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Sebastian Vettel at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
James Moy Photography

I have attempted to steer clear of writing about Baku since Sunday. The dust kicked up by Sebastian Vettel’s lap 19 contretemps with Lewis Hamilton has now begun to settle, thanks in no small part to the FIA confirming that it is investigating whether or not there is due cause to initiate a hearing on the matter. As such, now is perhaps a good time to try to make sense of it all.

The incident itself has been pored over countless times and yet there still appears to be some confusion over exactly what happened, the rules which surround Safety Car periods and how they change when those periods are coming to a close, and finally about exactly what the FIA investigation represents.

I’ll do my best to explain, in the knowledge that I will, as I have been countless times this week already, likely be dubbed a Hamilton fanboy, a Vettel sympathiser, an FIA apologist and an anti-FIA zealot hell-bent on taking the fun out of the sport. Which, if all four come in at the same frequency as over the past few days, means I must be doing something right.

The incident itself is rather easy to dissect, and has been analysed brilliantly by James Allen and the folks at F1.com.

What is clear is that, having been left behind at the first Safety Car restart, Sebastian Vettel didn’t want to allow Lewis Hamilton to get a similar jump on the second restart. As is customary, once the lights on the Safety Car are extinguished it is beholden on the race leader to determine the pace. Now, some have confused the mention of “Safety Car lights” with the Safety Car lighting panels trackside. These are two different things. The leader’s choice of pace comes into effect once the lights on top of the car are out. At this point, the ten car length rule also ends.

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The Safety Car leads Hamilton in Baku
James Moy Photography

Hamilton does not brake any differently to his first restart or indeed any other lap behind the Safety Car. The graphic shows him to be on the brakes through the apex at around 50kph, but rather than accelerating down the hill from Turn 15 to 16 he simply coasts. It is at this point, as Vettel accelerates, that the initial contact occurs.

The screen graphic shows a slight touch of brake from Hamilton at the point of first impact. With Hamilton’s foot resting on the brake pedal, such a jolt from behind would likely show a trace of brake as his foot is shaken, but any suggestion of brake testing has already been refuted by the FIA, having monitored the Mercedes driver’s telemetry.

We should be in no doubt then, that the initial contact is simply a regular incident behind a safety car and one we have seen countless times from countless drivers. It is the nature of the beast. With the lead driver slowing the pack, some are caught off guard, and contact can and does happen. We’ve even seen drivers crash out under Safety Car, caught so unaware were they by the slowing of the field ahead. Look back to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 2000 and Jenson Button’s moment as Michael Schumacher slowed the field for the restart.

So, is it Hamilton’s fault for slowing too much? Is it Vettel’s fault for driving too close? Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Hamilton had been warned by his team that his first restart had left him too close to the Safety Car. One only need look at the GP2 races at Baku in 2016 for a reminder of how easily one can catch the pace car if the throttle is buried from Turn 16. As such, on the second restart Hamilton slows the field all the way through Turns 17 and 18 before putting his foot down.

The first moment of contact can, then, be put down as a simple and quite usual occurrence under the Safety Car. Contact shouldn’t happen, but it often does. With no major damage done to either car, it probably wouldn’t even have been worth investigating.

It’s what happens next that has caused the debate.

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Vettel and Hamilton make contact
c/o F1.com

Vettel first lifts both hands in a questioning manner, asking what Hamilton was doing. He then drives alongside Hamilton on the left hand side, gesticulating at him with his left hand raised. The Ferrari moves across the track and its rights wheels connect with the left wheels of the Mercedes. Vettel, intentionally or otherwise, makes contact with Hamilton.

Given the position of his left arm and the angle of the onboard camera it is impossible to see whether Vettel has his right hand on the wheel at this point. It is also impossible to see whether, should his right hand actually be on the wheel, he makes any deliberate move towards the Mercedes. There has been a suggestion that in gesticulating, he inadvertently allowed his car to stray into the path of the Mercedes. Some think he may have intended to manoeuvre his car in a way that would let Hamilton know his displeasure. A frightener, if you will. And that he simply miscalculated and made contact. There is a third suggestion, that he deliberately drove his car into his rival.

