British Grand Prix throws glaring light over F1 rules' very grey areas

Formula Spy's Thomas Maher also regards a happy Lewis Hamilton as one that will be hard to catch

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, British Grand Prix

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton leads from team mate Nico Rosberg and Red Bull's Max Vestappen during the 2016 British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit, Towcester. Picture by: Tony Marshall / PA Wire/Press Association Images

This article originally appeared on Formula Spy.com.

Nico Rosberg's post-race investigation into a breach of the radio rules, tightened extensively for the 2016 season, was one of those horrible moments that serve to do nothing but annoy fans.

Having watched a relatively exciting British Grand Prix that saw Rosberg and Red Bull's Max Verstappen engage in battle for second for almost the entirety of the race, the result was thrown into immediate doubt at the end by the announcement of the investigation into a rules breach that really seems pretty trivial. The Sporting Regulations state that all the drivers must drive the car "alone and unaided", something that Rosberg was eventually given a post-race penalty for, changing the end result.

With Verstappen having had the advantage over Rosberg in the wet conditions at the start, Rosberg made good use of the Merc's superior grip to catch and pass the Dutch driver following quite a few laps of harassing him. A thrilling fight, and one that saw Rosberg get the better of the Bull, despite a late race gearbox issue that Mercedes say was a definite game ender, had Rosberg not been told to avoid seventh gear. Having slowed through Club corner, losing several seconds, Rosberg was able to get back up to speed without losing position to Verstappen and radioed in to tell his team he had a gearbox issue.

"Chassis default, zero one," came the reply from his race engineer.

"Avoid seventh gear, Nico, avoid seventh gear," was the instruction. When Nico asked whether he just needed to bypass the gear by shifting from sixth to eighth and vice versa, his race engineer Tony Ross said "Affirm, you need to shift through it".

The problem with this conversation was not anything that Rosberg said - he is allowed say and ask whatever he likes. What the team says back is what's critical. Following Lewis Hamilton's hampered race in Baku where he suffered performance related issues that he couldn't solve due to not being given any instruction, as per the rules, Mercedes told Rosberg how to solve his, i.e. by confirming he needed to shift past the problematic gear. Merc, and Rosberg, both say that the gearbox was critical and would have resulted in a full failure had he not been given his instruction. Given that it was a reliability/safety issue, as opposed to performance, Merc felt they could issue the instruction. The stewards disagreed. This is the grey area of the rules, and resulted in an almost three hour investigation by the stewards. With no previous radio rules investigation, this one was and is to establish a precedent. The ten second penalty handed down to Rosberg now establishes that. In a toss up between a retirement and a ten second penalty, the teams will always take the penalty.

It all seems a bit silly though, doesn't it? A perfectly technically legal car, driven excellently in a thrilling battle, suffers a penalty and loss of points due to being told how to avoid a retirement. Talk about a smack in the face for the attending fans who paid money to see that fight, at least for the neutral ones.

Safety Car starts the bane of modern F1

Many think that Grand Prix Safety Car starts began as a result of Jules Bianchi's accident at the 2014 Japanese GP, an accident that occurred in heavy wet conditions under yellow flags. However, that race itself had started under the Safety Car, and it's a fad that really seems to have developed only in the last five years or so. This roughly ties in with Pirelli's entry to the sport as the sole tyre supplier, suggesting the wet weather compound tyres are actually the main reason why F1 doesn't like racing in proper rain any more. Certainly, Sebastian Vettel's comments to media on Sunday night suggested this is the unspoken reason: "Nobody has any trust in the Wets. We'd rather take a lot of risk by going straight onto the Intermediates. There was a lot of aquaplaning at the beginning. I think we've said before that the extreme Wets are only really good enough for following the Safety Car, and then you want to fit the Intermediates. Nothing has changed in that regard."

In fairness to Pirelli, a lack of dedicated tyre testing is something they have complained vociferously about since their entry to the sport. A lack of testing means a lack of understanding and an inability to improve the compound. With a poor product, no-one wants to use it, so when racing starts, every effort is made to avoid it.

This means Pirelli still can't accumulate data, and so still can't improve the tyre. However, they did get a specific wet weather test at Paul Ricard in January, and the FIA have granted extra testing for tyres over the next two years. So a better Wet tyre compound should become available. The question is whether this will make any difference in terms of the cautious approach to wet racing. The Le Mans 24 Hours last month, a field of cars mostly made up of closed cars with windscreens and wipers, saw the first hour of the race proceed under the Safety Car, so the change of attitude isn't solely to do with the open wheel, open cockpit formula.

With blue skies overhead as the race began under the Safety Car, almost 10% of the race was wiped out and removed the spectacle of 22 of the world's best drivers begin fighting in tricky conditions. Fans were treated to weather reports from the drivers while Lewis Hamilton, the man with most to lose as the first man to encounter the conditions at any given corner, was chomping at the bit to get going and racing.

A suggestion would be for the Safety Car to lead the drivers around for two laps to let them get a feel for the conditions, before lining up for a normal grid start, minus the two laps. The drivers need to be tested in the rain, just like "the good old days" of less than a decade ago. How else can epic drives like Senna's Donington 93 win, Hill's Spa 98 drive, Schumacher's Spain 96 display or Frentzen's memorable French GP win in 1999 ever happen again?

Hamilton and Verstappen prove their worth

Lewis Hamilton was pretty much untouchable all weekend in Silverstone. Even had Rosberg not been forced to sit out FP2 with a water leak, he admitted that Hamilton had been quicker in qualifying. He felt he was much closer to Hamilton's performance level on Sunday, speaking brightly about how the circumstances of the start and the early pitstops under the VSC had meant he couldn't bring the fight to Hamilton properly due to the gap that Hamilton had come out with, but that he just couldn't clear the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.

Picture by: David Davies / PA Wire/Press Association Images

This was after the Dutch driver's stunning move around the outside of Rosberg through Chapel, a move that would have been greeted with the rapturous ovation it received even if it had been on home fan favourite Hamilton. Rosberg praised Verstappen's driving afterwards, saying that he had driven well, fought hard, and defended fairly in their duel. The Merc's superior pace at Silverstone played its part on a drying track though, and Verstappen was eventually denied the P2 finish on the road. v     

Monaco aside, Verstappen has been easily the match of Daniel Ricciardo since joining the team. Austria saw Verstappen overtake Ricciardo rather easily and go on to be the biggest threat to Mercedes, before doing the exact same thing in Silverstone. The Australian admitted to some frustration after qualifying, but only really was so far behind Verstappen in the race due to the timing of the Virtual Safety Car. Immediately following their stops, Ricciardo was 16 seconds behind Verstappen. At the chequered flag, he was 18.

Points-wise, Lewis Hamilton has scored 110 points since the Russian GP, the last race before Verstappen's promotion to Red Bull. Verstappen has scored 77, the second highest scorer in that time period. That's 13 more than Ricciardo, and more than 10 over either Ferrari driver.

Hamilton attributed his rise in form as being happiness off track, highlighting that he had enjoyed his "best week of the year" in the lead up to Silverstone. He had holidayed in Austria on Monday, before stopping off in Montenegro for a day, before descending upon his home circuit and the constant adulation of the crowds attending.

He couldn't stop beaming after the race, a relaxed and happy figure. A happy Hamilton is a dangerous Hamilton, and it's going to be fascinating to see if Rosberg, as well as Daniel Ricciardo, can rise to the challenge laid down by their formidable teammates.

Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.

 

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