I have always thought there has been a case to offer ‘Anger Management’ classes to racing drivers because the moment their natural ability becomes clouded by emotion, they are invariably left looking quite stupid. Everyone knows that you don’t win a race at the first corner, and equally that the job of the professional racing driver is to complete the race at the fastest possible speed. Finishing is important.
The war-zone of last Sunday’s European Grand Prix in Valencia produced some fine examples of how drivers forget the basic rules of engagement and neglect their responsibility to the teams who build the cars, and the sponsors who pay the bills.
The collision between Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso and Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham on lap 27 prompted the Stewards to award the Frenchman stiff punishment; a 10 place grid penalty in next week’s British Grand Prix, and a €25,000 fine. It’s not surprising that Red Bull Racing’s Christian Horner pointed out that Vergne will have to pay the fine himself, since it was thanks to this accident and high-speed return to the pits with a punctured tyre that caused the Safety Car which eliminated Sebastian Vettel’s race lead.
Vergne’s mistake was compounded by his initial statement that the accident was not his fault; a view not shared by the Stewards, the team, his colleagues at Red Bull, the media or anyone watching the European Grand Prix on television. Fortunately he later apologised to Kovalainen. Making mistakes is human, and admitting them shows maturity.
Outqualified by team mate Daniel Ricciardo 7-1 this season, and missing the cut from Q3 on no fewer than five occasions, Vergne is naturally feeling a lot of pressure, not helped by Red Bull’s reputation for dropping drivers who don’t perform. A quick driver, he has suffered moments of high emotion and mistakes before; notably last year when he was beaten to the World Series by Renault title by Carlin team mate Robert Wickens. In his first season in F1 his job is to learn, finish races, and avoid mistakes. He will almost start the British GP from last place on the grid, and his emotional management will the critical factor during the weeks ahead, not his driving ability.
The same can be said of Pastor Maldonado and Lewis Hamilton whose collision robbed both of significant results. Combined with the 8 points lost when Maldonado threw his Williams off the track in the closing stages of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, a podium on Sunday would have seen the Williams team with 22 more points in the World Championship for Constructors and snapped at the heels of Mercedes Benz for 5th place. Hamilton could also have done with the finish, even if it was 4th or 5th. For a man who lost the 2007 World Championship by one point, the collision was disastrous.
The Hamilton / Maldonado incident was certainly avoidable; and by both parties. It was Maldonado’s responsibility to make a clean overtaking manoeuvre and Hamilton’s job to avoid the Venezuelan and ensure he finished the race. Both are experienced racing drivers, one a former World Champion, and the natural trajectory of the cars through the right-left at Turns 12 and 13 was entirely predictable. One of them was going to have to back out, but neither did. Hamilton held the racing line but, given Maldonado’s past record including a collision with the McLaren driver in Monaco 2011, the British driver should have considered that likelihood that the Venezuelan would try to ‘2-by-2’ through the corners.
There is a popular argument among drivers that it is important never to let the guy behind get past. That’s a nice objective, but ultimately unrealistic. On fresher tyres Maldonado was always going to overtake Hamilton, it was only a matter of time. The fact that they collided showed an inability to look at the bigger picture of the race. Hamilton was clearly furious after the accident, but it would be interesting to know if he was angry with himself or Maldonado.
Ultimately the biggest lesson to come out of Valencia was that the one man who lets his talent do the talking, controls his emotions and finishes races now leads the World Championship. When the Ferrari F2012 started the season poorly, everyone would have forgiven Fernando Alonso for being angry and emotional, but instead he has worked carefully with the team to recover their position. This maturity has netted him two victories, the title lead and 20 consecutive race finishes in the points. It’s an approach that others should learn from.