Smith: Verstappen’s penalty was fair; it’s the stewards’ inconsistency that’s wrong

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Lewis Hamilton’s commanding victory in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix may have put him on the brink of a fourth drivers’ championship, but as he crossed the line he wasn’t the dominant story coming out of Austin.

Indeed, an intense battle behind him had caught the eye of the world feed, as Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen went wheel-to-wheel for third place on the final lap.

The world feed’s quick cutaway back to Hamilton taking the checkered flag left the Verstappen/Raikkonen battle a cliffhanger, only picked up at the exit of Turn 19 once Verstappen’s Red Bull had cleared Raikkonen’s Ferrari.

So Verstappen had sent the crowd wild with his bold, ballsy move past Raikkonen through the long, sweeping right-hander in the final sector, the kind his three-year F1 career has frequently been built on.

Wild celebrations occurred in the Red Bull garage and below the podium, only for the stewards to swiftly put an end to them by handing Verstappen a five-second time penalty for going off-track and gaining an advantage, having crossed a kerb when passing Raikkonen.

Verstappen was handed the news in the cool-down room, forcing him to trudge away just as he did in Mexico last year when the stewards – one of whom also presided over his Austin penalty – gave him a late penalty.

The decision sparked outcry through the F1 community. Verstappen called out an “idiot steward” but didn’t refer to said steward, Garry Connolly, by name and even went as far as saying he hoped fans would not return next year at Austin in protest. Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner labeled it “appalling,” while Mercedes’ Niki Lauda said the call was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

In the day where Twitter sees all, many a video and screenshot of Verstappen’s pass was sent back and forth as fans and pundits alike debated the decision.

The definition of track limits was a hot topic, as it often as it Circuit of The Americas (F1 is not immune to the phenomenon here as sports car races also see track limits in the crosshairs) with the ‘good old days’ gang saying how a proper track would have grass, gravel or a wall there, not a kerb.

And so to enter the discourse…

The stewards were absolutely right to hand Max Verstappen a penalty for his move on Kimi Raikkonen.

As bold as it was, it was illegal. He placed all four wheels across the white line, technically going off the circuit. He cut a corner to gain an advantage that he retained to the checkered flag. Looking at the footage, you can clearly see he puts all four wheels off the track.

This should not detract from the bravado of the move. Verstappen sensed an opportunity and threw himself into it, capping off what looked set to be a stunning fightback from P16 to P3. It’s the kind of move few drivers would dare to pull off, again setting the 20-year-old out from his peers.

The biggest issue here is not the stewards’ decision; it’s how they handled it, and how they handled the other possible breaches of track limits throughout the race weekend, of which there were many.

Track limits have been hotly discussed throughout motorsport for some time, particularly at tracks such as COTA, Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring in Austria where there is a vast amount of run-off in lieu of grass or gravel for safety reasons.

The FIA has previously clamped down on track limits with a zero-tolerance approach in qualifying and a three-strike rule in the race, preventing drivers from gaining an advantage.

However, it was quickly made clear at COTA that no such stance would be taken as drivers continually ran wide at Turn 19 through practice and qualifying, carrying speed out of the fast left-hander and running over the kerb.

No mention was made of Turn 19 in race director Charlie Whiting’s notes to all teams and drivers ahead of the weekend, suggesting that it was deemed no advantage would be gained by running wide there.

Sebastian Vettel would agree with that summation, having lost the chance to jump Lewis Hamilton after running wide when trying to get the undercut, yet others appeared to make use of their added speed, not losing much momentum.

The advantage gained by exceeding track limits is greater in the race due to the presence of other cars, with a number of battles early on seeing drivers cross the white line through the first sector.

Valtteri Bottas was forced wide at Turn 1 by Daniel Ricciardo early, but was able to keep his foot in and stay ahead. Bottas also ran wide at Turn 12 when trying to defend from Verstappen later in the race, exceeding track limits.

Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2017 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Getty Images

In neither case was any action taken. The stewards did note the Bottas-Ricciardo fight – one of the highlights of the race as they duked back and forth through the esses – but did not dish out any penalties.

This is the kind of inconsistency that makes the decision to penalize Verstappen difficult to accept entirely. Verstappen’s breach was more severe given the context of his battle with Raikkonen and the timing, being on the last lap, but it should have been handled in a similar fashion.

Six minutes passed between the stewards confirming they would be investigating the Bottas-Ricciardo fight on Lap 2 and deciding to take no action. Less time was taken to decide Verstappen’s fate, such was the desperation to ensure the wrong driver did not appear on the podium, as ultimately happened in Mexico last year.

In the context of the fight, though, and the importance of setting a final result, more time should have been taken to make a proper, fair decision.

Verstappen was fairly penalized – but on that basis, it was a mistake that Bottas was not penalized for his off-track runs. It was also a mistake that a harder stance was not taken on drivers running wide at Turn 19.

The inconsistency from the stewards at COTA will bring their policing into the spotlight once again, with Niki Lauda saying it will be discussed by F1 team bosses at the next Strategy Group meeting.

Would a permanent body resolve things? Perhaps not. Mistakes are human after all – but the reaction to them is how improvements are made. F1 has done well in recent months to admit to its own shortcomings through the past. How the FIA-appointed stewards now respond to the events at COTA will be fascinating.

As for Verstappen? His “idiot steward” quote aimed at Garry Connelly was uncalled for, and may see him get a wrap on the knuckles for not respecting the rule-makers much as Vettel did in Mexico last year with his tirade against Charlie Whiting.

