined Mercedes when they weren’t successful; he has worked hard and been integral to their development. If he wins the world championship, he wins it, and in my view there would be absolutely nothing undeserving about it. 

Of course, if Lewis does win the last four races that will take some of the gloss off Nico’s championship, but Lewis got lucky in 2008 for his world championship with his last corner pass in Brazil, and there are no asterisks against that title either. Just as he was unlucky in 2007 and there are no asterisks against Kimi’s championship with a footnote saying ‘Hamilton was unlucky’.

Otherwise there could be an asterisk under many champions’ names, and Alonso could have his own sub section of near misses.

But nothing is over yet. The two Red Bulls came close to hunting down Mercedes this weekend and Vettel’s pace when he wasn’t ranting over team radio was very strong. 

History has also repeatedly shown that Brazil can throw up the unexpected. The weather is changeable, the track is narrow and bumpy, and the layout is unusual. Things can still change very quickly.

One final point. When I was leaving the track on Sunday night, one of the teams told me that their projected life from the medium tyres was 111 laps. So what we had was a Pirelli tyre with the characteristics of a Michelin or a Bridgestone because it would last all day with very little degradation. 

Did it make the racing any better? It didn’t. We saw very little overtaking and until the final laps the Mexican GP was quite an uneventful race.  Hopefully next year Pirelli will bring the ultrasofts along with the supersofts to this event, but 2017 is a massive reset anyway.

In the meantime, and particularly for the next time we complain about a lack of grip from the tyres, this was a good reminder that durable tyres don’t necessarily make for amazing races. The three compound option works well.

Speak to you from Brazil.

MB

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