In his latest blog from trackside at the German Grand Prix, Justin Hynes wonders why the organisers at Hockenheim are better at dealing with rain than the Brits and makes a case for a fairer system of penalties in F1...
Nothing like a bit of rain to liven up a Formula One weekend is there? Yesterday’s qualifying session at Hockenheim was a genuinely nail-biting affair as a fairly predictable Q1 session gave way to a downpour just seconds before the start of Q2. Suddenly everyone had to choose whether to go out on inters and low fuel and put in a banker or stick and see what happens.
The first choice was right and most made it, but later in Q3 as expected the rain held off and the track began to get better. It was only Fernando Alonso among the front runners who chose to pit and take on fresh tyres to make the most of the improving conditions. The wails of despair at Red Bull Racing and Mercedes were long and loud.
'The only time rain that is not good seems to be when we’re at Silverstone'
So, rain is good. At best you end up with a topsy-turvy grid that guarantees good racing and at worst you’ll get an edgy little frisson in which a single tyre gamble might vault a driver to a previously unattainable grid slot or dump an errant contender into the clutches of backmarkers hungry to take the scalp of a front runner.
The only time rain is not good on a race weekend seems to be when we’re at Silverstone. The weather here this weekend at Hockenheim has been pretty dire, switching between cool, dull and overcast to skies thick with dark thunderheads and teeming rain. In fact, exactly the sort of weather we had at Silverstone a fortnight ago.
What is different here is that when you stroll round the public areas of the circuit they don’t look like a drizzly afternoon in Passchendaele, which is what it was like driving into the Northamptonshire circuit on the morning of qualifying.
As far as the eye could see there were lines of droop-shouldered Sou’wester-clad refugees, all with plastic supermarket carrier bags tied around their ankles.
And while that was happening outside central command, inside the circuit buildings a horde of panicked Cassandras marched about prophesying inevitable doom and muttering inanities such as “these things happen” and “what can you do?”.
Well, you could copy the Germans. The rainstorms of Friday afternoon were heavy and long, yet a stroll past some campsites outside the circuit yesterday showed no sign that the whole of Hockenheim was turning into a quagmire.
There are no traffic problems either. Hockenheim is a small village, similar to Silverstone in that there are only a few ways in or out of the place and just one way into the track. Yet there’s none of the seven- or eight-hour queues that Silverstone was burdened with. Here there are police traffic management plans and policemen directing traffic along pre-planned routes.
At Silverstone I saw plenty of signs directing people but no police or official personnel enforcing those directions. Which made the signs about as useful as a chocolate teapot, as being British, everyone just ignored them. In Germany that kind of blatant neglect of civic duty would be a hanging offence.
The final nail in Silverstone’s water-logged coffin is that here in Hockenheim, late July is normally baking hot. It doesn’t rain that often, so when it does, you’d expect some kind of chaos. Nothing could be further from the truth. All is calm. And Silverstone? Well, it’s in England where in the summer, just like every other season, it rains like hell. You do the maths.
Another topic I rambled on about at Silverstone was Pastor Maldonado’s driving and the penalty he was handed for driving into Sergio Pérez. Well, yesterday, it was Pérez on the receiving end of a ticking off, the stewards handing him a five-place grid penalty for blocking.
Now, at first this seemed remarkably inconsistent, given that in recent races Maldonado has been given a €10,000 fine for taking Pérez out, Kamui Kobayashi was fined €25,000 for knocking his pit crew down like bowling pins and Jean-Eric Vergne had to pay out €25,000 and take a 10-place grid penalty for what to me looked like a not particularly dangerous miscalculation and subsequent collision with Heikki Kovalainen.
However, in explaining yesterday’s punishment of Pérez, the race stewards did specify that the penalty had been handed out due to the Mexican offending twice in the same session, blocking both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen.
Fair enough, I thought, that seems a reasonable justification, but the sense of that simply highlights the seeming nonsense of some of the other decisions. For example Maldonado’s penalty in Silverstone was financial, a ‘paltry’ €10,000, which is chump change for a man of his enormous sponsorship. For JEV, who as a rookie receives nowhere near the megabucks salary of some of his colleagues, a €25,000 fine represents a pretty painful hit.
'The grid penalty is the only really punitive sanction for a race driver'
The question is: should there be set of minimum penalties for a variety of common offences? And should these be available to each set of stewards on the basis that punishments beyond the standard would then be discretionary and based on circumstance?
So, for example, blocking would, at the least, result in that session’s best time being struck off and for repeat or serious offences, monetary fines and ultimately grid penalties could be imposed.
For me, the grid penalty is the only really punitive sanction for a race driver. In an environment awash with money (at least at the sharp end), hitting a driver in the wallet is like giving Bill Gates a parking ticket. Restricting performance is far more severe.
It feeds back to what I was arguing post-Silverstone about introducing a three-strikes-and-you’re-out system to apply bans. It seems high time that punishment for on-track transgressions was codified and that if F1 won’t embrace permanent travelling stewards then at least the rotating band that currently adjudicate on races would have a secure set of reference points to work from.
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