Sebastian Vettel turns 30 today. Many happy returns? His fate is in the hands of FIA president Jean Todt, who has invited Vettel to the Place de la Concorde in Paris so that the Ferrari driver might understand better the context and consequences of slamming his wheels into Lewis Hamilton at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Vettel is engaged in winning the Formula One world drivers’ championship for a fifth time, and Ferrari’s first since Michael Schumacher’s last in 2004, no more, no less.
For Todt, however, a very different game is playing out. Todt is at the head of an organisation that has in recent years, thanks to the work of his predecessor Max Mosley, acquired a political dimension and clout.
To a degree Mosley used his role as FIA president to sublimate his political cravings. Denied a route into public life via his delicate political ancestry, Mosley saw of way of gaining influence through making the FIA central to increased road safety, both in improving the safety of cars themselves via the European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP), and in reducing deaths on roads by sponsoring safer driving campaigns.
F1 Key Role In Road Safety
Indeed, the FIA’s Action For Road Safety Campaign was launched in support of a United Nations initiative in 2011 to save five million lives and reduce by 50 million road accident related injuries in a decade.
You can see then how Vettel drove himself into a tight spot when he took it upon himself to draw alongside Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes after slamming into its rear under the safety car.
In the febrile crucible of competition, Vettel assumed skulduggery on the part of his championship rival, connected it to previous behaviours and saw a pattern. Thus enraged he took leave of his senses, pulled level and deliberately smashed into Hamilton’s wheels.
The stewards found Hamilton had not behaved unusually or in an unsporting way. And since this happened under the safety car at no great speed, deemed a ten-second stop go penalty, the harshest available after disqualification, sufficient.
Vettel Messaging All Wrong
On reflection Todt judged the incident to be grave enough to require further scrutiny. Clearly the stewards in the heat of battle did not give enough consideration to the messaging, or the principle of a driver taking the law into his own hands.
What might the outcome have been had Vettel responded thus at much higher speeds? He could not have been confident of controlling the outcome in the same way. Aside from that, it is the job of the authorities to police the race not the driver.
Formula One is the FIA’s flagship sporting event, and as such has a value and importance way beyond winning and losing. It is a conduit for positive messaging through the example set by the best drivers in the world.
The FIA cannot be seen to be promoting the very behaviour and attitudes that in its road safety campaigns it is seeking to eradicate. Sporting governance must align with the FIA’s wider political positioning.
F1 Reputation Damaged
As well as behaving irresponsibly, Vettel showed little remorse, suggesting that Hamilton should have been cuffed, too. So in deed and spirit he damaged not only his own reputation but, far more significantly, brought his sport into disrepute.
In the sporting context the punishment seemed appropriate. Others wondered how such appalling behaviour could yield the benefit of 12 points. In the wider context Todt must make a statement that this kind of behaviour has no place in sport or on the road.
To that end Vettel might expect to lose the points gained in Baku plus, perhaps, receive the gift of a one-race ban, suspended if Todt is feeling generous on his birthday.