Driving standards and blocking – A Stateside view from James Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe c/o http://www.hinchtown.com

As part of my research into current driving standards and safety in the highest echelons of modern single seater racing, I’ve heard many suggestions of the introduction of a rule similar to that implemented across the Atlantic in Indycar. Indycar has, for a long time, had strict regulations regarding what is and is not permitted as regards the acceptable limitations placed upon the defence of racing position. To many of us, myself included, such rules have always seemed to be somewhat archaic and unfair. Perhaps this is because I have grown up immersed in the very Euro-centric style of racing we associate with Formula 1, GP2 and before it F3000, GP3, Formula 3 etc, where the ability to defend is seen as being as important as the ability to attack.

But given that my recent articles and interest has focussed on driving standards, and in particular the acceptability of blocking, I thought it would be only right to seek the opinions of one of Indycar’s finest.

I first met James Hinchcliffe in his days racing in A1GP, and since that time he has blossomed into not only an excellent racing driver and megastar of the Indy racing world, but a fine man and a wonderful ambassador for our sport. Here, he shares with us his views and opinions on driving standards in Indycar, and provides an insight into how blocking is policed on the other side of the pond. When read in light of last week’s comments from Charlie Whiting on this very blog on the topic of blocking, and also when taken in the context of Conor Daly’s feelings following his crash in Monaco, James’ insight provides a fascinating and thought provoking alternative view of an argument which continues to be discussed.

James Hinchcliffe c/o http://www.hinchtown.com

James, as a star of the Indycar world, could you explain to my readers how the rules on blocking differ in Indycar as opposed to what we see in Europe in GP3, GP2 and F1?

The rule in IndyCar is simple. You are allowed to defend your position as long as your move is pre-emptive. If the move is made in reaction to another driver pulling out to pass, that’s illegal. The other element is that you may only move once. Once you have picked the line you want to take to defend, that is the line that you must enter the corner from. You can’t defend to the left, then swing back out right to make a left-hand corner, for example. This seems to differ from Europe in that I haven’t been able to discern any rules in European racing! It always seems to be a bit of a free-for-all. I have to admit, as someone who races I find it shocking what drivers in Europe sometimes get away with.

What kind of punishment can be expected for breaking the blocking rules?

Blocking usually ends in a drive through penalty for the offender. If it takes place on the last lap, then a time penalty of the amount of time it takes to drive through pit lane at that specific track will be added to the final classifications.

You’ve raced in championships that don’t utilise the blocking rule seen in Indycar. Do you think that racing without a blocking rule is purer? That the ability to defend is just as important as the ability to attack?

IndyCar used to race with a rule that didn’t allow ANY defending. You could not deviate from the racing line at all. This rule is asinine and in my mind ruined the racing in IndyCar for years. This year we have moved to a version of the rule that allows defending, creates racing, but is still safe. The ability to defend is an art and a big part of racing. I don’t really think that this version of the rule is any less ‘pure’ than having no rules at all. The big factor is the reactionary element. When making a pass you are so on the limit, you pick your path and commit to it. When drivers are allowed to react to another car AFTER they have initiated a pass, there is no room for adjustment for the passing car and it leads to accidents. In open wheel, those types of accidents usually end in someone going airborne. I am all for pure racing. But I am also for respectful racing. There are too many drivers that show complete disregard for their competitors and I just don’t see how that makes the racing better.

There is a line of thinking in the European based championships that perhaps youngsters these days feel invincible, because the cars are so safe, the tracks have so much run off, and because there are few drivers coming through the ranks that have experienced a major injury to a colleague… let alone a fatality. Can you see how such a mindset might be formed, or is it simply a case of us reading too much into the aggressive racing style of some youngsters?

That’s a great question. I think that certainly the sport’s safety record has made it easier maybe for some younger drivers to not think about the consequences. But at the end of the day, even in Formula 1 at it’s worst, when drivers were being killed every fortnight, all the other drivers still strapped in and got on with the job. A real racer will race the way they do regardless. It’s in our DNA. When the helmet is on, you don’t think about how safe your car is or how much run off the track has. Maybe the youth of today are simply a more aggressive breed! Something in the water or video games maybe!

Indycar suffered its own tragedy last year. How much has Dan (Wheldon)’s loss brought driving standards to the forefront of your and your rivals’ minds when out on track? Has it made you more wary of giving space? Have Indycar drivers changed the way they race… even if only subconsciously?

Despite all that was written and maybe said in the immediate aftermath of Dan’s accident, driving standards weren’t the problem. The formula was a recipe for disaster. The minute you start thinking of driving ‘safe’, if you will, it can actually be more dangerous because you become unpredictable. As a driver, you expect all the other drivers to behave in a way that is pushing every scenario to the limit and so you know what they are likely to do in a given situation. When they stop doing that and back out of something unexpectedly, it can actually create a bad situation on track. I think there is a good level of driving standards in IndyCar and I certainly haven’t seen guys giving more room than in the past! We are all racers that will fight for every inch of real estate.

A huge thank you to James, who took time out of his busy schedule to respond to my questions.