The pinnacle of motorsport has been the stage for many famous rivalries over its 70-year history but its latest – stewards vs. fans – is the one that could cost Formula One most dearly.
Aussie F1 nuts stayed up late on Sunday night (June 23) to watch the French Grand Prix in which stewards delivered two more controversial penalties that some fans are warning signal the “death of the sport”.
Daniel Ricciardo was the latest driver to receive the stewards’ attention and was given two five-second penalties in the final lap which cost him a top-10 finish at Circuit Paul Ricard, near the southern city of Marseilles.
“If I don’t try, I’m sitting behind the whole race, so I have to try,” said the Australian in a post-race interview.
“I try to keep it on track and not be dirty.
“I’d rather try than sit behind and be a loser the whole race.”
Fans were quick to label the race ‘boring’ and show their support for Ricciardo on Twitter.
@danielricciardo true Ozy spirit in a sport that is becoming increasingly sanitized and boring. Only watch F1 to see Laps like the final one. If you are going to be penalized for racing I might as well go back to watching darts!
— Peter Crawley-Boevey (@petercrawleyb) June 24, 2019
These rules are killing the sport. Bring the old and glorious F1 back. You are great, Daniel.
— Jose Liborio (@alljb) June 24, 2019
— Simon Wetherell (@SimonWetherell) June 24, 2019
The latest criticism follows a similar penalty imposed on Sebastian Vettel at the Canadian Grand Prix earlier this month. The Ferrari driver seemed disillusioned in his post-race interview and warned the tougher stance could affect fan support, at a time when the future of the championship is uncertain.
“It’s not making our sport popular, is it, with these kinds of decisions,” he said.
“I hope the people come back; that’s the main thing, obviously. They are the reason why we are able to put on this show and build these incredible cars. It’s a shame when we have these funny decisions.”
Ferrari tried to appeal the decision but it was denied.
The French Grand Prix saw little action during the 53-lap race, with Vettel’s move from seventh to fifth the only major change in the top six. One of the only highlights was Ricciardo’s manoeuvre in the final lap to overtake Lando Norris and finish seventh.
The Renault driver was called to the stewards’ office post-race and given one five-second penalty for the Norris overtake and another for a subsequent off-track pass on Kimi Raikkonen. The combined penalties dropped Ricciardo’s seventh-place finish to 11th and out of the points.
A post-race Ricciardo shared his frustration with fans.
I am a threat of a twitter rant. But I’ll save it. Hope everyone was entertained. https://t.co/ENMyBr3HdH
— Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) June 23, 2019
While fans are urging stewards to stop “preventing the drivers from racing”, commentators agreed that Riccardo’s move on Norris was likely to draw a penalty but expressed frustration at the second penalty, as it was the best moment of the race.
“The big problem for me is the tracks that allow you to do that – the white line should be the white line, then there should be grass or something so you don’t go there.
“Even a big kerb, because there were a few moments in the race where a few people did that and they weren’t given penalties, so I don’t know how they can give a penalty for that one,” said Sky Sports commentator Paul di Resta.
The perceived inconsistency in the way stewards hand out penalties for off-track overtaking has been a discussion point each season.
A memorable incident at the 2011 Australian Grand Prix saw Vettel overtake Jenson Button by going off track on turn four. Sebastien Buemi did much the same to Adrian Sutil later; however, neither driver received a penalty.
At Singapore in 2009, Aussie driver Mark Webber had to surrender two places after passing Fernando Alonso on the outside of turn seven despite the fact that Alonso himself had also gone off the track.
With Mercedes’ dominance of the sport over the last few seasons, fans are looking for the action to occur mid-field. Due to aerodynamic changes made to the cars this year, experts were tipping that the long straights at Circuit Paul Ricard would offer plenty of close racing and overtaking opportunities.
But it wasn’t until the final lap, and Ricciardo’s lunge past Norris, that the fans got the action they were craving. With the move missed by the live broadcast due to a computer error, fans were left wanting again.
Host of the EFTM podcast Trevor Long agreed that due to Mercedes’ continued dominance, 2019 has been “one of the most boring seasons on record’.
“For Formula One, the problem is they penalised someone for the most exciting part of the whole damn race.
“If there was action throughout the whole 53 laps, we’d all be sitting back saying it was a good race and it’s a shame Daniel got penalised,” Long wrote on his EFTM blog.
“With regard to ‘racing’ and the penalties imposed – the sport needs a full time drivers’ steward who can rewrite the book on why people get penalties, the Vettel decision along with Ricciardo today are examples of the rule of law in the sport being out of touch with the reality [of] the fans’ expectations.
“Let Mercedes dominate – their time will come, but until then at least give fans something to watch behind them for the couple of hours we’re putting into it – especially at 11pm on a Sunday night down here in Australia thanks very much!”
Formula One’s future is growing ever more unsure, given the struggles to retain classic tracks on the circuit and the noticeable lack of new teams entering the sport because of its exorbitant costs. To add to the uncertainty, there is currently no team or driver contracted to stay in F1 beyond 2020.