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Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Tuesday, 23 September 2008 15:31 UK

The right ruling on Hamilton?

By Andrew Benson


Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton has just a one-point lead over Massa following the verdict

No-one in Formula One will be surprised at the decision to uphold the penalty that deprived Lewis Hamilton of victory in the Belgian Grand Prix - but that does not mean it was the right one.

The decision not to allow McLaren's appeal on a technicality neatly sidesteps the need for governing body the FIA to make a ruling on whether its stewards made the right call at Spa earlier this month - but it does not address the wider questions raised by their decision.

It leaves the world championship finely poised, with the McLaren driver just a point ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa with four races to go ahead of this weekend's inaugural night race in Singapore.

That is great for those wanting the title fight to go to the wire but less so for those more concerned about the championship's integrity.

Many will believe that if Hamilton loses the title by less than the six-point swing that was a result of his penalty at Spa, then the wrong man will be champion.

DID HAMILTON COMMIT AN OFFENCE?

Hamilton was outspoken during Monday's appeal court hearing in his belief that he had done nothing wrong.

He said he was within his rights to go off the track at Spa's Bus Stop chicane in his battle with Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and that he gave back any advantage earned before re-passing the world champion.

Both are debatable points.

Lewis Hamilton (right) lets Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari pass his McLaren on the Spa pit straight before re-passing him at the first corner
The FIA says Hamilton did not give up his advantage for cutting a chicane

Hamilton contends that he cut the chicane to avoid a collision with Raikkonen, and that the Finn could have given him more room.

Interestingly, in evidence before the court of appeal, Hamilton said something he had not before in claiming that their wheels were interlocked and that had he braked the Ferrari's rear wheel would have broken his front suspension.

Regardless, many of his fellow F1 drivers think Hamilton did have options.

They believe Hamilton could have chosen to drop back behind Raikkonen rather than go completely off the track on the inside - indeed that had there been a wall or barrier there instead of a run-off area, he would have done, or not even tried the move in the first place.

As for Raikkonen giving him more room, why should he have?

He was ahead by half a car's length and on the racing line as he turned in to the second part of the Bus Stop. It was his corner. In those circumstances it was up to Hamilton to sort himself out.

And, if there was a barrier there, and Hamilton had not pulled out of the move, the chances are they would have collided, with a high probability of Hamilton being blamed for taking both of them out of the race.

It is hard to imagine Hamilton, who is as hard a racer as they come, acting any differently had the roles been reversed. He certainly didn't give Red Bull's Mark Webber much leeway as they fought over seventh place in Italy nine days ago.

The main reason for the replacement of barriers with run-off areas is safety - although there is the happy by-product of giving drivers in touch-and-go situations more options to get themselves out of them and stay in the race.

But the drivers have to buy into the bargain, too. The rule saying it is illegal to gain an advantage by running off the track is there to stop drivers taking the mickey by exploiting the run-off areas.

Once Hamilton had committed to his move, had he not used the run-off area, and instead braked and followed Raikkonen through the chicane, it is extremely unlikely he would have been close enough to pass the Ferrari into the next corner.

That is why the Belgian GP stewards decided he had not sufficiently surrendered his advantage.

WAS THE PENALTY FAIR?

Whether Hamilton deserved to lose the race as a result of his minor transgression is a wholly different question from whether he committed an offence by a strict interpretation of the rules.

While most F1 drivers agree that he did not fully surrender his advantage, they are equally united in the belief that to lose the race as a result of it was harsh.

The problem most people have with this decision was that it was so transparently unfair.

Lewis Hamilton arrives at the FIA court of appeal hearing in Paris on Monday
Hamilton was robust in his own defence at the appeal hearing

Hamilton was almost certainly going to win the race anyway. In the slippery conditions, his McLaren's grip advantage over the Ferraris was too big for him not to.

Raikkonen's crash not long after his brush with Hamilton and Massa's snail-like pace on the final lap of the race are proof of that.

And Massa, who inherited the victory, was never a contender all afternoon.

According to a strict application of the rules, the stewards at Spa had no choice but to penalise Hamilton.

The penalty for what he did is to drive through the pits, where there is a speed limit, without stopping. Or - if it happens in the last five laps of the race - for 25 seconds to be added to his race time.

But in practice this rule is rarely invoked.

What normally happens in these situations is that the driver who benefits from cutting the corner subsequently allows the guy he passed to overtake him, although there is usually some discussion with race control first.

However, in Spa, there was no time for that.

McLaren knew the move was open to interpretation, and therefore a possible penalty - or they would not have asked race director Charlie Whiting for his opinion about it. Whiting told them he thought it was OK.

But Whiting's opinion is just that - he has no power over the stewards, even if traditionally these situations have been sorted out between the team and race control.

Nevertheless, if McLaren were concerned Hamilton could get a penalty - and given the level of paranoia at the team about the motives of the FIA, world motorsport's governing body - they should have intervened, asked Hamilton to let Raikkonen back past again and then let them carry on.

This was surely a time for flexibility in the application of the rules - just as had been the case when Ferrari illegally released Massa from the pits into the path of another car at the previous race in Valencia.

The normal penalty for that is also a drive-through. But the Valencia stewards decided the incident had not affected the result of the race, and Ferrari were let off with a fine.

FIA president Max Mosley and McLaren boss Ron Dennis
McLaren boss Ron Dennis (right) has an uneasy relationship with the FIA

The decision was widely applauded as a rare example of the stewards using their common sense - a bit of which would have gone down well when it came to discussing Hamilton's misdemeanour.

But the lack of consistency that so angers F1 teams about race stewards was on display several times at Spa.

Firstly, in one of the GP2 races, title contender Bruno Senna was given a drive-through for an incident remarkable in its similarity to Massa's in Valencia.

And in the Grand Prix, Raikkonen three times ran off the track, arguably gaining an advantage each time, and not one of the incidents was even scrutinised.

THE FUTURE

F1 needs a clear rule defining what is acceptable when a driver involved in a close battle passes his opponent as a result of going off the track.

At the Italian Grand Prix, a consensus was emerging that drivers would have to give the place back and not be allowed to overtake at the succeeding corner.

That at least provides clarity but it should be enshrined in the rules - after all, it was an attempt to act on a precedent rather than a clearly defined rule that got Hamilton into all this trouble in the first place.

There is also the issue of the FIA's perceived bias in favour of Ferrari.

606: DEBATE
steve-in-wigan

FIA president Max Mosley rejected those claims in meetings with the press at Monza, dismissing them as "nonsensical", and saying the sport could not survive if they were true.

Nevertheless, the number of incidents in which rulings have come down either for Ferrari or against their opponents in recent years - and the climate of fear that pervades F1 when it comes to criticising the FIA - makes it easy to see how such feelings have taken root.

The Spa controversy was just the latest in a large catalogue of those.

And for the sake of its own credibility and that of F1, the FIA needs to find some way of changing those perceptions.




see also
McLaren lose appeal over Hamilton
23 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton eyes error-free run-in
15 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton treads a fine line
14 Sep 08 |  Formula One
'Vindicated' Mosley returns to F1
13 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton finds little support
11 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton passed too soon - Massa
09 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton stripped of Belgian win
07 Sep 08 |  Formula One


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