The beginning of a new rivalry

While the Formula One fans eagerly want to see drivers banging wheels, the clash involving Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Baku was extraordinary because it happened under safety car conditions. The rivalry between the two, however, has well and truly been ignited.

Calm before the storm... Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton leads Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix at the Baku City Circuit. Vettel later crashed into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes and then pulled alongside angrily and banged wheels during the second safety car period.   -  Getty Images

On an early autumn afternoon, in a wet race, a 21-year- old, in only his first full season in Formula One and driving for a midfield team, stunned the world with his maiden victory in Monza. Elated, he jumped on the podium, bringing back memories of the most successful driver in the history of the sport. The German national anthem, followed by the Italian anthem only added to the romance. And Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Scuderia Toro Rosso, was tipped to carry on the Michael Schumacher legacy. The four world titles he won on the bounce from 2010 only helped cement that reputation.

Fast forward to 2017 and the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the Schumacher comparison is back again, albeit for the wrong reason.

During the chaotic race at the Baku City Circuit, Vettel was caught off-guard at the end of the second safety car period when Hamilton, the race leader, backed off with Vettel running into the back of the Briton’s car. The Ferrari driver, imagining that he was brake tested by Hamilton, pulled alongside him and, in a moment of stupidity, intentionally banged wheels with the Mercedes driver on purpose.

Vettel’s action drew widespread condemnation. However, what largely polarised opinions was the punishment handed down to the German for his actions. Vettel was given a 10-second stop-go penalty for ‘potentially dangerous driving’.

Hamilton’s issues with his headrest later in the race meant Vettel still managed to finish ahead and extend his lead in the championship race over the Briton by two points.

What is really tricky here is, while people eagerly want to see drivers banging wheels, in Baku it was extraordinary because it happened under safety car conditions.

While some former champions like Jacques Villeneuve and Jenson Button have said that it is time to move on after Vettel was penalised during the race, the serious issue here is the precedent that the four-time world champion’s action has set.

India’s first Formula One driver Narain Karthikeyan is someone who knows Vettel well, with the two having a few incidents between them in 2012. The former Jordan and HRT driver minced no words while condemning Vettel’s actions which he called ‘over the top and unsportsmanlike’.

Speaking to Sportstar, Narain said, “While Vettel is a good driver, what he did was disgraceful, as Hamilton put it. He seems to think that he is invincible, and the FIA needs to clamp down on such behaviour.

“The punishment was a joke and it sends a wrong message to the young drivers around the world that they can get away with such incidents. Even if he was not black-flagged immediately, he should have at least been excluded from the results.”

With the championship battle being tight, tiny margins could determine the outcome and the 40-year-old Indian added that if Hamilton were to lose the title by two points, it would be unfair to him.

Flavio Briatore (left), the team principal of Renault, was banned for life for his role in the 2008 ‘crashgate’. The team’s technical director then Pat Symonds (right) was handed a five-year ban for the incident.   -  Getty Images

It has not helped Vettel that he had got away with a warning after he abused the race director, Charlie Whiting, in Mexico last year. And the incident in Baku has made him a repeat offender.

Two years ago, in a junior formula series, British driver Dan Ticktum overtook cars during a safety car period and purposely crashed into his rival. He was handed a two-year ban for the offence.

Formula One has shown that it is not averse to handing out stiff penalties or punishments to deviant drivers or team officials. Flavio Briatore was banned for life for his role in orchestrating the ‘crashgate’ incident in 2008, when as team principal of Renault, he asked Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash in the Singapore Grand Prix.

The idea was to bring on the safety car that would have helped the other Renault driver, Fernando Alonso. The team’s then technical director Pat Symonds was given a five-year ban. A year before that, McLaren was slapped with a $100 million fine for possessing confidential details of the Ferrari team’s car and strategies.

However, the sport, at the moment, is at an inflexion point. There is a consistent drop in viewership, with the tickets highly priced and the move to pay TV precipitating matters. It did not help that there had been little competition, with Mercedes and before that Red Bull dominating the sport. However, this year has been different with Ferrari closely challenging Mercedes and Red Bull Racing not very far behind. But in the absence of real superstars — there are not many on the circuit barring Hamilton and Vettel — any stringent action by the FIA against Vettel could backfire on what is turning out to be a close title fight for the first time in many years.

The Baku incident clearly showed that the pressure of the title fight is increasing, especially on Vettel. This has come after an upturn in Mercedes’ performance. In Baku, Vettel was one second off Hamilton’s pace in qualifying.

The 2017 season has seen close racing between Mercedes and Ferrari. Of the eight races run so far, Hamilton and Vettel have won three races each, with the championship battle nicely poised. With just 14 points separating Vettel and Hamilton, the rivalry between the two has well and truly been ignited.

CRASH-TEST DUMMIES?

In the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel ran into Lewis Hamilton twice during the safety car period. The second time, the championship leader intentionally side-swiped Hamilton and promptly received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. He was also charged three points on his super licence. This, though, is not the first time that the sport has witnessed such senseless aggression. Here are some incidents of drivers in the past losing their cool on the track, leading to crashes that could have been avoided:

1994 Australian Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher, like some champions before him, pushed the rules a little too far to find a competitive edge. He was often accused of crossing the line. So it was not entirely unexpected when he won his first world championship following a controversial clash.

Going into the title-deciding race in Adelaide, Schumacher, driving for Benetton, led Damon Hill of Williams by one point. In the race, he was ahead of Hill.

On Lap 36, Schumacher went wide and brushed the wall. This allowed Hill to close the gap and he tried to pass the German on the inside while entering the Turn 6 right-hander. Schumacher made an aggressive move to block Hill and the two crashed with the former flying into the barriers. Hill pitted but had a terminal suspension damage and had to retire, giving the title to Schumacher.

1997 European Grand Prix

Yet again, Schumacher went into the final race with a one-point lead over Jacques Villeneuve of Williams. Schumacher pipped pole-sitter Villeneuve at the start and was leading the race. With 22 laps left, the Canadian tried to pass Schumacher by braking late and the German made a last minute turn to his right and hit the Williams’ sidepod. Unlike what happened in Adelaide in 1994, only Schumacher lost control and beached himself in the sand trap, while Villeneuve continued with the race and finished third to take the title.

While the stewards deemed it a racing accident, the FIA swooped in two days later and adjudged that Schumacher had deliberately tried to hit Villeneuve. He was subsequently excluded from the championship but was allowed to keep his race results.

1990 Japanese Grand Prix

In the penultimate round, arch-rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, now in Ferrari, were once again involved in a battle for the title, the two separated by just nine points. Senna was on pole position, but the grid slot was not on the racing line. The McLaren driver protested that the driver starting second could benefit from this and wanted the officials to change the slot, which was turned down.

Senna had then said that if he loses out at the start, he would try to take the lead into the first corner, come what may.

In the race, Prost was off to a good start and Senna refused to yield. The result, the pair crashed out of the race. This gave Senna his second title, but in a way that was far from fair and ideal.

1982 German Grand Prix

Reigning champion Nelson Piquet, driving for Brabham, was leading the race in Hockenheim when he came up to lap Chilean driver Eliseo Salazar. Just before the chicane, Piquet went on the outside and Salazar tapped the rear of the Brazilian’s car. As a result, both drivers crashed out of the race.

A furious Piquet got out of his car immediately and started arguing with Salazar before trying to punch and kick him. However, Piquet trying to punch a helmeted driver did not make sense, as Salazar recalled later.

S. Dipak Ragav