Opinion: Verstappen's penalty the right call

Opinion: Verstappen's penalty the right call

23 October 2017 – Max Verstappen's penalty for his bold overtake on Kimi Räikkönen on the final lap of the United States Grand Prix was the right call from the stewards, but it highlighted a concerning level of inconsistency on the decision-making front, made more challenging by modern circuit design, as GPUpdate.net comments.

Verstappen's recovery drive

Verstappen was one of the stars of Sunday's race at the Circuit of the Americas as he recovered from a sub-par qualifying display and engine penalty (which left him 16th on the grid) to challenge for a podium. His one-and-only shot came on the final lap of the race when, after a series of quick laps on relatively fresh tyres, he got within striking distance of Räikkönen, who was struggling with fuel-saving and worn rubber. Having used DRS on the long back straight, Verstappen tucked behind Räikkönen through the next sequence of corners before pouncing on the entry to Turn 17. Räikkönen closed the door but, due to the large strips of tarmac either side of the circuit, Verstappen managed to slip through on the inside. "Yes! Yes! Wow, that was a good one," shouted the Dutchman, before Christian Horner jumped in: "Max Verstappen, you are brilliant – fantastic drive!" Evidently, there were no immediate concerns of a penalty in the Red Bull camp. Meanwhile, Räikkönen's apology to the Ferrari pit wall suggested that he was not against the move, at least from the cockpit.

Why was the overtake illegal?

However, television replays, and initially unseen footage later shown in the media centre, confirmed that Verstappen put all four wheels off the track to pass Räikkönen. As a rule of thumb, for an overtake to be legal, at least one wheel must be kept inside the white lines at all times. After a quick review, the stewards handed Verstappen a five-second time penalty for leaving the track, which is undeniable, and gaining an advantage, also undeniable, as he snatched third from Räikkönen. "Sometimes hard decision needs to be done," commented Mika Salo, last weekend's driver representative steward, in a post on Instagram on Sunday evening, which included a video of the stewards' review. "Verstappen gained [an] advantage when he drove off the track by at least half a metre, and overtook Räikkönen in doing so. Rules are clear for these kind of situations and Verstappen was penalised five seconds." On the face of it, a simple decision, but it was one that drew the ire of many fans and paddock personalities, amid other unpenalised actions.

Why should he feel aggrieved?

Verstappen was awkwardly informed about the penalty moments before the podium ceremony and he walked off in a huff, eager to air his frustration to the waiting media. He did not mince his words, hitting out at "one idiot steward" (referring to panel regular Garry Connelly, not Salo) for "killing" the race. But if Verstappen put all four wheels off the track, a clear rule breach, why did he feel so angry? It came down to a more relaxed track limits policy at COTA; while no action was taken over drivers repeatedly leaving the circuit during practice and qualifying, and several early-race scraps which involved trips over the run-off to keep/gain places, Verstappen picked up a penalty. After his initial outburst, Verstappen offered a more balanced view. "At the end of the day, just be clear about it," he said. "If you say, 'OK, that's fine', we'll do what we like. If you say 'Stay within the white lines', then we'll stay within the white lines. Just be consistent. Don't [let] everyone else run off the track anywhere [they] like, and never give any penalties, then I do it, and give me a penalty." Although his move involved cutting the track, rather than running wide, he made a valid point.

How can F1 prevent a repeat?

As Verstappen commented, clearer rules over track limits need to be defined. Moving forward, there should either be a zero-tolerance policy, or a free-for-all, but zero-tolerance (corners are there for a reason) is more logical. Formula 1 has been strict at other circuits in the past, deleting qualifying laps and penalising repeat offenders in races, but at COTA there was a surprising amount of freedom given to drivers, until the controversial Verstappen/Räikkönen incident. However, as alluded to previously, the situation could be avoided altogether through circuit design. Why was Verstappen penalised? Because he put all four wheels off the track, after being squeezed by Räikkönen, and gained a position. How can this be resolved? Replace tarmac run-off with grass/gravel, which would mean either a clean move is completed, the driver behind has to back off or both refuse to yield and they collide. At street circuits, walls do this job. As a matter of urgency, Formula 1 should take note to avoid such debate over its processes and decisions in the future.

Written by: Mike Seymour

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