F1 left with a car crash over controversial Sebastian Vettel verdict | Giles Richards

Decision to give Vettel a slapped wrist after he side-swiped Lewis Hamilton at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has possibly had a more negative effect than the collision

The FIA might have declared case closed after taking no further action against Sebastian Vettel for his collision with Lewis Hamilton at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix but outside the boardroom it appears to be anything but. The ruling has served only to intensify the spotlight on the incident and its aftermath. Vettel issued his mea culpa to the investigation on Monday and was sent home with a slapped wrist. A decision as surprising as it was at odds with many principles the governing body promotes and which has raised further questions and more controversy.

Vettel’s stop-go penalty in the race, followed by his public apology for his side-swipe into Hamilton and an agreement to take part in educational duties in junior formula was adjudged to be punishment enough. He might have received a race ban, a grid penalty or a fine. Imposing none, even a fine – meaningless to the driver or his Ferrari team – is positively baffling and stood in stark contrast to events only a day later at the Tour de France.

On Tuesday Peter Sagan, the world champion, was disqualified within an hour after he was deemed to have elbowed Mark Cavendish during the sprint finish of stage four. The crash that ensued put Cavendish out of the race.

Philippe Marien, the head UCI commissaire, made his reasoning clear. “Now is the moment to set our boundaries,” he said. “It was not about Sagan but about the act the rider made. What happens here, it looks like it was on purpose and it almost looks like hitting a person.”

It was known before the FIA investigation that the president, Jean Todt – a staunch and earnest promoter of the road safety campaign – had been unhappy at the example Vettel had set. The FIA’s explanation of its investigation stressed concern at the implications for fans and young competitors as well as potential damage to F1’s and the FIA’s reputation.

Yet the decision seems contradictory to this stance and in terms of the organisation’s prestige has possibly had a more negative effect than the collision.

The incident cannot be considered in isolation. Vettel’s former team-mate at Red Bull, Mark Webber, was cutting in his assessment of his character. “No one was ever big enough to pull him into line, tell him that kind of behaviour wasn’t acceptable,” Webber wrote in his autobiography. “Which meant he would throw his toys out of the pram from time to time when he didn’t get his own way.”

Last season the toys were repeatedly airborne. He launched an expletive-laden tirade after being shunted out in Russia, after which the Ferrari team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, admitted his driver had gone “ballistic”.

Then in Mexico he directed furious abuse at the race director, Charlie Whiting. An apology brought no further action but Vettel was warned that such incidents would be put before the FIA international tribunal in future.

No tribunal was called for in Paris on Monday, which sends out at best a mixed message and at worst, far from setting an example to young racing drivers, implies that dangerous driving might be exonerated with an apology.

Damon Hill had no doubt as to cause and effect. “It was nothing to do with racing, it was to do with one driver’s annoyance and inability to control his emotions,” he said. “The essence is the message it sends out as to the kind of conduct the governing body ought to be encouraging not to happen. You can’t have people losing their temper and just hitting the other guy. If they do nothing they are saying: ‘OK, no harm done go ahead.’”

It is an opinion shared by many but not all. Martin Brundle has been consistent in his view that the stop-go penalty Vettel received was sufficient.

“We are not a road safety campaign support act, as worthy as that is,” he said. “We do 230mph, we spin our wheels, we lock our brakes, we slide sideways constantly. You can’t relate being in an F1 car to road driving. I want to see feisty characters. I don’t want all the rawness of F1 sanitised out of it.”

That it has further ignited what was already a fascinating championship is undeniable and Brundle is backed in his desire to see the sport shaped by real characters by the former F1 driver and three-times Le Mans winner, Allan McNish. “We are trying to open up people to racing, Vettel showed emotion, he needed to cap it but he showed it,” he said. “I don’t think that’s something we want to contain. We are not driving to work, we are fighting for a world championship.”

They make valid points but are not coming from the standpoint of having to defend the sport’s reputation or the influence F1 drivers wield. The FIA choses to involve itself under those auspices.

Which raises those questions. The Ferrari bias at the governing body theory has already had plenty of airing but it is hard to give it credence given the ruling was made by a four-man panel who included the highly respected Whiting. One of the race stewards has admitted an unwillingness to affect the world championship influenced their decision to award the stop-go. That may have been a factor in Paris, as may have been a desire to return focus to the season rather than the protracted process that would have accompanied an international tribunal. Equally, Vettel’s contrition appears to have played a major part but why was it sufficient? Was it, as has been suggested, simply because the incident did not occur at racing speed?

All these questions are unanswered and have served only to feed the storm which will remain the No1 topic this weekend at the Austrian Grand Prix. Todt is a sincere proponent of motor racing and road safety but having come to a such a controversial conclusion the organisation he heads should have made its reasoning more clear before declaring this particular case closed.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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