The start of the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix was not Romain Grosjean’s finest moment. It was by no means the worst thing he’s ever done in his career, but it wasn’t the best either. If we look at it in simple terms, he pushed a rival to the limit… actually slightly over the limit, and the resultant accident which his move sparked has, quite rightly, resulted in a race ban.
He’s held his hands up, admitted fault, and for that he must be commended. But now the vultures will start to pick at the bones of the incident. They will point to the fact that he’s had X number of contacts in his Formula 1 career, what percentage of those have occurred on the first lap, and how many other drivers such moments have affected. He’ll be cast into the role of young hothead, a GP2 graduate who doesn’t understand the finesse required in Formula 1. He’ll be dubbed a cocky upstart who had the temerity to turn down the offer of counselling and coaching from Sir Jackie Stewart.
He’ll have to read those column inches and suck it all up, watching from afar as his rivals compete for glory at the Autodromo di Monza. He’ll have to learn, and come back stronger.
Of course he’s not the first and won’t be the last driver to be banned for such a faux pas. Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen were both parked in 1994, and they both went on to become world champions. Eddie Irvine was parked that season too, and he very nearly won a world title. But perhaps it’s the fact that an unsuspended ban hasn’t been handed down in 18 years that is causing the greatest shock. It marks Grosjean out as a danger, the likes of which the sport has not felt it correct to punish for almost two decades.
I don’t think such a picture is fair on Grosjean. I don’t believe for a moment that he is a danger. I don’t believe that he is thoughtless or reckless. In the vast majority of instances this season I believe he has been desperately unlucky. But for Spa alone, and purely on its own, I still feel he deserves the ban.
Punishments in Formula 1, no scrap that… punishments in single seater motor racing need to be far harsher than they are right now. And they need to become clearer and be applied with increased standardisation. From F1 down to entry level Formula Ford, even karting, a racing action of questionable moral standing must have the same regulatory reaction. Inconsistency between categories, and inconsistency even from a race to race basis in an individual category must be stamped out.
Fernando Alonso and his Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali have both referenced the fact that young GP2 drivers are entering Formula 1 with a different core understanding of racing to the previous generation. They claim GP2 graduates are more willing to take risks, safe in the knowledge that the cars will save them and safe in the knowledge that the worst punishment they will receive is a few grid spots penalty at the next event.
Sadly, I can’t argue with that. It’s a view even GP2 drivers have shared with me. Not just that their rivals act this way, but even that they themselves have, at times, pushed just a touch harder than they thought they should because they had no fear of the consequences.
The cars and the tracks are so safe that they know they’ll walk away. The punishments are so slight that a grid penalty is no real hardship. Fines hit them hard because budgets are so tight on the F1 ladder, but they don’t hurt so much in Formula 1. When Pastor Maldonado can bring almost £30million to buy a ride in the big time, does the FIA really think $10,000 is going to affect his wallet?
The only answer, as far as I see it, is to start parking drivers. Just as they have with Grosjean. You want to make a racing driver think about his actions? You want to hit him where it hurts? Don’t make his wallet lighter. Don’t make him start a few places back down the grid. Just show him how it feels to sit at home and watch a race in which he should be taking part. Let him watch as his replacement steps into HIS car and drives it either better or worse than he could. Let his heart pump fast and strong, let him punch his pillow in frustration, let him scream at the unfairness of it all… from in front of a television. Let him know that a lifetime’s dream, a lifetime’s dedication will be flushed down the toilet if he doesn’t shape up. Take away everything he’s worked for. Make him appreciate what he’s got.
And it is something that has to go from the top down.
It’s all too easy to say that GP3 and GP2 drivers get away with terrible moves, when those very same moves aren’t punished in F1. Lead by example. Lead from the front. Make an example of the F1 drivers, and make that same example of those in the junior categories, from GP2 and GP3 to WSR, F3, F2, AutoGP… karting.
I’ve seen some awful manoeuvres go unpunished and even left uninvestigated in junior racing this year.
Conor Daly’s smash in Monaco was the tipping point. I felt Dmitry Suranovich should have been parked but the FIA decided that it was Daly who was at fault and gave him a ten place grid penalty for the next race. But my question to the stewards in that incident remains this… if Daly’s actions were enough to find him at fault for the accident why was he not banned? That accident put the lives of the marshals at the side of the track, and of his fellow competitors at serious risk. His loose wheel almost landed on Vicky Piria’s helmet. His car almost took out a marshal post. So if the stewards were able to come to the frankly baffling conclusion that Daly was at fault, then they should have parked him.
Sergio Canamasas in GP2 pushed Simon Trummer over the line and into the wall on the last lap in Hungary. The Spaniard wasn’t even investigated. Roll forward to the next race at Spa and on the run down to Eau Rouge he tried to put Nat Berthon through the wall and into the old pitlane. This time Canamasas was handed a four place grid penalty. Why four places? Because that was all that was needed to get him to the back of the grid.
