The championship might be wrapped up but the Brazilian Grand Prix was full of contoversy — Esteban Ocon and Max Verstappen controversially clashed on and off the track, while the severity of FIA punishments came under scrutiny.
Our F1 editors Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker to discuss the major talking points from Interlagos.
LE: No. And it doesn’t help that the FIA gave no indication of what the “public service” would actually involve. It sends an awful message to young drivers in lower formulae that physical contact is acceptable outside the car as long as you are willing to give up some of your personal time as payment. A suspended race ban for the rest of his career would have been more appropriate, and would have ensured Verstappen thought twice before doing something similar again. Considering the FIA prides itself on sending the right message to drivers on the road as well as those in other motorsport categories, the punishment was utterly toothless.
NS: No, it’s a pathetically small and vague punishment. Giving him no punishment would have been better than that. He should have been punished in a tangible way that sent a message to other drivers — shoving a rival in a game of football, for example, would be a yellow or red card, regardless of whether the anger was justified in the heat of the moment. Verstappen should have had something to make him consider a similar response in future.
MH: Competitors having a brief post-match go at each other may be unedifying, but it’s part of any sport. The line has to be drawn, however, at physical contact; it’s simply not acceptable under any circumstances. What sort of example is this setting to Verstappen’s young fans? A one-race ban would have got the message across – hopefully, to Max as well. But if ‘public service’ is a cosy chat with Jean Todt about road safety and a little bit of PR, then what’s the point?
KW: Nope. It’s no punishment at all, and will have absolutely zero effect on the future behaviour of other angry drivers in any category and how they choose to comport themselves post-race. When it comes to driver punishments, the FIA has been rather toothless in recent years. Jean Todt made a rod for the Federation’s back last year when he allowed SebVet to get away with deliberately running into another driver and getting away with little more than an apology. After sending out that message, how can the FIA properly punish any driver for any sort of bad behaviour ever again? They can’t, and the drivers know it.
What about Ocon? Was a ten-second stop-go the right penalty for punting the race leader off the track?
LE: There was some suggestion that the collision was a racing incident, but I’m not sure that applies when the two cars shouldn’t actually be racing! Ocon was 100 percent to blame for the collision and deserved the penalty he was given, which included three penalty points on his superlicence. Disqualification would have been the next step up for the stewards, but I think that would have been a step too far.
NS: He should have been disqualified or made to miss a race, in my view. Who cares if you get a 10-second penalty if you’re already running a lap down in 16th? He changed the whole outcome of the race yet his punishment amounted to little more than an inconvenient extra trip to the pits in the closing stages.
MH: Ocon and Verstappen both suffered by spinning out and that should have been enough for a racing incident that was 50/50. Ocon was allowed to unlap himself. It was a risky manoeuvre but, whatever Verstappen thought about it, the Force India was alongside and not about to vanish into thin air.
KW: I don’t think the fact that it was the race leader should be that big of a consideration — reckless or dangerous driving needs to be stopped whether it’s champions or backmarkers behaving badly, so to issue a harsher punishment because the victim fits x or y criteria doesn’t sit comfortably with me. Whether or not the penalty was a fair one for punting another competitor off the track, I don’t know — I’d want to see the shunt from a few more angles before calling it anything other than a racing incident.
Now they have won five straight world championships, is the current Mercedes team the best we have seen in F1?
LE: The thing that stands out about Mercedes’ five titles is that that they were achieved despite a major regulation change in 2017. Ferrari didn’t achieve that during its run of six constructors’ titles and nor did Red Bull with its run of four. This year Mercedes faced its toughest opposition yet and still secured the championship with races remaining, which says a huge amount about the quality of the team. F1 is actively aiming to end domination by one team with its next major rule change in 2021, so this might be the last time we see one team become so successful over such a sustained period of time.
NS: Yes. Winning across two regulation changes is super impressive. They might have had it easy in the early part of this current era but have staved off two very strong challenges from Ferrari and both times wrapped the title up before the end of the season.
MH: It’s a bit like asking ‘is Lewis Hamilton the best ever?’ You simply can’t compare different eras. Certainly, Mercedes have been mighty impressive in the way they’ve kept their heads down and come back from setbacks that would derail most teams. Huge strength in depth, massive talent in every department, all held together by strong and efficient management.
KW: Possibly? Maybe? Perhaps? Like comparing drivers across generations, you can’t really compare teams across eras. At least when you’re talking drivers there’s only one person in the cockpit at a time (unless something really weird is going on!). Back in the good ol’ days, whenever they were, an entire F1 team was comprised of around a dozen people. Who’s to say that the achievements of those twelve or so people (working with considerably less complicated machinery) were any less impressive than those racked up by the hundreds of capable people currently working for Mercedes in Formula One?
After Vettel’s controversial trip to the weighbridge in qualifying, should the rules be tweaked so that drivers can only be called in once they have set a time in the session?
LE: Teams should be aware that if they are coming into the pits they run the risk of being called to the weighbridge. A random check was part of the risk involved with switching from the super-soft compound to the soft at that stage of the session and Ferrari was aware of that. In my view, Sebastian Vettel got off lightly considering he completely disregarded the normal procedure for weighing a car and drove his Ferrari directly at one official who was displaying a “Brakes on” board.
NS: I can understand Vettel’s frustration on this one. The weather was changing rapidly and it was a key moment in the session — it’s definitely something that needs addressing. However, that doesn’t condone Vettel disregarding the safety of officials in the pit-lane just because he didn’t like the way it was applied on this occasion.
MH: That’s a fair question that only the technical officials can answer. If there’s no loopholes created, then why not? But as things stand, it’s the same for everyone and Vettel should have been able to cope with the obvious frustration.
KW: Nope. Rules are rules, and sometimes they bite you in the ass and sometimes they bite your rivals in the ass. Eventually it all even out.
Pirelli’s tyres are under scrutiny again, is it time we moved away from high degradation?
LE: The problem is that the maths behind a two-stop strategy rarely adds up with the current levels of degradation. That’s mainly because overtaking is still difficult in F1, so teams favour track position over outright speed to the flag. Combined with slow pit lane speed limits, which understandably exist for safety reasons, nursing tyres to the flag usually makes more sense than rolling the dice on a second stop. Mandatory two-stop strategies might encourage drivers to push harder, but I’m not convinced it would result in better racing. We saw an exciting one-stop race in Brazil precisely because Red Bull was able to manage the degradation better than Mercedes, but its rare we see top teams struggle as much with degradation as Mercedes has at recent races.
NS: Tyres are the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is wrong in F1. Yes, degradation levels are too high, but Pirelli has been asked to create a very specific set of tyres to certain conditions because F1 in its current state isn’t conducive to good racing. Tyres are one of a few areas that need changing sooner rather than later.
MH: Pirelli are only doing what’s been asked – and the questions are all wrong. Requesting tyres that degrade is another artifice to spice up a ‘show’ that is completely knackered by downforce dominated cars that can’t race in close company. Of course tyres should – and will – drop off in performance. But not to the ridiculous extent they do now.
KW: And it’s a third flat nope from me! Whatever the constriction — aero, fuel, horsepower, rubber — drivers will always have limiting factors on their performance. And whatever the limiting factor is, driver will moan about it. It’s what drivers do, and it’s how they’re made. Even in a fantasy era with hundreds of ballsy overtakes per race, genuine wheel to wheel battles on every lap, and a dozen lead changes during each grand prix, half the grid would find something to bitch about. Right now it’s tyres, previously it’s been power units, before that it was tyres again, then it was double diffusers.