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Camera position makes it impossible to ascertain intent
c/o F1.com

Without Vettel’s steering and throttle trace, it is impossible to know exactly what happened in this moment. While we have been allowed to see the telemetry absolving Hamilton of blame for brake checking, we have not been shown Vettel’s telemetry for the secondary collision. Of course, data will only tell us so much. The only person who knows what the intent or lack of, was in this moment is Sebastian Vettel.

But as of the last time he spoke to anyone about the incident publically, he was refusing to even accept the second contact had happened, referring instead only to the first front/rear contact and to his gesticulation. His ire at a stop-go penalty for dangerous driving remained clear. He ignored any and all calls to explain the second contact and whether it had been deliberate.

So we have a suggestion of deliberate contact between drivers on track. And then we have the penalty handed down by the stewards of the meeting.

To many, the penalty of a ten second stop-go, was woefully inadequate. Given the options available to the stewards, which included a race disqualification and/or suspension from the next event, to lose just 30 seconds and two positions by the time the flag fell could be argued to be incredibly lenient. What happened to Lewis Hamilton in the race, as regards his head rest coming loose and the time he lost as a result, is neither here nor there. It does not and should not form a part of the argument.

What we are looking at here is the precedent which has been set. And that precedent is that, whether by intent or as a result of a loss of control (figuratively and literally), a driver has made contact with another under the Safety Car. And perhaps that’s the most worrying element. The track is not a closed environment under pace car conditions. Marshals and track workers are operating. Yes, we were due to go back racing so it is unlikely that anyone would still have been on track, but the SC lights were still flashing trackside. We were still under caution.

Wheel banging while racing for position is part and parcel of racing. Watching drivers jostle for position is part of what makes this sport so exciting. But aiming your car at another, whether at 50kph or 250kph has never been deemed to be acceptable at any level or in any championship. It is the one absolute that exists in racing. You do not use your car as a weapon. Ever.

Thus for the stewards to hand down only a stop-go penalty for the one, single and absolutely clearest misdemeanour on the books, one must drop any faux pretence of shock that the FIA wishes to look deeper into the incident itself and the manner in which it was handled.

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FIA President Jean Todt has based his leadership on a basis of road safety initiatives.
James Moy Photography

The stewards are not law makers. Just as the Judiciary in a democracy, the stewards’ role is to interpret the law, to pass judgement and to hand down the correct sentence within the structures of the law as written. In legal and political parlance, we would refer to this as the creation of Common Law, where precedent fills in the gaps left by the law makers themselves. Should that Common Law stand at odds with the objective of the law makers at the time they passed the law, it would not be uncommon to see new legislation passed to clear up the confusion which led to a precedent at odds with the intention of the law. Similarly, in many democracies it would not be uncommon for someone in the position of a Secretary of State, or a Home Secretary, to have the right to request the sentence be re-examined should it be deemed too lenient.

The FIA has such a system in place, too.

There are two courts at the disposal of the governing body of our sport. There is the International Tribunal and the International Court of Appeal. Should the FIA’s investigation into Vettel’s conduct in Baku deem a hearing, it is at the International Tribunal that the case will be heard. It is this court that has the right to hand down whatever sanctions it sees fit, its judgement superseding that of the stewards. The judgement may then be appealed through the ICA, should it be deemed appropriate by the parties against whom the judgement and sentence was levied by the IT.

We must state for the time being that the FIA has not said the International Tribunal will hear such a case. Merely that it is investigating whether there is grounds for it to do so.

The general feeling, however, is that the Tribunal will sit.

The FIA President has based his entire leadership on the noble aims of improving road safety around the world. His initiatives have included not only the safety of the build of the cars on our roads, continuing the work of Max Mosley via the NCAP safety ratings, but have extended to road construction and infrastructure and worldwide campaigns for safer driving, responsible driving and mindful driving.

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The FIA’s Action for Road Safety logos are highly visible in F1.
James Moy Photography

Every Formula 1 car carries the FIA’s “Action for Road Safety” logo. Every driver is an ambassador for the programme.

