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F1: Now racing drivers are taking a dive in the penalty area.

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

In two races, four penalties have been awarded against drivers who were on the inside of corners when an opponent made an ill-advised overtaking manoeuvre around the outside and, for his trouble, went off, alleging fault on the part of the driver who had been in front going into the corner.

So now it's clear: if you want to sabotage someone else's race, especially in the melée of the first lap, all you have to do is take a dive. Norris and Russell and, almost karma-like, Perez have all suffered penalties when someone else put themselves in harm's way and then complained about it.

There's an expression in Latin, volenti non fit unjuria (the "j" is pronounced as a soft "y") familiar to Common Lawyers. It means "he who volunteers cannot complain of injury."

This weekend is the British Grand Prix 2021. This story isn't about that.

Let's think about corners. Mostly, racing drivers go wide into the corner, swing to the inside and clip the apex (that is the part of the corner that sticks out most) and exit wide. It's the most efficient way around most, but not all, corners as it allows the latest braking and the earliest acceleration; it also keeps the car the most level and level is good because everything on the car is designed to operate at a specific angle to the horizontal.

So, what is generally termed "the racing line" is pretty well set.

Next, there's physics. Wheeled vehicles (even shopping trolleys but you'd never know that) are designed to go in a straight line. So the less turning the better. If you watch one of this season's cars the most stunning thing about them is that they consistently deny everything we think we know about physics. When even Martin Brundle says "this is silly: that corner should not be flat out. Things need to change," it's clear that there's a problem.

Actually, I'm not sure that there's as much of a problem as it seems because we see cars spinning or getting tail-happy all the time. And we see cars going straight on when they should be turning.

It's the "going straight on when they should be turning" thing that in question here, not because cars are actually going straight but because a different physics thing takes over. While some argue that there is no such thing as centrifugal force, anyone who has ever swung something on a string in circles around their head and then let go knows there is. A car, any car, has what's called the "contact patch" and that's the part of the tyre that's in touch with the tarmac. It operates as a result of one force and one force only: friction.

While downforce pushes it into the tarmac harder, so increasing friction, downforce does not increase the contact patch.

So, there's a simple premise: more downforce equals more friction equals increased cornering speed.

That's why we talk about "breaking away" - the tyre breaks away from the surface of the track, the friction is not enough to keep it doing what the driver wants it to do.

So what makes a car break away? It's when lateral forces exceed the force of friction. The same principle is seen when cars spin their wheels in a straight line: traction, as the relationship between the tyres and the surface is called, is broken. Cars break traction on bends because the forward momentum exceeds the ability of the tyres to turn the car.

So, if car goes into a corner too fast, it will go straight on; if too much power is applied too early after the apex (or in some cases before) the back will break away and the car will spin and try to come out of the corner backwards.

What influences traction? The amount of rubber on the road, the speed and direction of rotation of the wheels (the road is stationary, remember) or some external agent that interferes with the friction e.g. a slippery surface or a bump that reduces the weight pressing down on the wheel.

Having got that sorted out, let's look at the recent cases.

In Austria II, Perez went around the outside of Norris while Norris was coming out of a bend. Perez claimed he was pushed off; yet he put himself there, knowing exactly where any car would come out of the corner. The stewards awarded Norris a five second penalty. Then karma struck: Perez found himself in the position that Norris had been in. The other driver went off. The stewards imposed a five second penalty on Perez. Then exactly the same happened again. So he got another penalty.

The decision cost Norris a podium. Yet it was clear that even in exactly the same position, Perez did not consider that he pushed another driver off. The correct course of action would have been to have cancelled out Norris' penalty with the first for Perez but that's not how it works.

Then to yesterday in the race that is not a race, if we accept the FIA's wording. Russell with brakes that had overheated on the way to the grid arrived at a corner, took the racing line and would have completed the corner within the track. But as he followed it, Sainz tried an ill-advised move around the outside, arriving in exactly the place that Russell had effectively put dibs on.

The stewards

a) failed to apply the rule against volunteers and

b) adopted an excessive penalty.

They said in their reasons that it wasn't a race, that it was a form of qualifying and that, as a form of qualifying the appropriate course of action is apply a grid-place penalty.

One can see the legalistic argument there and it's the FIA's fault.

Regardless of what they say, the "Sprint Qualifying" is a race. Everyone is on a grid, the lights go out, and everyone sets off together. Qualifying starts in the pit boxes and cars go out when they please. There is zero similarity between Qualifying and "Sprint Qualifying." But the finishing order in Sprint Qualifying sets the grid for the main race.

To artificially apply qualifying penalties to a de facto race is just stupid.

Yes, FIA, stupid.

And the situation is entirely foreseeable so it's more than stupid, it's reckless.

So

a) Russell's alleged misconduct (really, I don't see it as Russell's fault) was what would have been disregarded as a first lap racing incident if the FIA hadn't said it wasn't a race and

b) the penalty in a race, if one was applied at all, would have been a five second time penalty.

The FIA has a few hours to step in and sort this out and to reverse the stewards' decision as to whether there was fault before a proper injustice is done; we can't have drivers doing the equivalent of a footballer taking a dive in the penalty area and getting away with it and we need to have penalties applied that are consistent across anything where drivers are actually racing, even if the FIA doesn't want to call it a race.

Yet that is exactly what is promoted the current trend for penalising the "inside driver" when a dubious around-the-outside move is attempted and fails.

Yet, there is one problem: if the "fault" argument fails and the Williams driver is held to be blameworthy and a race penalty is applied, then a five second penalty added to Russell's "Sprint Qualifying" time would put him far more than three places below where he finished. And as places in that race determine the grid for the main race, that would have a far worse result than the three place grid-drop he was awarded. In such a short race, the field did not spread out as it would in a normal race. So five seconds is a far more severe penalty than it would be in a full Grand Prix race that is three times longer.

What could the FIA call the race that it denies is a race? Try Petite Prix to avoid confusion with Grand Prix, but it's a race because, in the ordinary sense of the word, that's what it is.

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