Seems ludicrous, right? If a move is considered that bad park him. Not just for Spa but for the next weekend in Monza.
It saddens me to have to make this comparison, but even football (soccer) gets it right. The yellow and red card system of fouls works. It works because everyone knows the rules. OK, you still have referees as ultimate arbiters and some have different views on which tackles are OK, which are worth a yellow and which are worth a red, but the rules are clearly laid down. Unfortunately for football, for as long as video replays aren’t used, it’s tough for the ref to ever be 100% right.
Motor racing stewards do have such facilities however. They have the data, they have the video, they have everything at their disposal. What they don’t have is a clear system and definition of what penalties to apply for what action, nor the gumption and assuredness to hand down such penalties if they feel it correct to do so.
Driver behaviour needs to be reigned in and it needs to be done so from an early age. It all stems from the example set in Formula 1, both by the drivers themselves and the respect that they extend to each other, but especially in the stewarding of the event and the penalties applied when drivers overstep the mark. This should then be applied across all championships.
Yellow cards should, in my mind, become a tool used to warn drivers of their behaviour. Three yellows in a season, miss a race. Just like football. Straight red? Miss a race.
Such a system however will never work until all incidents are dealt with equally. And by equally I say not just that a dangerous move in F1 is treated the same way in GP2 and GP3, but also that penalties are applied with the same severity no matter who is involved in the incident.
That the FIA, in its reasoning for banning Grosjean from racing at the Italian Grand Prix referenced the fact that his actions had caused a number of championship contenders to be eliminated from the race was utterly shameful. What difference does it make whether he had taken out Hamilton and Alonso, or de la Rosa and Pic? Does the victim of the crime have any bearing on the severity of that crime? Should such a consideration determine the severity of the punishment?
Pastor Maldonado made contact with Timo Glock in the Belgian Grand Prix. For that he was handed a five place grid penalty. If it had been Vettel, a championship contender, would it have been a race ban?
We shouldn’t have to ask these questions, but sadly we are left in utter disbelief at the insensitivity and glaring stupidity of the words printed on FIA headed paper. Words which set a dangerous precedent.
There will be calls, renewed calls, for cockpit safety to be looked at once again in the aftermath of F1’s big wake up in Spa. For me, the bigger call should have come after Robert Cregan’s GP3 shunt in which his left rear was kept attached to the car by the tether, lodged onto the sidepod and was thrust into his helmet as his Ocean careered backwards into the tyre barrier at Pouhon on Saturday. That was a wake-up call. But did anyone pay attention? Conor Daly’s crash in Monaco, his bouncing stray wheel… did anyone pay attention to that? Lewis Williamson weaving in Spa? When Schumacher did that to hold the McLarens at bay in Monza, the world cried foul. But when I did so this year in the GP3 race, some of my colleagues thought I had overstepped the mark? But why? I’m sure the FIA have these things fresh in their mind, but why does the rest of the waking world only seem to pay any attention when it occurs in F1?
It’s the same question as befalls the issue of parity in penalties. Why are things that occur on an F1 weekend in GP2 and GP3 not treated with the same gravity as those that happen in F1? Why are the same questions not asked, and the same judgements applied?
Yes, cockpit safety does need to be looked at… but ask yourself this. If drivers arriving in Formula 1 already feel invincible, if they already have no fear of being hurt, how will increasing the level of safety improve that?
Do not, and I must stress this, do not get me wrong. I am not saying we should stop constantly striving for a safer sport. While motor racing will never be 100% safe, we all want to go racing in a world where the potential for injury or worse to a driver or anyone at a track is as low as possible.
However, improving driver safety is not a fix to the question of driving standards.
But improving driving standards can aid, without question, the safety of racing drivers and all those who work in motorsport.
Something must be done. It is sad and shocking to admit this, but many have been the times this year where learned colleagues, and people whose opinions in this sport I respect and value have said, under hushed breath, that only when the very worst happens will this generation finally understand that this is not a game. It is life and death at 300kph. Some F1 drivers grew up with Dan Wheldon. Many in junior categories grew up racing Henry Surtees. They know, better than most, the reality of what they do.
Nobody wants a repeat of Vegas or Brands Hatch. Nobody.
But it isn’t just the drivers who are at risk. Think of the photographers standing on the inside of La Source, the fans in the grandstands, the track workers, marshals…
The last thing anybody wants is to strangle the fun, the enjoyment and the racing spectacle out of single-seaters. But driving standards must improve. Drivers must regain respect for one another, and for their sport. They must learn that they cannot rely on their cars or the racetracks to save them. Only their own actions, and the actions of their racing brothers and sisters on track can do that.
Then, there won’t be the need for penalties. But until they learn, until they show the world that they can be trusted with their own safety, and the safety of those around them, they should be punished. And punished severely.
From F1, all the way down to karts.