How, then, does it countenance the actions of a four time world champion in what many will argue is a clear show of “road rage,” with a slap on the wrist? If the FIA holds up these drivers as the best of the best, as role models for drivers around the world, can it allow such driving to go by unchallenged and unpunished?

Again, remember, this is not a racing incident. This is under safety car. This is not wheel to wheel racing, all arms and elbows and for the glory of victory. This is a frustrated driver making contact with another, deliberate or otherwise.

The other reason many believe that this will go to the Tribunal is not just because the stewards arguably awarded too light a punishment, but because nobody can think of another occasion on which this occurred. Of course, we can look back at Pastor Maldonado’s contacts with both Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez in qualifying sessions for which he was awarded grid drops. But there has never been, to anyone’s recollection, an example of a driver positioning his car alongside and driving into a rival under a Safety Car.

Because this is the first example of its happening in Formula 1, the punishment must be proportionate and appropriate. Something this potentially important should not be left to part-time stewards to decide. It goes higher than that because the precedent it sets will be applicable from top to bottom, from Formula 1 to karting. It has to be right.

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Zidane was sent off in the 2006 World Cup final for headbutting Materazzi. Both would later be pulled before FIFA’s courts. Both would be awarded fines and match bans.

This situation isn’t unique to Formula 1, of course. All global sports have a system in place whereby the governing body can initiate hearings in the event that a situation arises which, be it by creating a new and unforseen area of law, or is deemed to to so clearly in the interests of the sport that it is required to be taken further and investigated more rigorously. It happens all over the world, in football, rugby, athletics. Think of a sport and there will be examples. This isn’t specific to Formula 1. There is no British media-driven witch hunt against Sebastian Vettel.

It is the due and correct process of a sport’s governing body.

So, for Vettel and Formula 1, what will the result be?

First, as we have said, there is no guarantee that it will even go as far as the Tribunal. But if it does, I cannot see that Sebastian Vettel gets out of it well. His total lack of acceptance of the penalty handed to him in Baku, his total ignoring of a secondary contact and total lack of contrition make him an easy target. Factor in that he is already on thin ice following his outbursts in Mexico last season and that he sits just three license points away from a race ban as it is, and the ground upon which he stands does not look terrifically solid.

From the camera angles we have seen and the explanations from the parties involved in the incident, it also doesn’t seem likely that the German comes out of it looking innocent. Even if the contact was unintentional, the result is still that he drove his car into another. Regardless of the mens rea, the intent, the actus reus, the objective element of the crime, is still present. The responsibility is still his.

What will he be handed? In all fairness, I think disqualification from Baku is the most likely outcome. Whether he is handed a further race ban for his failure to admit his wrong doing and his overall lack of contrition, allied to his previous outbursts and a potential charge under Article 151c for bringing the sport into disrepute, I don’t know. But a DQ from Baku seems the likeliest of outcomes.

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Vettel in the Shadows in Baku
James Moy Photography

Should such a penalty come to pass, there will be those who claim the FIA is pro Hamilton, pro Mercedes and are interfering with the world championship. Yet look at 1994, Michael Schumacher’s disqualifications at Silverstone and Spa. Did the FIA think about the championship then, or did they think about what was right to the letter of the law?

Should no further penalty be awarded to Vettel, be that via a lack of Tribunal or their finding Vettel to be absolved of blame, then we’ll get the same “Ferrari International Assistance” jibes. Again look to 1994, and Michael’s arguably deliberate smash into Damon Hill at Adelaide and the lack of penalty.

That’s not to say the incidents are comparable. Merely to highlight that people claiming bias and interference in a world championship is nothing new when the result of a decision leaves the driver of whom you’re a fan, hard-done-by.

Fast forward three years to 1997. A deliberate contact between racing rivals. And one had his entire season’s points erased. He was forced to commit to hours of community service promoting road safety. The FIA made an example of him. They have the power to do the same to Sebastian.

Whichever way you look at this, Sebastian Vettel broke the cardinal rule of racing on Sunday. Deep down he knows that. And, I’d wager, is kicking himself for such a silly, unnecessary momentary lapse.

Make no mistake, it could cost him the title. And he’ll have nobody to blame but himself.

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