Analysis: What F1 history tells us about the Vettel investigation

The FIA's decision to further investigate the Sebastian Vettel case from the Azerbaijan GP is one of huge significance, but it is not necessarily uncharted territory. Adam Cooper looks at the precedents.

Analysis: What F1 history tells us about the Vettel investigation

Wednesday’s confirmation that the FIA has opened an investigation into what went on with Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car in Azerbaijan has ramped up the debate on the matter.

Rarely has an incident and subsequent punishment generated such polarised views. 

It’s no surprise that many people side with the team and driver they support in such cases – you will hardly back the referee’s decision if your man is sent off in an FA Cup final, after all. But views from neutrals, including veterans of the F1 pitlane, also vary wildly.

Some folk think that Vettel has been punished enough with a 10-second stop-and-go penalty, while others believe that the FIA wasn’t strong enough on the day, and that an example needs to be made.

One of the problems is that there is no precedent for such a “road rage” incident, because we’ve not seen anything quite like it before, certainly at F1 level.

The example that many people have quoted this week comes from the lower ranks. At an MSA Formula (now British F4) race at Silverstone in 2015, Dan Ticktum overtook 10 cars under the safety car to catch and make contact with Ricky Collard, with whom he’d been involved in an incident early in the race.

The then 16-year-old was subsequently banned from racing for two years, with the second suspended. The MSA called it “a disturbing and dangerous episode,” and “totally irresponsible and reprehensible in the extreme.”

You could argue that the degree of premeditation was greater – it took Ticktum a while to pass all those cars, whereas Vettel was reacting almost on instinct – and that the youngster put marshals and other drivers at risk by charging through the field.

Equally, it’s clear that Vettel is at a very different stage of his career, and arguably should have known better.

So what can we learn from F1 history that might help us to predict the outcome in Monday’s hearing?

Daniel Ticktum
Daniel Ticktum

Photo by: Daniel James Smith

Safety car incidents

Given that we’ve had the safety car for over two decades, and that there has always been scope for misunderstandings as drivers zig and zag and stop and start, there have been relatively few instances of dramas in the safety car queue.

In 2000, Williams rookie Jenson Button crashed on the run to Monza’s Parabolica, caught out when Michael Schumacher backed up the field as the Ferrari ace prepared for the restart. There was no penalty, but Schumacher subsequently apologised to the youngster.

The same teams were involved in a more controversial incident in Monaco in 2004, when Juan Pablo Montoya ran into Schumacher in the tunnel while the German was weaving to warm his tyres.

Instantly out of the race, Schumacher was understandably furious – and even more so because Montoya survived to take fourth place. The stewards deemed it a racing incident.

In 2007, Vettel and Hamilton were both part of the story of an infamous collision at Fuji. Hamilton was leading the safety car queue in the rain, with Red Bull’s Mark Webber running second and Vettel in a stunning third for Toro Rosso.

When Webber backed up, Vettel ran into the back of the sister car, putting both men out of the race and costing their teams priceless points.

Webber subsequently expressed his frustration with leader Hamilton, claiming that the McLaren man was varying his pace while the safety car lights were on, as opposed to while preparing for a restart.

At the time the already-devastated Vettel received a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in China. Then video evidence from a spectator emerged that showed Hamilton, who went onto the race, slowing in an unusual way. Vettel appeared to be vindicated.

The FIA certainly thought there was a case to answer, and a further enquiry followed in Shanghai. There was a widespread feeling that Hamilton would be penalised in some way – which would have been disastrous for his title aspirations – and he was given a hard time by rivals in that weekend’s drivers’ briefing.

In the end the stewards took no action against him, but instead gave Vettel a break by cancelling his 10-place penalty.

Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing, Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Toro Rosso
Sebastian Vettel, Scuderia Toro Rosso, and Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: XPB Images

Race bans

Given that Vettel was not excluded from the Baku race and earned a useful fourth place, it’s perhaps inevitable that many observers have suggested that he should now be banned from an upcoming event.

In fact, only five drivers have ever been forced to actually miss a race through an FIA sanction, and strangely, three of the penalties occurred during the turbulent season of 1994. Even stranger, in one later case a driver actually finished a race from which he was banned.

Some may recall that Riccardo Patrese was forced to sit out the 1978 United States GP in the aftermath of the tragic Monza accident, which had cost Ronnie Peterson his life. In fact, he was not banned by the authorities – he was excluded by his fellow drivers.

