…The Racing Line

One of the greatest aspects of F1 is how safety has increased far beyond what was deemed possible 20 years ago. The cars have been continuously improved to the point where cars are now being restrained not by  the technical limitations but by the regulations the organising bodies put in place. Despite the amazing developments that have been made which have made the cars faster and more efficient, I’d say the increase in safety is far greater than the increase in pace, balance, etc.

The problem is that the drivers seem, in my eyes at least, to have gotten a bit too secure in said cars. I’m too young to remember Senna but my Uncle — who’s a true F1 fanatic and has worked in motorsport for decades — disliked Senna because of how he risked his life every time he hopped into an F1 car. While it saw him rise to the top quickly, it also ended in his ultimate sacrifice. I’m lead to believe that some of the maneouvres Senna would attempt were the first of their kind, whereby a driver would play with death much more than would be normally anticipated in a car at such high speeds. Senna would actively risk his life when racing — playing chicken, as it were — because he had such faith in his ability.

Now that the cars are safer the drivers can afford to race as hard as Senna did without the inherent risks.  The issue that arises, however, is that drivers are racing at the edge of the machine’s capabilities without such an overbearing fear of what could go wrong.  ‘The line’ can be overstepped without fear of death in many cases. This is undoubtedly a great thing in countless ways, no cost in sport can be greater than the human cost. In turn, it means that the drivers are no longer judging each other based on their will to live but merely their levels of respect. Alonso had a gripe about it recently and I think he’s right. Things like swerving all over the track to avoid being overtaken are unsafe and drivers, until a rule-change, did it because the risk to themselves was minimal.

At the end of the day, the drivers  no longer need to share a mutual respect for their veryu lives, which means it’s about showing respect to each other. A sentiment that, as any fool can see, is unlikely to be shared by 24 men on a track.

Sunday’s crash highlighted this problem for me. I’ll start with Maldonado. As a driver I’ve serious doubts about him. He’s reckless and I’ve yet to see him even act concerned for another driver. That is to assume he cares about the safety of his peers — something I’ve come to doubt, in all honesty. He’s used his car as a weapon more than once this season which is more than once too many times over an entire career. I think it’s clear as day that he saw red and speared Hamilton off the track. It’s spiteful, it’s unsporting and it’s tremendously unsafe. This is a multi-million pound business/sport (delete according to your levels of cynicism) and the last thing it needs is for drivers to start playing GTA on the track. We scorn footballers for being bad role models but Maldonado should have been given more than just a slap on the wrist for his behaviour. I can’t speak of it lowly enough in a sporting sense, it was just so despicable.

However, Hamilton has to accept his part in this. This season he’s been much improved but he’s been a bully behind the wheel in the past and I think his reckless side also reared its head on Sunday. I appreciate that Hamilton had the position but it was his driving that caused Maldonado to go off the track. I also fully understand that he didn’t expect Maldonado to go hell-for-leather and simply ram him. The thing is, he didn’t vouch for it at all. Shutting Maldonado out was the only thought in his mind. You can almost guarantee he thought that because he was sitting on the race line he was impervious to Maldonado: “I’ve got the racing line, he’s off the track, he can’t touch me”.

To stress, Maldonado was wrong. Horribly wrong. But Hamilton was stupid too. Was shutting Maldonado out that important? I respect that he didn’t expect what happened next but the fact that he didn’t account for it concerns me. If his personal safety had come into it, like it would’ve done in eras passed, neither driver would’ve done what they did: Hamilton wouldn’t have placed his car as a blockade to the track — for all the lambasting I’ve done of Maldonado I think it’s only fair to point out that he could argue that he was simply returning to the track — and Maldonado wouldn’t have rammed another car.

It just feels like these ‘racing incidents’ are becoming more common as the safety buffer increases, giving the drivers more room to play with. I personally don’t want that. Let’s be honest, the crashes are entertaining but when drivers are gambling against what the other driver should do as a point of principle instead of what another driver should do relative to his own safety, we’re going to end up with a lot less actual racing. Unless you count time-to-impact as racing.

Hamilton could’ve walked away with points on Sunday if he hadn’t stupidly gambled his car on this odd, self-assured premise that Maldonado didn’t care about his. I’m sure with hindsight he’ll come to realise that the logic was absurd. Hamilton thought “I can risk my car here because Maldonado won’t risk his”. If Hamilton was willing to risk his car then how could he bet against Maldonado risking his? Particularly when he was the man with more to lose.

I hope F1 doesn’t have to go through a phase where drivers knock each other out in order to enhance their reputation before everything settles down. Sadly, that seems feasible to me.  An environment which allows Maldonado to conduct himself in the manner that he does is not the environment I’d put faith in preventing such incidents. It is a sincere wish of mine that we can find a balance between competition and respect before F1 further sullies its name.