Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Vettel’s Penalty Stands, Steiner Warns of Too Many Crashes

Formula 1 is on its annual summer break, with the next race not until Aug. 29 when the Belgian Grand Prix is held at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. This allow the usual hectic buzz surrounding F1 to die down a little, and things have been fairly quiet since the teams left Hungary. 

One of the questions leaving Hungary had been Sebastian Vettel’s podium-erasing penalty, with Aston Martin requesting a review from the stewards. Vettel had received the penalty following the race because the FIA were unable to extract the required one-liter fuel sample from his car. After the request for review was denied, Aston Martin announced its intent to appeal the decision, but this week the team revealed that it would not appeal the penalty after all. Aston Martin said they opted not to appeal because they “believe doing so outweighs the benefits of it being heard.”

While that is a vague explanation, Aston Martin likely felt that the stewards’ dismissal of the evidence that they had presented at the request for review was probably an omen for the likelihood of a successful appeal. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate to see Vettel lose a podium after a stellar drive in which he navigated through the opening lap chaos before hounding leader Esteban Ocon for the next 69 laps. Still, the penalty gives Carlos Sainz his fourth podium and puts him sixth in the championship, rewarding him for a strong race.

The penalty could also end up affecting the championship. While both Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton gained a position at the expense of Vettel, Hamilton’s move from third to second netted him an extra three points whereas Verstappen’s progress to ninth only added one. This means that not only has Hamilton caught back up to Verstappen after bad luck for the Dutchman in the last two races, but Hamilton now leads the standings by an eight-point margin. There’s still half a season to go, but the British and Hungarian Grands Prix could prove to be turning points in the title fight. 

Further back on the grid, Haas has been encountering some, well, not exactly surprising struggles. The team knew from the start that the finances would be tight, since they decided even before the first race that they would not develop this year’s car, instead putting the development budget entirely towards their 2022 entrant. However, a string of crashes from the rookie duo of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin is making things even harder.

“You always plan with accidents, especially with rookie drivers,” team principal Guenther Steiner told formula1.com, “but we have reached a point now where we have to work on [how] to have less accidents for the rest of the season.” Mazepin crashed at Bahrain, Baku and Imola, while Schumacher has hit the barriers at Imola, France, Monaco, and last time out in Hungary.

Steiner did not seem particularly optimistic, saying “At the moment, we feel it but we can still deal with it, but soon we will be in a position where we need to find new ways to overcome this because they’re getting a little bit too frequent and too heavy.” It’s not clear what these “new ways” could be, but Haas would likely end up having to take funds from its development budget for next year’s car. It’s surprising to see that Haas didn’t keep even more money in reserve for crash damage, considering the inexperience of their driver lineup and the quality of their race car, which has been undoubtedly last on pace all year.  

The situation also raises questions of how well Steiner is managing such a young lineup. The team environment had often seemed tense and brittle, at least from the outside, and its possible that Schumacher and Mazepin feel uncomfortable in the team. In the interview with F1, Steiner said, “What needs to be explained to young people is, you have to make a judgement: is it worthwhile or not? A [worthwhile] risk would be if you have the opportunity to gain a position in the manufacturers’ championship.” 

While Steiner is not wrong, his advice come off as a bit condescending — he is effectively telling his drivers not to push as hard because they’re in the worst car, even though pushing the car to its limits is how his two rookie drivers will best learn and get to grips with F1. Schumacher also has shown that he can play the long game and only take calculated risks, winning the 2020 Formula 2 championship on the basis of his consistency and ability to know when to play it safe. However, if Mazepin and Schumacher think they have a chance of retaining their seats for next season, then taking it a bit easier and avoiding damage at all costs might be wise, since it would free up more money for next year’s car, when there is a major regulatory shakeup. 

This week was otherwise uneventful in the world of F1, but Fernando Alonso did reveal a few interesting tidbits in an interview with Spanish site SoyMotor.com. He discussed his ability to get up to speed with the car, having returned to F1 this year after a two-year absence. Alonso confirmed that he was feeling comfortable in the car now, and explained how he and the team have dialed the car, by adjusting brake balance and engine braking, to suit his driving style. 

“I’ve always done an aggressive movement of the steering wheel in the middle of the corner, and from then on I just feel the front tires. If the steering wheel gets softer, it means they’re losing grip,” he said, as per f1.com. “If it gets harder, then they have too much grip and you can expect the rear of the car to move at some point,” he continued. “I normally feel everything with my hands and the front end of the car. If they take this out of me, I am dead.”

It was really interesting to hear a driver speak candidly about their driving style, and it is something that is often mentioned in passing and in abstract in the F1 universe but rarely explained in depth by pundits or drivers alike. Although it would be great to hear more like this from the drivers, it’s also understandable that they might want to hide their cards from their fellow drivers. Now that Alonso has been feeling satisfied with the car setup, he has been on a run of six straight points scores, and will look to extend the streak in Belgium later this month.

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