However, the Dutchman did offer a mature, sensible answer when talking to NBCSN after the race, proving himself once again to be ahead of his years both on- and off-track.

“At the end of the day, just be clear about it,” Verstappen said. “If you say, ‘OK, that’s fine’, we’ll do what we like. If you say ‘stay within the white lines’, then we’ll stay within the white lines. It’s very simple.

“We need more consistency. At the end of the day, let us race. It was five centimeters and everyone was loving it. It was a great show.

“Just be consistent. If it wasn’t allowed, OK, that’s fine, I finished fourth. But don’t say everyone else, you can run off the track anywhere you like, and never give any penalties, then I do it, and you give me a penalty…”

Three-time F1 champion Niki Lauda dies at 70

AP Photo/Luca Bruno, File
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BERLIN (AP) Three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda, who won two of his titles after a horrific crash that left him with serious burns and went on to become a prominent figure in the aviation industry, has died. He was 70.

The Austria Press Agency reported that Lauda’s family said in a statement he “passed away peacefully” on Monday. Walter Klepetko, a doctor who performed a lung transplant on Lauda last year, said Tuesday: “Niki Lauda has died. I have to confirm that.”

Lauda won the F1 drivers’ championship in 1975 and 1977 with Ferrari and again in 1984 with McLaren.

In 1976, he was badly burned when he crashed during the German Grand Prix but made an astonishingly fast return to racing just six weeks later.

Lauda remained closely involved with the Formula One circuit after retiring as a driver in 1985, and in recent years served as the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes team.

Born on Feb. 22, 1949 into a wealthy Vienna industrial family, Nikolaus Andreas Lauda was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the paper-manufacturing industry, but instead concentrated his business talents and determination on his dreams of becoming a racing driver.

Lauda financed his early career with the help of a string of loans, working his way through the ranks of Formula 3 and Formula 2. He made his Formula 1 debut for the March team at the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix and picked up his first points in 1973 with a fifth-place finish for BRM in Belgium.

Lauda joined Ferrari in 1974, winning a Grand Prix for the first time that year in Spain and his first drivers’ title with five victories the following season.

Facing tough competition from McLaren’s James Hunt, he appeared on course to defend his title in 1976 when he crashed at the Nuerburgring during the German Grand Prix. Several drivers stopped to help pull him from the burning car, but the accident would scar him for life. The baseball cap Lauda almost always wore in public became a personal trademark.

“The main damage, I think to myself, was lung damage from inhaling all the flames and fumes while I was sitting in the car for about 50 seconds,” he recalled nearly a decade later. “It was something like 800 degrees.”

Lauda fell into a coma for a time. He said that “for three or four days it was touch and go.”

“Then my lungs recovered and I got my skin grafts done, then basically there was nothing left,” he added. “I was really lucky in a way that I didn’t do any (other) damage to myself. So the real question was then will I be able to drive again, because certainly it was not easy to come back after a race like that.”

Lauda made his comeback just six weeks after the crash, finishing fourth at Monza after overcoming his initial fears.

He recalled “shaking with fear” as he changed into second gear on the first day of practice and thinking, “I can’t drive.”

The next day, Lauda said he “started very slowly trying to get all the feelings back, especially the confidence that I’m capable of driving these cars again.” The result, he said, boosted his confidence and after four or five races “I had basically overcome the problem of having an accident and everything went back to normal.”

He won his second championship in 1977 before switching to Brabham and then retiring in 1979 to concentrate on setting up his airline, Lauda Air, declaring that he “didn’t want to drive around in circles anymore.”

Lauda came out of retirement in 1982 after a big-money offer from McLaren, reportedly about $3 million a year.

He finished fifth his first year back and 10th in 1983, but came back to win five races and edge out teammate Alain Prost for his third title in 1984. He retired for good the following year, saying he needed more time to devote to his airline business.

Initially a charter airline, Lauda Air expanded in the 1980s to offer flights to Asia and Australia. In May 1991, a Lauda Air Boeing 767 crashed in Thailand after one of its engine thrust reversers accidentally deployed during a climb, killing all 213 passengers and 10 crew.

Lauda occasionally took the controls of the airline’s jets himself over the years. In 1997, longtime rival Austrian Airlines took a minority stake and in 2000, with the company making losses, he resigned as board chairman after an external audit criticized a lack of internal financial control over business conducted in foreign currency. Austrian Airlines later took full control.

Lauda founded a new airline, Niki, in 2003. Germany’s Air Berlin took a minority stake and later full control of that airline, which Lauda bought back in early 2018 after it fell victim to its parent’s financial woes.

He partnered with budget carrier Ryanair on Niki’s successor, LaudaMotion.

On the Formula One circuit, Lauda later formed a close bond with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who joined the team in 2013. He often backed Hamilton in public and provided advice and counsel to the British driver.

Lauda also intervened as a Mercedes mediator when Hamilton and his former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg feuded, argued and traded barbs as they fought for the title between 2014-16

Lauda twice underwent kidney transplants, receiving an organ donated by his brother in 1997 and, when that stopped functioning well, a kidney donated by his girlfriend in 2005.

In August 2018, he underwent a lung transplant that the Vienna General Hospital said was made necessary by a “serious lung illness.” It didn’t give details.

Lauda is survived by his second wife, Birgit, and their twin children Max and Mia. He had two adult sons, Lukas and Mathias, from his first marriage.