Last week, I received a letter from a fan of the IZOD IndyCar Series who, a full 48 hours after the race, was still fuming about its outcome. Now, it's not our habit to highlight one particular reader's thoughts and opinions, but since they echoed what many were thinking following the ugly if fascinating spectacle of the 2011 Honda Indy Toronto, I make no apology for reproducing much of it here.
He wrote as follows:
"After watching the Toronto IndyCar race, I was left concerned by the path that this sport appears to be heading along, so much so that I write my first letter to you in the hope that whoever is in charge of that spectacle called IndyCar racing is reading this. My questions are:
- Can we only increase our fan base by staging this bumper car-style racing?
- Should we allow and therefore encourage drivers to drive with little regard to their competitors or should we encourage them to use the skills that got them to IndyCar?
- Is it not time to consider entrusting the management of the sporting rules to an independent group who not only has the experience but also the courage to stand behind consistent calls and issue penalties for bad driving?
- If, as Robin Miller tells us on SPEED and Versus, fans actually love double-file restarts, then isn't it time for IndyCar to provide teams with additional funding to cover crash damage?
- At what point does a driver earn the right to a corner when he is trying to pass or maintain his position entering a corner? My question refers particularly to the Will Power/Dario Franchitti incident. Did Power not leave Franchitti room approaching the corner? And didn't Power, by out-braking Franchitti into the corner and being almost a full car-length ahead, win himself the right to the corner? Can then Franchitti continue forcing the issue further into the corner even when there was no room to pass? Also, does anybody expect Power to be able to see in his mirror that Franchitti has decided to take another stab at mission impossible?
"Lastly here's a comment to the IndyCar drivers in general: You are better than this. Please try to avoid lowering your standard to the level we saw in Toronto. Don't bring the sport down to the lowest denominator for the sake of a few TV ratings."
Now, I can't say I agreed with this fan regarding double-file restarts (Marco Andretti nudging into Oriol Servia and taking out Justin Wilson too was the only crash in Toronto connected with that new-for-2011 rule), but his comments regarding driver discipline – or lack thereof – was something many of us share. Same with the consistency of the rulings from race to race. Back at Long Beach, I recall the reasons given for not penalizing Helio Castroneves were that he had effectively served his own penalty for that needless shunt with Power that also ruined Scott Dixon's race and lost Servia a chance of racing into a podium position. The consideration there was that Castroneves had dropped a bunch of places himself. OK…I can kind of see that, although it didn't explain why Castroneves went unpunished for tipping Justin Wilson into a spin at the hairpin when Paul Tracy was served a drive-through for the same maneuver on Simona de Silvestro.
Anyway, just two street races later, at Toronto, Franchitti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti and Ryan Briscoe clearly benefit from their misjudgments, do not serve their own penalty – nor do they serve any other penalty. This quartet go on to finish first, third, fourth and seventh, respectively. So what is or isn't allowed now?
Don't get me wrong – I have plenty of sympathy for anyone who serves in Race Control in any form of motorsport. It's one of those jobs where you get no praise if everything goes well, but thrown to the wolves – and publicly – if you are perceived to have screwed up. In pre-race briefings, you have to impose your will on 26 drivers and that must sometimes feel like herding cats. You have to withstand drivers and team owners occasionally bullying you or arguing their case during the race. You have to retain impartiality at all times. And you have to look at each incident in isolation.
The difficulty of that last point I demonstrated to myself, I'm ashamed to say. Of the perpetrators listed above, Hunter-Reay had the least amount of time to back out of his clash with Rahal, given the speed at which Graham swung back across to tuck in behind Dixon. However, on the other side of the coin, a blind man could have seen that gap was going to close, Ryan should have realized he wasn't going to have enough room to make the pass and he had only his car's nose alongside Rahal's rear wheel, therefore he should back out. Still, I thought a few moments later, Ryan had already suffered a broken wing and a puncture this race, he came into the event a completely unrepresentative 20th in the championship, he deserved a lucky break…
Oh, dear: it's no damn good to be thinking that way, is it? I was looking at an accumulation of circumstances around Hunter-Reay's godforsaken season, instead of looking at this shunt in isolation. Rather more relevantly, Dixon couldn't separate his personal emotions from the situation: frustrated at Rahal's earlier attempts to keep him behind and at twice messing up the restart, Scott basically said Graham got what he deserved. Hmm…It's clear that neither Dixon nor I could be trusted to call the right shots in Race Control.
So, who can? Well, just one person, in my opinion. Whether that's Tony Cotman or Al Unser Jr., I'm not sure I care: there are good reasons to trust each of them in terms of judgment. What I am sure of is that a three- or four-man democracy can't be as consistent as a one-man autocracy. The message regarding what's permissible that is delivered to the drivers in the pre-race briefings and out on track and is witnessed by fans in the grandstand and watching on TV will get muddied. And what about those times when Unser, Cotman and Brian Barnhart each have three interpretations of an incident, and each have three very different responses to how or if the perp should be punished? Allowing just one person in Race Control to call the shots would allow the decision-making to be far more consistent.
