Classic Verstappen vs Hamilton Battle Ruined by FIA Inconsistency at Bahrain GP
A classic season opener in Bahrain was not without controversy, but what else is new in Formula 1?
The 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix will become a classic in the history of opening races in the F1 season thanks to the dramatic back and forth battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Both drivers are at the peak of their talents and it seems so far in 2021 that their cars are finally evenly matched. We should be discussing the amazing performances from both of these drivers but their is an unfortunate cloud that looms over the finish of the Bahrain Grand Prix. And that comes courtesy of the FIA and the race stewards in regards to their track limits ruling. Their decision throughout the weekend on enforcing track limits at Turn 4 has left fans confused and angry at the inconsistent and unclear regulations. Let's look at some of the issues that are leaving F1 fans scratching their heads after the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Changing Rules on the Fly
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If the FIA had been clear and strict in regards to their track limits rulings from the first session, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation at the moment. After FP1, the Turn 4 track limits rule changed and up until the race, drivers were not allowed to surpass the kerb on the exit of the corner. But when it came to the race on Sunday, the Race Director's notes stated that track limits at Turn 4 would not be monitored. This is why we saw the likes of Hamilton repeatedly go off at Turn 4 and it even sparked complaints from Verstappen as to why they were allowed to do that. Drivers assumed that they would not be warned for track limits abuses so it even prompted Verstappen's race engineer to encourage his driver to do the same.
What Does the Regulation Say?
2021 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations
The regulations are written in English, but I must confess that I still don't understand them. In Section 21.2 of the Race Director's notes, it states: "The track limits at the exit of Turn 4 will not be monitored with regard to setting a lap time, as the defining limits are the artificial grass and the gravel trap in that location" That is simple enough to understand but this is where their is room for debate. It then goes on to state "In all cases during the race, Drivers are reminded of the provisions of Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations." So what is Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations you might ask? It is as follows:
Drivers must make every reasonable effort to use the track at all times and may not deliberately leave the track without a justifiable reason.
Drivers will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with it and, for the avoidance of doubt, any white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.
Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage. At the absolute discretion of the race director a driver may be given the opportunity to give back the whole of any advantage he gained by leaving the track.
I believe the FIA was not clear enough in their race notes and did not follow the actual sporting regulation of Article 27.3. If we apply the very first provision of that regulation, clearly Hamilton and other drivers were not making a reasonable effort to use the track at all times as they were purposefully going off of it and I would argue that they did indeed gain a lasting advantage by improving their lap times and gaps versus their rivals. If we apply the third provision, it is clear that Verstappen was in breach of the regulation and made an illegal overtake as he gained a position. Although, you could make an argument that Verstappen had already completed the overtake as he exited Turn 4 as we see in some of the images. And could you also argue that Hamilton squeezed Verstappen out wide (which he is entitled to do so) but I'll leave that up for debate in the comment section.
Lack of FIA Clarity Leads to Confusion
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If you're are confused by these rulings and regulations, don't worry because so are the teams and drivers. Even Lewis Hamilton stated post race that the Turn 4 track limits rules changed mid-race which FIA Race Director Michael Masi has denied saying; “We had two people that were looking in that area, at every car every lap, and pretty much every car bar one was doing the right thing within what we expected in a general sequence.” This whole track limits debacle could have been avoided had the FIA been clear and decisive from the onset of the race weekend. Track limits should be black and white and also consistent for every Grand Prix weekend instead of changing them repeatedly. In my opinion, Verstappen was in breach of the rules but so was Hamilton and all the other drivers who did not reasonably make an effort to stay within the Turn 4 track limits. The FIA needs to make things 100% clear and concise first for the teams and the drivers but also the fans as well. We can't enforce track limits just for overtaking but not enforce them for gaining an advantage on your lap times. The FIA cannot have it both ways. It's a shame that we have to talk about this reoccurring issue with the FIA and race stewards as we all know this isn't the first time. It takes away from what was a superb display of elite Formula 1 driving from Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. At any rate, the good news from Bahrain is that we seem to be on course for a classic championship showdown between the Dutch lion and the seven time World Champion.