Former F1 driver Jolyon Palmer, who left Renault during the 2017 season, is part of the BBC team and offers insight and analysis from the point of view of the competitors.
Charles Leclerc drove wonderfully on Sunday to win the Italian Grand Prix – but he should have been penalised for forcing Lewis Hamilton off the road at the second chicane.
The fact Leclerc got away with that has left governing body the FIA, the race stewards and the race director in an uncomfortable Rubik’s cube of a tangle.
Why Leclerc broke the rules
Let’s start with the facts.
Leclerc forced Hamilton off the road in the braking zone for the second chicane on lap 23, as Hamilton attempted a move on the outside. This is undeniable.
Hamilton kicked up the grass in his evasive action as the Ferrari moved across, and was forced to cut the chicane and rejoin behind.
Firstly, this is not fair racing from Leclerc. The rules dictate that in such situations drivers must leave a car’s width of space for their opponents, particularly in the braking areas, where they are in full control of their car’s positioning, unlike at the apex or exit, where small slides can cause them to deviate from their original and intended trajectory.
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Leclerc moved to the right while he was braking and forced Hamilton off the road. Hamilton couldn’t do anything about it, other than to crash with Leclerc or to go off and cut the corner, as he was already on the limit of the brakes and couldn’t back out from alongside the Ferrari man. Nor should he have had to.
Last year, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was penalised five seconds for an almost identical infringement on Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas at turn one in Monza, and it cost the Dutchman a podium.
With Leclerc, though, the FIA brought out its latest measure instead of keeping things consistent. They instead showed the black-and-white warning flag to Leclerc.
Race director Michael Masi likens it to a yellow card in football; but it’s effectively nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
The race stewards are at liberty to investigate any incident, regardless of whether Masi uses the black-and-white flag. But in this case they took no action.
Some have seen this as the stewards bottling it with a huge decision, against a race-leading Ferrari, in Monza, surrounded by 100,000 or so Italian fans all wearing red. Hamilton and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff made a similar point after the race.
In my view, the decision was clear-cut. Much as I didn’t want to see a penalty, as it would have inevitably ruined the race, the rules are the rules and they must be adhered to for the good of the sport over the entertainment factor of the show.
This is F1’s equivalent of Manchester City being 0-0 with Crystal Palace and in the 60th minute Raheem Sterling is brought down in the penalty area and the underdogs also then have a man sent off.
Sure, it ruins the game to give City the penalty and reduce Palace to 10 men, but those are the rules. You can’t not do it because everyone wants to see a more balanced game for the remaining 30 minutes.
And you especially can’t not give it because the game is at Crystal Palace and their 25,000 fans in the crowd will be unhappy.
The risk of unintended consequences
I found it extremely uncomfortable watching Masi trying to explain the situation after the race.
He said the revival of the black-and-white warning flag was a new measure brought in at the request of the teams and drivers to allow for harder racing.
But what precedent does this now set?
It means drivers are potentially allowed to commit one offence in a race and get away with it. What sort of racing is that going to produce? And how is that ethical or fair?
Verstappen got away with a dubious race-winning move on Leclerc back in Austria and it has set a new precedent for forcing drivers off the road on the outside on the exit of the corner. But in many ways Verstappen’s case was easier to defend than this one from Leclerc.
Because Leclerc was given only a warning, it would appear drivers are now allowed to force each other off on the outside before a corner as well.
If that’s the case, there is a serious risk that the days of an overtake around the outside are well and truly over, unless a car is pretty much fully ahead before actually getting to the corner.
Masi then went on to explain a further reason Verstappen might have been penalised last year and Leclerc not this year was because last year there was contact and this year there wasn’t.
On the face of it, that makes some sense. But in reality there was only no contact this time because Hamilton took better evasive action than Bottas did in his position last year.
In fact, Bottas actually had more space than Hamilton did last year; he just didn’t budge and the incident ended in light contact.
Which leads me on to the next problematic situation – drivers might go looking for a bit of contact on the outside, just to prove to the FIA the absolute obvious, and thus get a penalty for the aggressor who is clearly contravening the rules.
