Now that the dust is fully settled on last year’s incident-packed Formula 1 World Championship, it is fair to say we witnessed dirty driving of the kind seldom seen before by both Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton as they duelled for the world championship title.
The season deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix finale was the entire season condensed, in a nutshell, namely dubious overtakes and appallingly officiating as Race Director Michael Masi and his men somehow turned what should have been F1’s race of the century into the farce of the century for reasons well told.
There were three types of reactions in the aftermath of that memorable night at Yas Marina: Max fans were ecstatic, and rightfully so, as the Red Bull ace thoroughly deserved the title; Hamilton fans were fuming and felt robbed while us neutrals watched on in bewilderment.
What is clear none of these two great drivers deserved ‘that’ finale and, of course, neither did F1 fans
Among those dismayed by what he witnessed that night was former F1 driver Stefan Johansson who fears for what lies ahead because the bar for the rules of engagement is now a notch or two lower, or it could be asked: are there any?
As the pioneers of the dark arts of racing – Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher – have now been usurped by Max, as well as Lewis albeit to a far lesser extent, with their dose of dubious tactics.
The evolution of this has Johansson concerned, he wrote on his personal blog: “The issue we have now on track is that Max has taken the Senna playbook and the Schumacher playbook to a whole new level.
“Generally, I think there’s a good code of conduct between the drivers. Most of the current crop of the new generation of drivers are racing very clean but hard, there’s been some really great battles this year but they’re not at the front and therefore it goes unnoticed for the most part.
“No one cares about the guys in fifth or sixth place,” lamented the Swede.
Johansson: I don’t have a lot of optimism for the changes from the officials
It was clear that Masi was overwhelmed by not only the magnitude of the feud between Red Bull and Mercedes, as well as their drivers who were crash-magnets far too often last season.
During the Brazilian Grand Prix, Verstappen went way beyond the borders of fairness with his defence of Hamilton’s charge which ended up as an astonishing victory from nowhere to first, but not before the Red Bull driver did all he could, and more, to prevent the Mercedes getting past him.
Unchecked and unpunished offences have simply lowered the bar of decency, which Johansson believes does not auger well for the sport: “I don’t have a lot of optimism for the changes from the officials.
“Every year decisions about driving standards and enforcement are getting worse, muddier and muddier with more grey areas. If Max can get away with what he’s gotten away with in certain cases this year, then like Leclerc said: Ok, fine. If that’s how we’re going to race, then that’s how we have to race.”
Not helping the cause of decent driving standards are tracks that do not punish mistakes, in fact in certain instances can even provide an advantage. Run-off areas that never end are used for ill-gotten gains when a wall or grass verge would end all shenanigans purely from a driver survival perspective.
Furthermore, there is a silly sense of invulnerability brought about by the ‘no consequences if I out-brake myself type of tracks’ which of course is deceiving as those big crashes at Silverstone and Monza testify.
Montreal’s Wall of Champions springs to mind!
Johansson believes track design and ‘safety’ is encouraging drivers to go beyond the call of duty, to dip into the dark arts as Verstappen and Hamilton did on occasions last season: “A lot of these incidents would automatically be avoided if they changed the design of the tracks and got rid of the huge run-off areas, we currently have on nearly all the tracks.
“This sanitization of the tracks has brought on more problems than the one’s they were trying to solve in the first place. It’s ironic that we don’t seem to have anywhere near the number of incidents in Monaco for example, where the track limit is basically the guardrail.
“If the drivers know where the limit is, they will obviously stay within that limit, because if you go past, it you will end up in the guardrail and your day is over. But when you have a runoff area the size of two football fields, and no clear rule of what is or is not allowed it becomes a complete joke.
“Seemingly it’s ok for anyone to go past the track limit on the starts, for example, likewise it seems ok to not even attempt to turn until you’re actually on the white line or even past it when you’re fighting for position.
“It’s then up to the guys in race control to decide what is right or wrong. It’s a horribly flawed system and there must be a way to avoid this going forward.”
Johansson: The way the tracks are currently designed is an open invitation for trouble
As for solutions to the problem Johansson suggested: “Anything except the asphalt that is currently used would be better in my opinion, whether it’s grass, gravel or anything that would actually slow the car down enough to force the driver to lift in order to get back on the track again, or risk damaging the car and he won’t be able to continue.
“80% of all the incidents race control has to get involved with at the moment would automatically be avoided. Drivers will always go to the limit of what is possible, and the way the tracks are currently designed is an open invitation for trouble.
“None of the drivers have a clear understanding of the rules, even less so the people in race control it seems. It’s frustrating and annoying for everyone involved and could be fixed very easily.
“Interestingly, we seem to have similar complaints from the MotoGP people now, where the large run-off areas have done nothing to solve the safety issues, if anything, it’s made it worse.
“I think it’s time for a drastic rethink of the track designs in general and especially the run-off areas that are currently being implemented,” added Johansson who started 79 Grands Prix, scoring twelve podiums but no wins. He drove for Shadow, Spirit, Tyrrell, Toleman, Ferrari, McLaren, Ligier, Onyx, AGS and Footwork.