CONFUSION reigned long after the cars crossed the finishing line in the Albert Park Grand Prix. PETER COSTER tries to unravel the mysteries of the Formula One formula:
AS SEBASTIAN Vettel’s Ferrari crossed the finish line at Albert Park to win the first Grand Prix of the season, Martin Brundle said he was “gutted and confused”.
As, no doubt, was everyone else outside the Ferrari team and the “tifosi” who almost hysterically follow the Scuderia.
The Mercedes team and Lewis Hamilton, who should have won the race, were certainly gutted and just as confused.
Reverse to qualifying the day before when Hamilton broke the lap record and left no one in any doubt that he was the best driver in the fastest car.
Hamilton said he was in “party mode”, as he sat on his haunches with the adrenaline surging through his body. Everything was going right and then some.
A day later he was sitting on pole with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen alongside and Vettel relegated to the second row with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo eighth after qualifying fifth and being hit with a penalty of three grid places.
This was actually the start of the gutting and confusion described by former F1 driver and commentator Brundle.
The Ricciardo penalty was for exceeding the “minimum” lap time that comes into force when the race or practice is red flagged.
Anyone might think that it should be a “maximum” time, meaning one that the drivers should not exceed.
But, under the convoluted thinking of the governing body of “the fastest sport in the world”, it is referred to as a minimum time, which means drivers who set a slower lap time and are going faster are penalised.
Ricciardo, said to be as “angry” as his team principal has ever seen him, did slow, but not enough after a technical glitch. But more of that later.
No one was endangered and Ricciardo, who admitted getting it wrong should have been fined or reprimanded.
Under the rules, the stewards were not sure whether that was within their jurisdiction, so they penalised Ricciardo three grid places when they could have imposed five.
This virtually guaranteed Ricciardo would not win his home Grand Prix and followed his disqualification last year when he finished second but was excluded for what was described as a “fuel-flow” infringement, something over which he had no control. Some might ask why this is an issue. If a car runs low on fuel because it uses too much, it simply means it will lose time by having to pull into the pits for more.
The decision sounds almost as silly as former F1 driver Lucas di Grassi’s $16,000 fine for wearing the wrong underpants in a Formula E race in steamy Uruguay after his heat-resistant knickers became sodden with sweat.
The FIA might say it was in di Grassi’s interests in case of a fire.
But, as this column has previously pointed out, the FIA has defied the rules of physics by allowing an extra two seconds for drivers to extract themselves from their cars in the event of a fire.
Is the fire expected to wait while F1 drivers make their escape, supposedly wearing the fire-resistant underpants di Grassi had discarded?
So, how did the rules rob Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes of the Australian Grand Prix and put Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel in the lead for the drivers and constructors world championships?
On lap 25, Haas driver Romain Grosjean pulled to the side of the Albert Park track with a wheel about to fall off because it hadn’t been properly tightened during a pit stop.
While the French driver held his helmeted head in his hands beside his car after the best performance of his short career with the American team (which now has Ferrari engines and most other Ferrari parts, leading to another Formula One squabble) the Virtual Safety Car was deployed.
This is not a real safety car in the sense of the Safety Car itself, which has a driver.
The VSC is a series of flashing lights around the circuit with the letters SC prominently displayed.
Drivers are shown on an inboard display the times they must not exceed by recording slower lap times, which would mean they were going faster.
If it all sounds ridiculously complicated, it is. Vettel roared into the pits for new tyres and roared out again in front of Lewis Hamilton, who was still on the track.
This is where the Australian Grand Prix turned into a Formula One farce. Vettel was allowed to accelerate ahead because he was still on the pit road and not constrained by the sector times (of which there are about 30 at Albert Park) because he was not technically on the circuit itself.
Why was Vettel was not required to then give up his track position to Hamilton, as he would have been had the real Safety Car been sent out? Please explain!
An attempt to do so added to the confusion. The Virtual Safety Car was only to “neutralise” the race, whereas the Safety Car, a Mercedes AMG-GT driven by Bern Maylander, would not have allowed Vettel to jump into the lead.
Hamilton radioed to ask why he had not been told Vettel was in the pits. “Did I make a mistake?” asked the four-times world champion.
There was still more confusion, if that were possible, when Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after the race that a team computer made the mistake.
It had got its algorithms in a knot and told the Mercedes geeks that Hamilton had a lead of 15 seconds on Vettel, whereas Hamilton had only 10 or 11. Or maybe someone had programmed the computer wrongly.
After the Virtual Safety Car snafu, the real Safety Car, the one with a driver and wheels, was brought out.
Just as the Virtual Safety Car had benefitted Vettel, the Safety Car made Ricciardo’s day, or very nearly.
Ricciardo was ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, who had started ahead of him on the grid but performed a couple of 360-degree pirouettes, which put him behind the Australian driver.
The real Safety Car slows the field behind it and while drivers are not allowed to pass each other they are allowed to close any gaps.
Ricciardo picked up nine seconds and finished the race in fourth place, narrowly missing scoring a podium finish behind Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
The next race is in Bahrain on April 8 and Liberty Media CEO Chase Carey will need to do more than twiddle his luxuriant moustache to explain the inexplicable.
Formula Farce might be a starting point.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.