With motorsport safety coming back into the public eye after the death of Anthoine Hubert in Belgium under F1’s very nose, what sort of a statement is this?
It seems either idiotic or downright irresponsible, or even both.
Wolff made this exact point after the race.
Asked if the black-and-white flag promoted drivers taking more liberties and opened a can of worms, he said: “There will be more touching. It will be more of a common practice. My opinion is it will go to the point that it will end up in a collision and then we will bale out again.”
Wolff is absolutely right. Drivers will always do everything they can to gain an advantage, no matter what’s at stake. If suddenly they can get away with pushing another driver off the track once per race, they will do it. And if for the other driver it is beneficial to have a little tap with the car next to you, they will look for it.
Leclerc’s second dodgy move
The next issue with the black-and-white flag is whether it a pure yellow card, or a yellow card for that particular offence only? The FIA says the former – that any new driving offence would count.
Leclerc’s next on-the-edge move came when, under further pressure from Hamilton, he cut the chicane at turn one and then meandered up the curved straight of Curva Grande, with a sudden jink to the left as Hamilton appeared to have a run on him.
Hamilton backed out and ultimately lost his momentum, and with it another chance of a move was halted by Leclerc’s aggressive defence.
This time, the actual cutting of the corner (which was investigated) was fine – Leclerc rejoined and clearly didn’t gain an advantage.
But the sudden chop across the nose of Hamilton through the flat out Curva Grande corner (which wasn’t investigated) was once again right on the limit.
In isolation I probably could see this being allowed, as the curved nature of the ‘straight’ blurs the lines somewhat. But with the backdrop of the black-and-white flag already deployed, this was potentially a second offence that could have seen a red.
Are decisions consistent enough?
The problem to me is the stewarding is inconsistent – a point Hamilton made after the race.
The stewards have a difficult job to do, they take it seriously and they try to do it as best they can. But at times, from the outside, it can feel like decisions aren’t based on racing, but on the likely popularity of the decision with the masses.
Back in China, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat – nicknamed ‘the torpedo’ after a series of incidents a few years ago – was handed a whopping drive-through penalty in China for what appeared to be a pure racing incident when he collided with both McLarens on the opening lap.
Would Leclerc have received the same penalty? I doubt it.
The fact is, Leclerc is a very popular driver. In fact, I’ve never known a more popular front-runner and now race-winner in my time than the young Monegasque driver. Has that, plus the fact he drives a red car, had a bearing on the result this weekend?
In Canada, I applauded the FIA for sticking to its guns – and the rulebook – when handing Sebastian Vettel a penalty for a breach of rules when he rejoined the track after going off and impeding Hamilton.
But since then the demand from the teams and drivers to ‘let them race’ – which is also popular with the fans – has led to a problematic situation where it’s hard to predict what their next decision will be, and where consistency can seem to be in short supply.
A manifesto for change
This all overshadows the fact it was a cracking race and those were unbelievable drives from both Leclerc and Hamilton.
The biggest frustration is that Leclerc need not have forced Hamilton off at all. He was on the inside into the corner, and ahead. Hamilton was never going to go around the outside, so it was completely unnecessary, and put a taint on an otherwise phenomenal drive.
A five-second penalty might have outraged many in Monza, but not giving it puts the stewards in a more uncomfortable position – and there will probably now be many more incidents and controversies as a result.
In my view, F1 needs a complete rules reset. It is a controversial idea, but I believe the sport needs a permanent race steward, or stewarding team, who share the same or similar ideals.
At the moment, stewards – and the ex-drivers who sit on the panel each race – have different opinions of various incidents and this is what leads to inconsistency.
But, as Hamilton pointed out, the drivers need consistency to know how far they can push things out on track.
Secondly, once in place the stewarding team must explain the rules clearly to the drivers, what they can and can’t get away with, and what the repercussions will be for each transgression.
Finally, the simple bit – stick to the rules when handing out penalties.
Sure, in the short term there will be some uncomfortable and unpopular moments. But once consistency is adhered to and the drivers are crystal clear what they can and can’t do, F1 will be fairer, safer and better.
Right now, that is the only thing detracting from what has been a season full of cracking races like Monza.