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?
Some may think I'm overreacting to one bad race, an event which prompted Kanaan, of all people, to ask rhetorically, “Did we all need to go back to driving school?” But in truth this column was inevitable, following similar (if fewer) bouts of recklessness in St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Sao Paulo this year. Let me state categorically that I have no wish to see the IZOD IndyCar Series become a police state, where Race Control is deciding the outcome of a race or where drivers feel too intimidated by potential wrath from on high to go for it. But equally, drivers can't go racing harder without also racing smarter and picking their battles more selectively. Everyone accepts the give and take of 50/50 maneuvers; sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug and, over the course of a season, it tends to even out. But a driver who takes a 20/80 or 10/90 chance, damages his rival's car or race and continues on without hurt to self needs to accept responsibility. And needs to be punished.
What form should that punishment take, if we're trying to avoid Race Control dishing out drive-through penalties for every major transgression? Adding seconds to a driver's time at the end of a race is one way, but how you grade the severity of the clash in relation to the number of seconds added is very vague, subjective and random. If the driver dominated the race following an early accident, for instance, a 20sec penalty may still leave him as the winner, so he's effectively escaped censure. If the race ends under yellow, on the other hand, just a 10-second penalty could cost him 10 or more positions, which would be no less ridiculous.
Dock the driver a couple of places in the finishing order? Nah, that's barely less random. And besides, both these solutions are unfair on the spectators. One thing NASCAR has seemingly always gotten right over the years is that fans who leave the track or switch off their TVs at the end of a race know the results are set in stone, no matter what is subsequently decided regarding driver discipline and no matter what is found in or on the cars in post-race scrutineering. Admittedly, this frequently raises the ridiculous situation of teams or drivers who have more money than they know what to do with being fined a week's wages, and/or having their regular crew chief being forced to watch the next couple races from the parking lot rather than his pit. But it also means the fan doesn't feel cheated by discovering the next day that the drivers are no longer in the place he or she last left them.
So, should transgressors start the next race from the back of the grid? I don't think so. For one thing, given the number of drivers who deserved punishment in Toronto, what order would you arrange them in for Edmonton? Would 26th place go to the driver who screwed up first, who screwed up most often, or whose screw up caused the biggest crash? Pretty unworkable, I think you'll agree. Besides, I'm of the very firm belief that each race is a do-over, a clean slate, an event in and of itself. For the same reason – and the fact that it's too mild – putting a driver on probation isn't an answer, either.
To my mind, the best solution is to allow a driver to retain his finishing position come what may but if he's judged to have caused an avoidable accident, award him half-points. In the severest of cases or for multiple unethical maneuvers, give him or her the bare minimum of points which, thanks to the IndyCar Series' bizarre system where you get points just for finding your way to the track, is 10. The concept isn't watertight – for instance, one-offs, for whom points are irrelevant, would need to be punished with drive-through penalties instead – but I believe it's workable. It would even cover the gray area of whether the instigator has also served his own penalty.
None of this will repay the innocent party his lost points, obviously – although, just as an aside, one amusing idea did flit through the transom of my mind: Swap a transgressor's race day points haul with those of his victim! Of course, then an unethical backmarker would deliberately engineer dubious situations every time a Franchitti or a Power came to lap him, knowing that if the Race Control's verdict went his way, he could likely bank 40 or 50 points….
Enough of facetiousness. I am aware there will forever be three sides to the story behind most two-car accidents – Driver A's version, Driver B's version and the truth, which hopefully is what Race Control sees and acts upon. But no one – we fans included – should add a fourth or fifth side by, for instance, blaming double-file restarts or, as happened after Toronto, slamming the circuit design. For pity's sake, in every walk of life we have to work within the parameters we're given. A driver blaming a track layout for a failed passing maneuver is as pathetic as him spinning and then criticizing Firestone for not giving him enough grip.
So what now? Well, unquestionably bridges need to be rebuilt between drivers and Race Control this week in Edmonton. Each side has, with some validity, lost respect for the other, but now each side needs to listen to the other and together they must clarify the rules of what constitutes permissible on-track behavior. And then each side needs to follow through with whatever conclusions are drawn. Race Control must be unflinching and consistent in its imposition of punishments. Equally, if drivers want to avoid being disciplined, they need to be self-disciplined and take responsibility for their actions.
And, above all, every participant in the meeting has an obligation to remember that this ceases to be a sport if its competitors are rewarded for errors of judgment. Between green flag and checkered flag, everyone needs to be accountable.
David Malsher is the Editor of RACER magazine