The young upstart had annoyed several rivals that season, including Peterson himself, who accused the Arrows man of blocking him at the Swedish GP. After Monza the drivers got together and came up with an ultimatum: "If Patrese races at Watkins Glen, we don't."

The organisers of the US event gave in and simply declined to accept Patrese's entry, taking only the second Arrows of Rolf Stommelen.

The first driver to suffer an official FIA ban was Nigel Mansell, who was involved in an infamous black-flag incident at the 1989 Portuguese GP. He was reported for reversing in the pitlane, and the stewards called him in with a flag. The Ferrari driver failed to respond to the signals, and subsequently took Ayrton Senna off the road when he tried to overtake.

Swift action followed, and the fact that Mansell was involved in an incident with a title contender when he should not have been on track was taken very seriously. He was thus not allowed to contest the next race in Spain.

Senna himself was never actually banned from a race, but at the start of 1994 he did have such a penalty hanging over him.

At the previous year’s Japanese GP he verbally and then physically assaulted Eddie Irvine after the race, upset that the Jordan rookie had had the audacity to unlap himself. Nothing happened on the day, but after evidence emerged – in the form of my tape of their heated debate – FIA President Max Mosley decided to take action.

There was no time to convene an enquiry before the last race in Adelaide, so it took place in Paris after the season. The outcome was a two-race ban – but because of the “high degree of provocation” by Irvine it was suspended for six months. It thus covered the first five races of the following season – and tragically, Senna was to lose his life in the third of those at Imola.

The next example of a ban came while Senna was still under threat, and Irvine was again involved. The Ulsterman tangled with Jos Verstappen in the 1994 Brazilian GP, sending the latter into a spectacular roll, and triggering an incident that also took out two other cars.

Despite inconclusive evidence, Irvine was found to be totally responsible, mainly because an unhelpful head-on slow motion TV replay did not show the true perspective. He was banned from the next race, and when his Jordan team appealed, the penalty was tripled to three races – in effect it was a warning to teams not to make “frivolous” appeals in the future.

A few weeks later at the British GP at Silverstone, Michael Schumacher passed Damon Hill on the warm-up lap, when the rules made it clear that drivers had to keep position, and the pole man set the pace. He later received a black flag for his troubles.

Having discussed the matter with the pitwall, Schumacher didn't obey it initially. He eventually took a stop-and-go penalty, and finished second on the road. The stewards discussed it after the race, and fined the team $25,000, but the result went unchanged. However, when the matter was taken further by the FIA he lost the race result, and was banned from both the Italian and Portuguese GPs.

At the same race Mika Hakkinen received a suspended ban following a late tangle with Rubens Barrichello. Two events later at Hockenheim, the McLaren driver was involved in a first-corner crash, the Silverstone penalty was triggered, and he was forced to miss the Hungarian GP.

Mika Hakkinen, McLaren Peugeot
Mika Hakkinen, McLaren Peugeot

Photo by: Sutton Images

Three years on, at the Italian GP, title contender Jacques Villeneuve was given a nine-race suspended ban for failing to slow sufficiently under yellow flags in the race day morning warm-up. Three races later at Suzuka he was reported for going too quickly under yellows past Jos Verstappen’s parked car. At both races several other drivers were also reported, but Jacques was the only repeat offender.

A lengthy meeting the stewards confirmed that he would indeed be banned from that weekend’s race – a huge penalty given that this was the penultimate round, and he was embroiled in a title fight with Schumacher.

He raced under an appeal submitted by Williams, and finished fifth. He then effectively took the ban retrospectively when the team withdrew its appeal after the race, thus giving up the points he had earned.

Remarkably, more than a decade passed before the next race ban, which was imposed on Romain Grosjean in 2012. The Frenchman had a disastrous time with Lotus that season, and matters came to a head when he triggered a multi-car accident at the start of the Belgian GP, which also eliminated Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton.

Taking into account previous incidents and the fact that he had impacted the title battle, stewards imposed a one-race ban, forcing Grosjean to sit out Monza.

It’s worth noting that when Felipe Massa missed the United States GP in 2002, it was due to a decision by his Sauber team. He had earned a 10-place grid penalty, and in those days the rules specified “the next” and not “his next” race.

Sauber negated the penalty by benching the young Brazilian and recalling Heinz-Harald Frentzen for the weekend.

