Craig Murto

Craig Murto

What should have been the best Formula One race of the year was absolutely ruined by one of the worst calls race officials have ever made.

The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) is the world governing sanction of motorsports, and FIA stewards officiate every F1 event. In Montreal, they determined the outcome of the race.

Sebastian Vettel led most of the race from the pole in his Ferrari, while the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton followed in close pursuit. With about 20 laps remaining, Vettel was pressured into a mistake, and went far to the outside of the righthand Turn 3. After cutting the corner through the grass he came back onto the track after the left Turn 4 and drifted to the right into the racing groove, trying to regain control of his car. Hamilton had to brake hard to avoid a collision, but there was no collision and the race continued.

Did Vettel make a mistake? Yes. Did Hamilton have to avoid Vettel’s car as he regained control? Yes. But the TV commentators, including former F1 racer Martin Brundle and former World Champion Jenson Button, all agreed it was simply a racing incident, the product of the kind of hard racing we don’t see enough of in Formula One.

But the FIA stewards apparently disagreed and handed Vettel a five-second penalty with 12 laps remaining, which meant that even though Vettel crossed the finish line in first, he would be second after the penalty was assessed.

FIA stewards should know better. Every F1 race includes three FIA stewards, one of which is a former driver. Published reports stated that former F1 driver and five-time Le Mans winner Emanuele Pirro had the task at Montreal.

The penalty was assessed for re-entering the track in an unsafe manner. But as Brundle explained to the TV audience, that regulation is meant to prevent cars that spin off course from simply pulling back out onto the track in front of traffic. What happened in Montreal was simply hard racing, a racing incident, and nothing more.

Hamilton – usually very popular in Montreal — was booed on the podium, and Vettel had enough class to say that fans shouldn’t blame Hamilton, but should blame the stewards.

Social media was on fire. There were those who supported the stewards’ decision. But the vast majority were flabbergasted that stewards took it upon themselves to ruin the best race of the year. I could find no post whatsoever where a Vettel fan claimed it was the correct call, but there were plenty of posts from fans who identified as Hamilton fans disagreed with the stewards. And there were plenty of social media posts from fans claiming they will not be watching anymore this season. Suffice it to say, much of the fan base is not happy.

But drivers were not happy, either. Many current and former drivers took to social media to express their displeasure with the penalty. Included among the drivers who thought the penalty was wrong were Nigel Mansell, David Hobbs, Damon Hill and Mario Andretti, who called the ruling “not acceptable at this level of the sport” and stated, “I think the function of the stewards is to penalize flagrantly unsafe moves, not honest mistakes as a result of hard racing.”

I communicated with a friend who attended the event, and his response was that he was not happy. It costs a lot of money to travel out of the country to attend an F1 race; it sure will be a shame if people choose to stay home because of stewards changing the race results.

The effect of the decision in Montreal could be worse than simply the bad call at one event. If drivers steer away from the exciting toe-to-toe battle we saw in Montreal for fear of being penalized if they push just a little too hard, well, we might as well be playing chess and not even consider F1 true racing.

The stewards in Montreal robbed Sebastian Vettel of his win. They robbed the fans of the best F1 race of the year. And they robbed the sport of the good PR a good race in North America would have provided.

The Vettel-Hamilton incident in Montreal should never have amounted to a penalty. Cars did not make contact. Nobody deliberately did anything, it was the result of racers pushing themselves to the limit. Isn’t that what racing is supposed to be?

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.