This week, the biggest news in racing was not inside Formula 1. NASCAR Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace found himself suspended for one race following his crash with Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Larson had run Wallace into the wall and Wallace retaliated by hooking the defending champion in the right rear, sending him into a dangerous crash. This retaliatory behavior is often tolerated in NASCAR, sometimes even encouraged, and seeing drivers wreck out of races because of this mindset is not uncommon.
While the suspension is somewhat rare, the ordeal calls to mind how F1 tracks are policed, the safety of the cars, how teams manage their drivers and the sport itself. That races can be littered with in-race penalties, dropping drivers out of contention and out of the points amounts to being parked or earning a DNF. The stewards provide an extensive penalty system that metes out discipline in the equivalent of real time.
Driver suspensions are rare because there is often no need.
The last F1 driver suspension came back in 2012. The incident occurred at Spa-Francorchamps when Romain Grosjean served as the catalyst for a multi-car wreck. He began by taking out McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, then continued by sending McLaren’s second driver out of the race, Fernando Alonso, who held the driver points lead at the time. Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi also saw their days ended early thanks to Grosjean’s ill-advised and desperate maneuver.
The clip (see link above) shows how Grosjean became a missile without direction as soon as he clipped Hamilton. The ensuing carnage is one reason for concern, but so is the fact Grosjean wound up driving across the top of another car. Incidents such as these are the reason the sport pushed to implement the Halo to ensure driver safety.
The reasoning for the suspension came not only because Grosjean was driving like an idiot – he was – but because he “eliminated champion contenders from the race.”
An aside about Grosjean. He had developed a reputation for being reckless by the 2012 season, and his wreck at Spa was not the only questionable moment of decision-making. By the time he had found his way to Haas in 2016, his aggression had been tempered by poorly competitive cars, and he seemed to be a somewhat benign track presence. The key word is somewhat, because there are crash highlight reels of the Swiss driver, and he has once again taken on the role of banging around with others since joining IndyCar.
Anyways, quick math indicates that a decade has passed since the FIA was forced to make a stand regarding driver etiquette and safety.
What’s more, the previous time that a F1 driver had been suspended for a race came in 1994, when the sanctioning body levied suspensions against three different drivers. From an officiating standpoint, 1994 looks like an aberration, but there is a different way of considering these judgments. The sport found itself needing to assert control and reel in tempestuous personalities, including Michael Schumacher, who earned himself a two-race vacation for ignoring black flags.
But since 2012, there have been no suspensions for driver stupidity in F1. Drivers have amassed in-season points that have nearly led to suspensions, including Lando Norris, who almost had to take a seat last year, but they have still avoided doing so.
One of the ways of thinking about driver safety and suspensions in the sport is that F1 and the FIA have done well to get their message across about driver etiquette. Of course, there is still debate as to what that etiquette is, when it should be followed, and whether or not some drivers flat out ignore it.
We can see the two collide. We know that Verstappen crashes out and is taken to the hospital to be checked more thoroughly.
But who is at fault, and the reasons, are just as subjective as determining a favorite flavor. Bias is a challenge in that regard.
The difference between F1 and NASCAR, even with a questionable incident such as the one above, is that F1 attempts to adjudicate its races at that time.
During the 15-minute red-flag period, the FIA delivered a 10-second penalty to Hamilton. That type of in-race penalty is usually a killer and would relegate one to being likely out of the points. (However, in this case, the red-flag period allowed the mechanics to fix any issues with Hamiltonʻs car from the contact, which was then followed by Hamilton taking a dominant car and ripping through the field to score his eighth British GP.)
The wreck became enough of an issue that Red Bull even looked into taking legal action against Hamilton, Toto Wolff and Mercedes. For all the commentary, social media comments and opinions from within the sport, nothing further came of the matter. Hamilton endured no further penalty. Nor did Verstappen when he parked his car atop Hamilton at Imola.
— AFP Photo (@AFPphoto) September 12, 2021
The sport seems to posit that the cars are safe enough, the drivers smart enough and the wrecks not problematic enough to warrant oversight in a way that pulls a driver from their car as a discipline.
Of course, there is one slight, or perhaps big, difference between Verstappen and Hamilton playing smash derby: their insanity, whether believed or not, came in the form of racing incidents.
While retaliation may surely have been in play in some respect, owing to some kind of slight that either holds toward the other, they were not out just slamming together at random or punching each other outside the track. In fact, Grosjean, for all his terrible driving, still never went after a driver the way that Wallace did, or many other NASCAR drivers have done.
The reality is that F1 avoids these incidents on a number of levels. The danger is too real. The costs of the car too great. And one’s standing in the sport can be so tenuous. Retaliation comes through other methods and avoids the absurdity of “Boys, have at it.”
About the author
As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.
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