Yesterday was a pretty horrible day across Belgium and northern France. The man on French radio described the weather as “ridiculous” for August and that seemed about right, as I drove through endless streaming rain and dodged huge puddles. When I got back into France I decided to retreat for a while into motor racing history and set off for a lap of the long gone Circuit de l’Argonne, used 110 years ago, for a series of major international events. I did it for no reason other than it was there and I was not in a rush. It is always good to remind oneself from where the sport came and the fabulous old road tracks of Europe put a lot in perspective, particularly when you remember how basic the cars were at the time. In the modern age race tracks are fiddly things, Spa and Monza being the only ones that truly flow, but in the early days the sport was all about going flat out on fast open roads. These circuits were grandiose in conception and mightily impressive for the spectators, even if they saw the cars only a few times. The road was quick almost all the way, going straight across undulating hills with dips and crests and through classic avenues of French plane trees. There was a splendid section overlooking a large lake and several very grand estates and houses. One may travel faster today than the heroes did in their rickety racers, but one cannot help but be impressed at what they did.
History is a good place to hide when the present is unpleasant, but at the moment F1 is not a nasty place, but rather producing not only good races, but also exciting off track activity as Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg play at being Tom and Jerry. We have learned that Rosberg has a darker side and that Lewis has a rather endearing Peter Pan-like innocence. But there is much subtlety in the goings on than the screaming headlines do not quite grasp. Nico did not set out to crash into Lewis at Les Combes on lap 2 of the Belgian Grand Prix, but he did make the conscious decision not to back out of a place where he ought not to have been when he tried to overtake. He said he was proving a point. Showing Lewis, presumably, that he cannot always treat the race track as his own territory as he tends to do in a fight. Nico was roundly condemned by his own team for his actions and the British press leapt on the bandwagon, painting Nico as black as a Ninja. Perhaps it was a smart thing to do, to lay down a marker and try to destabilize Lewis some more, but the execution was flawed when it came to the media because an annoyed Hamilton saw no reason to play the game any longer. If Rosberg was going to resort to dubious tactics, Lewis was going to make sure the world understood.
There was a marvelous moment of theatre at Mercedes when at one point after the race Rosberg was downstairs explaining that he had not done it on purpose, while upstairs Hamilton was revealing that Nico had told the team he could have backed out of the move, but chose not to…
When the incident occurred, I was sure that Rosberg was to blame. He had by his action materially affected a rival’s race – not to mention the World Championship – and I was astonished that there was not even an investigation into the incident. I did not think it deliberate because of the risk factors (which ruined both of their races) but it looked like a mistake that ought to have been punished because it was clearly not fair for Hamilton, but nothing happened. We concluded that the FIA’s new policy of allowing racing without penalizing every move that goes wrong was to blame for this lack of action. The problem with this is that if you let such things go, it creates precedents that can and will be exploited later by the unscrupulous. Sometimes the cry of “it was an accident” is a straight lie so allowing the boys to race without fear of being penalized only opens the way for dirty driving tactics.
So no action was taken because the FIA did not see the need and no team asked for the incident to be looked into because, even in the oft-bizarre F1 world teams are still smart enough not to be protesting themselves.
However the post-race revelations end up making the FIA look foolish, because there was a level of intent that had been completely overlooked up in Race Control. In another age, the FIA would now be holding an investigation and we would be off to the Place de la Concorde in a week or two for a Mosleyan coup de théatre, but in the age of Todt, not even dynamite can force a decisive gesture on the part of the President. Some see this as weakness, and it is hard to argue against that. All too often when it comes to power, Emperors parade themselves on horses, clad in invisible new clothes and the crowd is led to believe them, lest they are seen to be stupid by their peers. But in the case of Todt all that appears to be on the back of the horse is an empty pile of clothing.
As for Rosberg, the incident serves only to demolish his carefully-constructed image that he is a jovial boy-next-door kind of figure. And it raises questions about the incident in qualifying in Monaco, and the jumped chicane in Montreal. Lewis is a tough competitor, but he generally plays it fair. There’s nothing underhand about him.
For those who have never read A Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the next paragraph will be of little use, but one wonders now whether Nico has followed other F1 challengers down the path of cynical ambition towards Vanity Fair, leaving Hamilton to wade through the Slough of Despond. They are both aiming for the Celestial City but who will get there first?
Onward to the next Wacky Race…