Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It was a relief to get through the Chinese Grand Prix without any stewards investigations and drive-through penalties, wasn't it? Not a few of us were beginning to suspect that this season's championships would be decided in the Stewards' office rather than on the track. After Shanghai though, it now looks likely that Lewis Hamilton will win the title in spite of the decisions emanating from Race Control, rather than Felipe Massa winning because of them.

Interesting, though, to note that there was no investigation of Sebastien Bourdais' first lap collision with Jarno Trulli. Of course, any thinking race fan would realise that the stewards made the correct call here - the start of the race is inevitably somewhat chaotic and mistakes will be made. That said, I couldn't help feeling Bourdais was more obviously at fault than he was in Fuji where it seemed he was stripped of his sixth place finish mainly for having the temerity to race a Ferrari. Certainly, when I saw on the screen that the stewards would be investigating the accident, my first thought was that it was Massa who had reason to be concerned. Until of course, I remembered, that Ferrari drivers don't tend to be penalised in marginal situations... What this highlights is the near undeniable truth that there has been serious inconsistency in the way penalties have been handed out this season. I've not seen any coherent explanation as to why Felipe Massa's unsafe release from the pits in Valencia warranted only a fine while his unsafe release in Singapore earned him the more usual 10 second penalty (unless of course, you adopt the conspiracy theory explanation that the stewards are under instructions to favour Ferrari, or to make life difficult for Mclaren, or to keep the championship points battle close. At Singapore, Massa was out of the running before the penalty was applied). Come to that, I struggle to explain why Hamilton's admittedly aggressive startline antics at Fuji earned him a penalty while his downright dangerous wheel-banging with Mark Webber while defending his 7th place at Monza last month did not. In fact, the failure to penalise Hamilton at Monza suggests that even the conspiracy-theory explanation can't account for the stewards' decisions this year.

The FIA might want to bury its head in the sand and insist that there is nothing wrong with the system as it stands, but that really won't wash. That their decision-making has been inconsistent is incontrovertibly true. Either this is the result of systemic bias - a claim that Advisor to the Stewards,
Alan Donnelly has strenuously rejected, or it is down to incompetence, the decision makers not knowing their own rules and resorting to making it up as they go along. Fashionable as it may be to suspect conspiracy, there is plenty of reason to believe it may be cock-up. I have to confess that until the Spa debacle, I had little idea who the stewards were or where they came from, but if asked, I would have assumed that they were old hands with plenty of experience officiating at major racing events in their home country. This does not in fact appear necessarily to be the case. Some are, but others appear to be blazers from the national sporting federations with little real experience. This might help to explain why an adviser was brought in - ostensibly to bring coherence and consistency to stewarding decisions following earlier controversies. The trouble is, said adviser is not an experienced old racer, but a former MEP who, surprise, just happens to be a good friend of Max Mosley. When trying to argue that there's no truth in the conspiracy theories, it doesn't help, by the by, that he is the CEO of Sovereign, a company which has previously done work for Ferrari.

This really isn't a satisfactory arrangement for anything which wants to consider itself a professional sport. It would be like having linesmen at the Champions League Final who don't know the offside rule and a referee who sits on the board of one of sponsor of one of the competing clubs.
It strikes me that what is needed, at least when it comes to arbitrating on on-track incidents, is an experienced and respected F1 driver who knows what it is like from the driver's perspective to make the decisions. Someone with a feel for the difference between a racing accident and an act of gross stupidity or worse. Someone, who, unlike the stewards at Jerez in 1997, could tell straight away when a driver commits a 'professional foul'. Alan Donnelly has rejected the suggestion, commenting that "I don't feel that is the correct solution, because their experience is tied to the past, from when they used to drive. And since then, let's say ten years ago, racing has changed." Following this line of argument, though (it's not entirely unreasonable - braking distances, turbulence, aerodynamic sensitivity, etc will be considerably different from the early 1990s) it is hard to see how a man who has never raced in any capacity can be expected to do a better job. As it is out of the question to get current drivers to do the job, it seems to be that the use of an ex-driver is the best option there is, whatever the problems. It's not a new idea. Back in the late 1980s, when some were critical of the reluctance on the part of the stewards to penalise overly aggressive driving, Nigel Roebuck suggested the same solution, and proposed Keke Rosberg for the job. A hard but fair racer, he would have been ideal, though given his son is now on the grid, I don't think he'd be seen as a neutral observer.

Which brings me to another point. Having an ex-driver make the calls on penalties might address the problem of competence, but it would not in itself address questions around bias or corruption which, whether the FIA like it or not, have gained considerable credibility in racing circles. To my mind, the best way to do this is to have an open election to the post in which all the teams can participate. Make the post sufficiently well paid and I'm sure there will be suitable candidates coming forward, and while an election would not guarantee getting the best candidate for the job (I'm nervously reading coverage of the US presidential elections as I write this...) but it should ensure that whoever takes the role is not considered to be too close to any particular team.

I don't know if this is the only or best solution to the problem. Perhaps it can be addressed by making much clearer exactly what is and is not now considered to be acceptable driving behaviour. Perhaps it simply requires more careful selection of who serve as stewards at F1 races. Certainly, I don't recall there being nearly so many penalties and investigations when I first followed the sport in the mid 1980s. What is required, though, is that the FIA get their heads out of the sand and admit that there is a problem to be fixed.

ENDNOTE: I was saddened this week to learn of the death of a long-standing and tremendously well-informed and funny member of the internet motorsports community, Pete Fenelon. I never knew him personally, but I always looked forward to his F1 season previews, which were works of comic genius, and he was amongst the most consistently interesting posters on Atlas F1's Nostalgia Forum. I first stumbled across his postings in the dim and distant past when I would sit in my freezing student flat with an ancient Amiga 500, logged in remotely to the University's AI department, spending far more time on than I should have, when I was meant to be learning about Hidden Markov Models, Finite State Grammars and many other things I have mercifully forgotten. He will be much missed. My condolences to his family and friends.


Blogger Pee Wee said...

Well done post Patrick.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Two thoughts:

Is Kimi Raikkonen a finite-state automaton?

To paraphrase from Hot Fuzz, "They're not called accidents anymore, they're called collisions. The term 'accident' implies that no-one's to blame."

2:01 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

I was shocked to hear about poor Peter; he was kind enough to review my biog. of Stirling on Amazon and his posts on Atlas F1 were always worth reading.

My condolences to his friends and family

7:21 AM  

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