As I write this piece, the FIA have just announced that they are re-opening the investigation into the incident between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton that occurred at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. While Vettel may have received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty during the race, the FIA have decided to investigate the incident further to understand whether Vettel’s actions deserve further punishment. This is a strange move, not only because of the punishments they have already issued Vettel in the stop-and-go penalty as well as 3 penalty points, but because of the potential ramifications it could have on the Drivers and Constructors championships.
While a race ban may not be completely off the table, it would be a remarkable course of action to issue should the FIA choose to do so, at least that’s what I think anyway. A decision to ban Vettel from racing at a Grand Prix would give Lewis Hamilton a free shot at taking 25 points in the championship, essentially free points as Vettel can’t do any damage limitation should he win. Given the driver’s championships are more often than not, decided by the slimmest of points margins, especially when more than one team is involved as has been the case this season, any decision including a race ban could possibly dictate the direction of the championship. That’s a bad precedent that I’m sure the FIA do not want, and I’m sure Lewis Hamilton & Mercedes would not want either should they eventually win their respective championships.
I’ve seen some reactions on social media where many are comparing this decision to investigate further to Michael Schumacher’s disqualification from the 1997 World Championship, where he was found to deliberately crash into Jacques Villeneuve at the European Grand Prix in an attempt to determine the final championship standings in his favour. This incident and Vettel’s has stark comparisons, most notably Vettel’s collision with Hamilton had little bearing on the championship nor was it Vettel’s intention to do so. Moreover, Schumacher did not receive any form of penalty until he was summoned to the FIA meeting after the championship had been concluded, whereas Vettel did receive penalties both in the race and on his racing licence.
Thankfully, Formula One is not used to these situations because they do not happen very often, with the last race disqualification for racing behaviour being Takuma Sato at the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. However this incident was always going to trigger a seismic reaction given Vettel’s indifferent popularity among the British supporters, not to mention his championship rivalry with one of the sport’s all-time leading figures in Lewis Hamilton.
I’m struggling to see any justification for re-investigating the incident, let alone issuing Vettel with further punishment. Any further punishment will likely be met with an appeal from Vettel & Ferrari, if not to the FIA then to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A very similar incident occurred in MotoGP not too long ago, where Valentino Rossi was issued 3 penalty points for deliberately causing a collision with Marc Marquez, forcing him to start from the back of the grid at the final race of the season. Although Rossi’s subsequent appeals proved to be unsuccessful, it set a precedent that many still believe is felt in MotoGP today. Marquez is still “unforgiven” for his part in the incident, with his popularity amongst some Rossi fans still non-existent today. This decision to penalise Rossi had a huge impact on the direction of the championship, regardless of whether the penalty was justified. It was a championship ultimately decided in the court room and not on the track, and you can’t help but think that it would be exactly the same if Vettel does receive further punishment. Let’s hope it does not come to this situation.