Mercedes may have taken the title with three races to spare in Austin, an amazing feat for and something that has only been done a handful of times in F1 history, but another story overshadowed Mercedes’ party in the United States and unravelled an inherent lack of FIA consistency that it may live to regret.
Max Verstappen drove a fantastic race. From 16th on the grid to be breathing down Kimi Raikkonen’s neck on the final lap of the race, looking at a potential third-place finish.
He went for it with just four corners to go, and it was beautiful. The pass was Max Verstappen in every way and proves yet again why he has the potential to be the most memorable drivers of this era.
Despite pulling off the move, he was later found guilty of gaining an advantage and hence demoted back to fourth.
“We had a really great race, but with those stupid decisions you really kill the sport,” Verstappen rued after being asked to leave the drivers’ cooldown room to make way for Raikkonen.
“It’s one idiot steward up there which always makes decisions against me.
“At the end of the day everybody is running wide everywhere, there are no track limits.
“At Turn 9 you can run wide, at Turn 19 you can go off the track and nobody will say anything.
“It’s the same with Bottas – I went for a move, and he continued outside the track; he came back, I really had to pass him, and nothing has been done against that while he definitely gained an advantage.
“It’s not good for the sport – they have to be really clear on the rules that it’s not allowed.”
It’s not hard to see why Verstappen and Red Bull felt hard done by. Overtakes such as this one is fundamental to the sport’s entertainment factor. The FIA has a strong case for stripping Verstappen of his position, as his Red Bull clearly left the circuit to make the pass feasible, but also brought to the surface a weakness in how the stewards apply the law.
Niki Lauda echoed Verstappen’s thoughts, claiming that “It’s ridiculous to destroy the sport with this kind of decision.”
“We got the stewards in to tell us how fast drivers could go during a race,” he said. “Because it always says ‘under investigation’. So we complained about that.
“The stewards were in, [Jean] Todt asked everybody, Charlie [Whiting] was there, we were there, and there we agreed all together that unless it is dangerous, the stewards would not interfere.
“Very simple. If they drive over [each other] and go upside down, only then they [the stewards] will come in. It was the beginning of last year.”
Free Practice was largely frustrating to watch. Having been so strict on track limits before, drivers were able to leave the circuit at multiple points, undoubtedly gaining an advantage with no consequences. This carried over to the race too, with many a driver leaving the track whilst engaged in battle.
The ambiguity and inconsistency leaves the FIA vulnerable to appeals from the teams. The Stewards might have been correct to punish Verstappen, but if they had tightened up on track limits from Friday, it would have conditioned drivers into respecting the track’s boundaries and Red Bull perhaps wouldn’t feel so aggrieved by the verdict.
“It [racing] is what fans want to see,” said team principal Christian Horner. “If you don’t want cars to go there, put a bigger kerb or put some gravel, or something else there.
“I think what is annoying is the lack of consistency. Where do you draw the line? For fans, for casual viewers, it needs to be clear.”
The only difference with many moves on Sunday was that, for the most part, drivers left the track did not gain or lose anything, and all were less overt than Verstappen’s Red Bull.
The track is defined by the white lines that run the perimeter of the circuit and calls for them to become universally punishable in places drivers clearly get a lasting advantage should be considered.
F1 drivers are the best in the world, so it’s no coincidence that so many were leaving the track to gain time, but equally they are talented enough to consistently remain within the track’s boundaries if they associate penalties/times deleted with it.
In the FIA’s defence, leaving Verstappen’s move unpunished would have set an important precedent that it’s acceptable to attempt outrageous moves on the last lap, in spite of how entertaining it is.
In this case, the pass was the ultimate climax to the race, so much so that the directors almost missed Hamilton crossing the line and one step of equalling Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost’s four world titles in Mexico in less than a week’s time. The taste of F1 is sweet for Hamilton right now, but quite the contrary for Verstappen and Red Bull.