Few expected the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix to provide such an exciting race after last year’s soporific event, but fewer would have thought Formula One would emerge from the grand prix with such an ethical dilemma concerning one of its biggest stars.
Daniel Ricciardo’s superb recovery drive to victory from seventeenth early in the race proved a sideshow to the events that enabled him to seize the lead, namely the now nuclear spat between title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.
Tensions were already high in Baku, where an action-packed and debris-strewn start had twice triggered intervention by the safety car. Pirelli’s medium-soft-supersoft tyre selection, brought to Baku in an abundance of caution, had made life difficult for the drivers on a circuit already offering limited grip, and the opening-phase carnage worked only to heighten the situation with each passing lap.
It was in this context that Vettel and Hamilton changed the complexion of their hitherto jocular and respectful championship fight.
Having complained over team radio that he couldn’t keep his tyres warm while travelling at the safety car-mandated pace, Hamilton nonetheless slowed to compress the field in anticipation of the afternoon’s second of three safety car restarts.
Sebastian Vettel was caught unaware, and though he hit the brakes, he couldn’t prevent his Ferrari from nudging the back of the Mercedes. Both cars suffered minor damage.
The German was incensed, and with the red mist descended he drove up alongside Hamilton to gesticulate wildly — and then steered into the side of him.
It was shocking to watch, and the stewards thought likewise, handing Vettel a 10-second stop-go penalty — equivalent to around 30 seconds of race time and the second most severe penalty available to the stewards — for his indiscretion.
The ironic twist was that Hamilton was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop to replace an improperly fitted headrest, a fix that took so long Vettel was able to emerge from his penalty ahead of the Briton for the first time that afternoon.
Hamilton was understandably livid.
“Driving alongside and deliberately driving into another driver and getting away pretty much scot-free, as he still came fourth — I think that’s a disgrace,” he fumed. “I think he disgraced himself today.”
Lewis Hamilton may be prone to single-mindedness when it comes to his right of way on the racetrack, but this weekend he was on the money. The only correct penalty was disqualification.
However, it was not with a view of giving Hamilton back the on-track advantage that warrants disqualification — indeed the immediate effect on the race or the championship should not enter into the decision-making process here.
Rather it is because Vettel’s action was dramatically unbecoming not only of a Formula One racing driver — supposedly the best drivers in the world — but also of a four-time world champion and ambassador for the sport that he should have been excluded from the race.
This standard, or lack thereof, of driving should be deemed nothing but unacceptable, and it should serve as a pertinent moment of reflection for motorsport at a time the FIA is working hard to better align the junior categories with Formula One to benefit junior drivers.
The European motorsport family in particular should consider the significance of Vettel’s action given stuck fast in recent memory is 2015’s shambolic Italian European Formula Three round, in which two races were abandoned due to appalling driving standards.
Worse still was that Vettel, adamant that Hamilton had wronged him first — though the stewards also considered whether the Briton had brake-tested the Ferrari, finding nothing in the data to suggest as much — not only refused to accept blame for his actions but painfully and awkwardly refused to acknowledge the event had even occurred.
“It sets a precedent within Formula One, and I think it also does for all the young kids that are watching us Formula One drivers drive and conduct ourselves,” Hamilton noted. “They’ve seen today how a four-time world champion behaves. Hopefully that doesn’t ripple into the younger categories.”
Sebastian Vettel is clever enough, and surely upon reflection he will acknowledge, if he hasn’t already done so, that he was in the wrong. With the opportunity for disqualification now passed, only a fulsome and contrite apology on Vettel’s part, with which the FIA can make an example of his behaviour, will do for Formula One. Anything less would only sully further both Sebastian’s reputation as a leader of the racing community and the reputation of Formula One’s driving standards.