On two occasions teams have been banned over technical matters. In 1984, Tyrrell was accused of using additives in its fuel, and after a protracted wrangle the team was kicked out of the championship after the 11th race in Holland.

Those 11 races were struck from the team's record, and Martin Brundle lost the seven starts he made before he was injured. The stats will tell you that he started 158 GPs, when he actually appeared in 165.

In 2005, BAR-Honda was banned from two races in the aftermath of the fuel tank saga that came to light at the San Marino GP, so the team missed the Spain and Monaco events.

Jenson Button
Jenson Button

Photo by: XPB Images

Retrospective action

The 1997 Jerez controversy involving Schumacher and Villeneuve was just one of many examples where the FIA has looked into a race incident long after the result has been declared at the end of the weekend.

In that sense, there are many precedents that suggest Vettel could receive further sanctions, despite the German leaving Baku on Sunday night confident that he could put the controversy behind him.

The most famous early example came during the dramatic season of 1976, a year that was embroiled in controversy. Thousands of fans had seen James Hunt win the British GP at Brands Hatch, a race stopped and restarted after a first-corner accident.

Weeks later in court it was deemed that Hunt should not have been allowed to take the restart, and he was disqualified.

As noted earlier, it happened to Irvine after Jordan appealed the ban imposed at the 1994 Brazilian GP, and again with Schumacher after Silverstone the same year, when his penalty was increased.

In the aftermath of his clash with Villeneuve at the 1997 finale in Jerez, Schumacher received the unprecedented penalty of having his position in the world championship removed, but the curious thing about this punishment was that Michael did not actually lose any of his results.

He was still the winner of five 1997 GPs, and he kept the 78 points he added to his official career tally that season. Even now, few people would acknowledge that Villeneuve's Williams teammate Frentzen officially finished second in the standings that year.

Often cases are re-opened when “new evidence” emerges, as happened after the 2009 Australian GP. At that race, Jarno Trulli was penalised for passing Hamilton under the safety car, and it was only after the race that the FIA learned the latter had initially told the media that he had waved the Italian past, before telling a different story later on to the stewards.

The matter was examined at the following weekend’s Malaysian GP, and the outcome was that Trulli got his third place back, and Hamilton was excluded from fourth.

There have also been occasions where technical matters have been pursued by the FIA, and the decision made on the Sunday night has subsequently changed.

One infamous example was Malaysia 1999 and the Ferrari bargeboard affair, when Irvine and Schumacher were at first excluded for an irregularity, and then later reinstated in the results, effectively keeping Irvine's title hopes alive to the final race at Suzuka.

Eddie Irvine, Ferrari F399 takes the win
Eddie Irvine, Ferrari F399 takes the win

Photo by: Sutton Images

The aforementioned BAR-Honda fuel tank saga at Imola in 2005 saw the opposite occur – cleared on the day, the Brackley team subsequently suffered the heavy punishment of exclusion from the results and the two-race ban.

Conclusion

So what can we learn from all this? Firstly, it’s been proven many time that decisions made by the race stewards on the day can be amended, and that sanctions can most definitely be increased.

There is no “new evidence” this time, other than the fact that Vettel will have a chance to state his case in person – he didn’t have contact with the stewards in Baku.

A ban - perhaps more likely a suspended one - is clearly on the menu of potential punishments. Vettel is already close to earning one through licence penalty points – he’s currently on nine points, accumulated through four incidents (including the three earned in Baku).

Three more points in Austria would trigger a ban – after that the two points he picked up at Silverstone last year are dropped, and he’ll be on a safe number for a while.

Remember too that the Mansell and Schumacher bans involved disregard for black flags – which should be regarded as sacrosanct by all racers – and the FIA may regard misbehaviour behind the safety car as being equally worthy of serious punishment.

The FIA can also hardly fail to take note of the furore that has followed the Baku incident, and perhaps key to the discussion will be the question of setting an example to young racers, something that Hamilton was keen to stress on Sunday evening.

The FIA also takes its road safety campaign very seriously, and road rage is a key part of the message.

The offence was different, but it’s worth recalling what Max Mosley said about Senna’s assault on Irvine back in 1993: “There had to be a penalty. When someone is hit, it takes the whole thing into another area. We have to stop that happening at all levels of the sport.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF70H

Photo by: Charles Coates / LAT Images

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