Penalties penalise the pleasure of racing

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STEWARDS are taking the fun and the fury out of Grand Prix competition, says PETER COSTER:

THE Smiling Assassin is back on track, or off it according to the Formula One race stewards, who doubled down on their decision to strip Sebastian Vettel of first place at the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal.

This time it was a five-second penalty imposed on Daniel Ricciardo at the French Grand Prix outside Marseilles.

Vettel was penalised for joining the track “in an unsafe manner” when he ran wide on the grass while leader and caused Lewis Hamilton to brake to avoid being squeezed into the wall when he swung back.

Nothing to see here, was the verdict of every other driver when asked for their opinion at the French Grand Prix on Sunday.

That was also the immediate reaction of commentator Martin Brundle, a veteran of 158 GPs, immediately after what should have been adjudged a “racing incident”.

“No, no, no,” shouted Vettel when told of the decision over the team radio. “Guys, they’re stealing the race from us.”

That an appeal by Ferrari was denied before the French race was a given.

Jean Todt, Ferrari’s former boss before he became FIA president came down on the side of the stewards rather than his old team.

A protest by Ferrari was about as useless as the pleas of AFL players when the umpire awards a free kick against them.

The Scuderia is seething, as is Vettel who swapped the No.1 marker in front of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes with the No. 2 in front of his Ferrari.

Ricciardo found himself given a similar penalty, finding himself dropped from seventh to 11th in France and out of the points.

Not only did he get a five-second penalty for braking late at the chicane and forcing McLaren driver Lando Norris to lift off as he rejoined the circuit, Ricciardo was given another five-second penalty on the same lap.

That it was on the last lap was lost on the worldwide television audience as the cameras focused on another processional one-two finish by Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

Nor did Ricciardo know of the penalties until long after the race, with the Australian copping it on his considerable chin.

Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen had slipped past after the Norris incident, but was overtaken by Ricciardo, who ran wide of the white line marking the edge of the track.

White line fever?

“It was a fun last lap,” laughed Ricciardo.

“To be honest whatever happens, I don’t really care.”

Embed from Getty Images

When told the stewards were investigating after French Haas driver Romain Grosjean complained, Ricciardo joked he didn’t think he was racing Grosjean.

The French dobber finished 20th and would do better to explain why he has scored only two points this year compared with teammate Kev Magnussen’s 14.

“I think it was fun,” grinned Ricciardo. “It’s better to have a fight and see what happens than to just sit behind and be a loser. So yeah, I enjoyed it.”

Let the devil take the hindmost, in this case the stewards, but Vettel let the Canadian penalties get to him.

The four-times world champion finished fifth, after starting seventh and well behind rookie Charles Leclerc on the podium in third place.

After the Canadian race, Lewis Hamilton said he hoped Vettel was not going to retire.

This may have been a genuine reaction to Vettel saying F1 “is no longer the sport I fell in love with”.

But it might be a bit more needle between the two world champions.

“We also sound like lawyers,” complained Vettel. “It just gives no edge to the sport.”

The 2019 Grand Prix season has been marred by team mistakes and driver penalties.

Team instructions have changed the likely results of races and penalties imposed on teams and drivers have changed the course of events.

Drivers are unanimous in saying the Vettel penalty at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was a mistake.

That is if you disregard the comment of 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, who said it was “absolutely fully deserved”.

Rosberg drove for Mercedes and might not have been as welcome around the German pits had he suggested Ferrari had won the race on the track.

And what of Ricciardo’s performance, his last-lap penalties notwithstanding?

The toothy grin is back. The Australian is out-qualifying and out-racing teammate Nico Hulkenberg.

Renault has picked the right driver to put it at the front of the grid.

The car and the engine are improving and Renault as well as Ricciardo are on track to achieve even better results over the next two seasons.

It will take time as Renault rebuilds after severe budget and management difficulties over the past few years.

But the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars by the French manufacturer into its works team is starting to pay off.

The bigger picture is that Formula One must take a long and hard look at itself. The drivers want to race, and the fans want to see them racing.

Team orders and a pedantic interpretation of the rules are slowing down the world’s most expensive sport. Vettel and Ricciardo are right. Where’s the edge?

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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.

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