Updated: Oct 5, 2020
10 second time penalties are not the answer to F1’s problems
Lewis Hamilton is making Formula 1 boring, and if something is not changed soon, the sport will die. Even better, remove his teammate Valtteri Bottas and perhaps Mercedes altogether, and the races will become infinitely more interesting.
Regardless of your level of engagement with F1, this is a sentiment that you have likely come across on the internet. It’s sort of unavoidable when discussing F1. But is it true? Has the dominance of Mercedes in the podium places made F1 a boring snooze-fest? I can’t say it’s turned me away from the sport, if anything it’s increased my enjoyment of it.
Take last month’s Italian grand prix in Monza. It’s already a classic. Had Mercedes not been in prime position to take the race win, with both of their cars locking out the front row of the grid in qualifying, as usual, it probably wouldn’t have been as much of a surprise as it was to have Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly as the winner. It was a classic underdog story and a thrilling result to what could have been another conventional Mercedes 1-2. And the race itself was thrilling. Collisions, penalties, a red flag, a chase to the line between two drivers hunting their maiden wins: it was F1 at its very best, or so the narrative went.
I don’t think anyone would deny that it was a good race, but the absence of Hamilton and Mercedes did take something away from the final result for me. The stakes just felt significantly lowered with Mercedes’ ability to win compromised, in this case due to a ten second time penalty for Hamilton due to entering a closed pit-lane - not to mention a sub-par Valtteri Bottas, Furthermore that wasn’t the only time this year that Mercedes and Hamilton have been penalised.
At the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi a few weeks ago, Hamilton was similarly given a ten second time penalty, but this time for doing two practice starts in an unsafe area: just outside the pit-lane exit. After taking his penalties in the form of a ten second drive-though in the race, Hamilton ended up third, and after the race he was given two penalty points on his Super License. Two more would have led to a race ban. This led the Brit to comment after the race that the FIA were “trying to stop [him]”. He later retracted that statement, and the FIA made a U-turn on the decision after an outcry from fans and fellow drivers, but you can’t blame Hamilton for saying it, and I suspect that he might be half-right.
Whilst it’s unlikely that the FIA are trying to stop Lewis Hamilton, it does sometimes seem as if they’re trying to make the races more interesting, or at least fairer by penalising him, and that’s not good for the sport. How would Charles Leclerc’s win in Monza last year feel if he hadn’t had to fight tooth and nail with Hamilton practically the whole race, as well as Bottas in its closing stages? Or how about the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix in Silverstone this year if Max Verstappen, coming out of the pit lane, hadn’t had to fight Bottas and hold off Hamilton for the remainder of the race? I’d think those races would feel shallow, but they were richer and more exhilarating because Mercedes were in them and had a shot at winning.
That’s not to say races where Mercedes malfunction, such as in Monza this year or their wet weather catastrophe in last year’s German Grand Prix, are not good races, they’re modern classics. But the classic underdog story of David vs Goliath is starting to wear a bit thin, especially when Goliath keeps being given a ten second penalty as of late.
Even if Hamilton wins, that doesn’t necessarily mean the race was a bad one, as some F1 fans would have you think. Just look at last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix: a criminally underrated race which saw a superb defence by Max Verstappen to hold off Lewis Hamilton for 67 laps until a risky late pit stop paid off for the Brit to see him pass the Dutchman with three laps to go. It was as thrilling as they come, and sometimes there is nothing better in F1 than seeing two Goliaths battle it out, when it’s possible of course, because these moments are few and far between, especially when it comes to the world championship. You’d have to go back to 2016 when Hamilton last lost a title challenge, with Nico Rosberg claiming it instead. His absence is sorely felt in these days of team orders and a number two driver in Valtteri Bottas. Evidently, part of the problem contributing to low stakes and unexciting F1 races is his inability to consistently challenge Hamilton for a title, or even a race win. This is especially noticeable when Mercedes dominate races. Now, it’s looking increasingly unlikely this year that Bottas will be able to challenge Hamilton to the end of the season, having only won two races this year. Although, this is F1, so anything can happen, supposedly.
I’m not denying that Mercedes dominance is a problem. It clearly is, and it would be nice to see someone other than the second Mercedes driver mount a sustained title challenge. Admittedly, there’s been too many Mercedes 1-2s during this Turbo Hybrid era, as well as some very dull races, notoriously, last year’s French Grand Prix, among several others that have fallen into the oblivion of forgettable races. But penalising Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton is not the answer. Ten second time penalties are only a short term solution, and whilst they may lead to exciting moments, they only serve to make the race results and the racing itself feel shallow. The FIA have probably realised this, especially if their U-turn after the Russian GP on the Hamilton-penalty-points fiasco is anything to go by.
So let’s hope that with the new rule changes in 2022, which the FIA have claimed will bring the pack closer together, means we can all stop praying for Hamilton to get a penalty. Hopefully we will see more Goliath vs Goliath moments between Verstappen and Mercedes. It’s even possible that Mclaren, Racing point (soon to become Aston Martin) and Renault could be brought into the fold — if at least the latter for Fernando Alonso’s sake. There’s even hope for Ferrari, if they can get their act together.