Race Control has tried to strictly adhere to the rulebook regarding blocking…but is the rule a good one, or one that needs to be thrown out as soon as possible? At Toronto, down the back straight toward Turn 3, all drivers were supposed to be on the left of the track by the time they reached the bridge just before the braking zone. That's the racing line because obviously it makes the driver's trajectory through the right-hander as shallow as possible. Taking the right lane in order to defend one's position was forbidden. That lane was to be used only by those attempting to make a pass. It's the rule that Castroneves infamously fell foul of at Edmonton last year, as Power hung on and hung on, waiting for his teammate to take the racing line and realized too late that he'd been duped. Power switched to the outside but too late to complete the pass and his skittering across the marbles and Castroneves' punishment saw the win switch from Team Penske to Target Chip Ganassi Racing and a highly amused but grateful Dixon.
At Toronto this year, most drivers, most of the time, adhered to this rule of keeping left down to Turn 3. Where things went predictably awry is that, show a chasing driver a gap and he'll try and charge into it. I'm certainly not absolving Hunter-Reay, Franchitti, Andretti and Briscoe of blame by dismissing their moves as racing instinct: the trick for every smart racer is surely recognizing when a maneuver is going to work and giving yourself enough time to back out without hurt to either car. (To his credit, Andretti eventually admitted that is precisely what he'd failed to do when causing the Turn 1 logjam.) What I am pointing out is that if drivers were allowed to defend by holding the inside line, these incidents wouldn't have happened.
[While we're here, I must briefly vent about IndyCar terminology. I may be a fat, middle-aged journalist who's never done more than race karts at an amateur level and in a distinctly amateurish manner, but the series' interpretation of the word “blocking” is way different from my own and is frequently used to describe what I'd classify as “defending.” Defending is using the line your attacker wants (usually the inside), and forcing him or her to find an alternative route – usually the long way around. So long as you hold your line, that seems OK to me but is strictly forbidden in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and is termed blocking. In my book, for what it's worth, blocking is seeing in your mirrors which way your attacker's going and actually altering your line mid-turn or mid-straight in response. You're allowed to do that in Formula 1 under the one-move rule…and it's pathetically easy, disproportionately dangerous and shouldn't be allowed.
OK, minor grievance aired, we continue…
So, should a driver be permitted to take a defensive line and force his attacker to go the long way 'round? Some drivers – and a lot of fans – are beginning to think so, or have held those beliefs for some time. The counter-argument is that had the no-blocking rule been lifted in Toronto, I'm not sure we'd have seen any passing at Turn 3. The driver on the inside would just have needed to brake at the same time as the driver on the outside and then, “accidentally on purpose,” miss the apex or run wide on exit thus running his or her rival out of road, forcing him or her to concede. Certainly there's no room there for the attacker to do a duck-under maneuver – where the driver on the outside lures his rival into out-braking himself, but gets his own car stopped in time to swing across the back of him and claim the initiative.
I do find myself thinking back to Jacques Villeneuve's comment some years ago that to eliminate blocking from the sport, you need to remove everyone's mirrors. A radical idea that creates as many questions as answers – and unwise for ovals. Then there's the idea of having mirrors that turn with the steering, thus, for instance, Tony Kanaan could have seen in his mirrors that Briscoe's front wheels were alongside his right rear. An ornate idea if overly expensive…
When applied to Toronto, both concepts are slightly irrelevant, too, though, because there was nowhere near as much blocking (in IndyCar terms) by the hunted as there was misreading of situations by the hunters. It wasn't a case of drivers reacting to what went on behind them but rather, failing to take heed of what was ahead. Mike Conway's rear-ending of Briscoe and Takuma Sato's similar drilling of Danica Patrick were rather extreme examples of that! Alex Tagliani and Rahal, Dixon and Andretti, Paul Tracy and James Hinchcliffe – all pairings proved you could go side by side through Turn 3 and/or the wiggles that follow. (The fact that Hinch and P.T. then clashed at Turn 5 is genuinely irrelevant here.) But they were genuinely side by side, each fully aware of where the other was and each accommodating the other, however grudgingly. Briscoe, Franchitti, Hunter-Reay and Andretti were nowhere near being far enough alongside their victims to try and force the issue and claim rights to the same piece of pavement. As the drivers very much behind, it was their duty to back off – and from every angle I've seen of those four incidents, only Andretti tried.
Unfortunately, from the moment they let Briscoe go unpunished for his lap 4 clash with Tony Kanaan, the guys in Race Control were honor-bound to be consistent and write off similar incidents as “one of them racin' deals.” Well if I wanted to watch one of them racin' deals where competitors get away with punting each other, I'd watch again the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Sonoma where drivers run through and over each other – and then the aggrieved party is allowed to return to the track to exact his revenge! But a “have at it, boys and girls” attitude is dangerous in open-wheel racing and, despite what we saw in Toronto, IndyCar drivers are fully aware of that. Why do you think so few of these low-percentage maneuvers occur at high-percentage corners? Because the higher the speed, the higher the risk…and the higher the risk of both cars being eliminated.
Will that remain the case, though? If the 2012 car arrives with even less openness to its open wheels, will IndyCar driver discipline sink toward stock car levels? If it's harder to interlock wheels, will there be drivers who think it's OK to usher their rival toward the grass? Or a tire barrier? Or a wall?