Lewis Hamilton’s great effort to come back from his bad start brought him chasing Max Verstappen in the dying laps of the Japanese Grand prix. After numerous laps behind Max, the Briton managed to get himself within shooting distance. The battle, however, taking place at the Casio Triangle braking area, did not deliver to Lewis’ wishes.
F1 GRIP comments on the incident and delivers its verdict.
Both drivers exit the notorious (albeit not as scary nowadays) and sweeping fast 130R, driving diagonally towards the first right turn of the historic Casio Triangle. Lewis comes out with a lot of extra speed compared to Max and starts thinking of making the dive, while waiting for Max’s first move. Verstappen is placed right in the middle of the track, when Lewis decides to get into the inside gap. Right at this moment, Lewis is perfectly entitled to try the move and it all makes sense. However, while Hamilton is already launched into the braking area, Verstappen makes his «one and only allowed move» to defend, all at Lewis’ surprise and the Briton has to take evasive action to the outside.
The stewards did not deem the incident worthy of any additional investigation and Lewis himself (acting and speaking in a surprisingly calm manner afterwards) grounded Mercedes’ official complaint for Verstappen’s driving. But what if this were to lead into an actual crash?
Did Max move once or twice?
In case two consecutive turns are opposite (e.g. just like the 130R-Casio sequence) the cars normally follow a diagonal racing line inbetween the turns. It is customary that the defending driver stays in the middle a bit longer until he decides which way to go, but the first move to the outside is not ever considered an actual defending move. Hence, the move to the inside (like the one Max does) is the only move that counts.
Was this one move legal?
Well ok, it was essentially «one» move. But we’ve got to stress out something that this column has reiterrated quite often in the past and is also said by the drivers when complaining about defending tactis (let’s remember Raikkonen being furious at Verstappen in Budapest). The concept of «one line change» refers to the battle before the corner. As soon as the cars enter the braking zone, changes of direction can be dangerous maneuvres, because the opponent cannot easily adapt his positioning any more.
As is obvious by watching the relevant video, we are indeed in the braking zone when Max decides to move inside in order to block Lewis, since the Briton’s helmet is evidently pushed forward by the inertial forces.
Apart from the «gentleman’s racing code» of respect that all drivers come to learn throughout their years of track experience, the FIA rules need a more precise wording. However, it is still clear that any description of what’s allowed or not refers to the area before the braking zone. This maneuvre (moving in the braking zone) could also be falling into the case of article 27.8, which forbids abnormal changes of direction that aim to hinder other drivers.
Part of Article 27 of FIA Formula 1 Sporting Regulations 2016
27.7 Any driver defending his position on a straight, and before any braking area, may use the full width of the track during his first move, provided no significant portion of the car attempting to pass is alongside his. Whilst defending in this way the driver may not leave the track without justifiable reason.
27.8 Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.
So, where do we go from here? Well, if a crash were to happen, Max would be at total fault. Lewis managed to react in time and avoid the worst for both cars. It is indeed not common to award penalties without an actual crash or car damage involved, but this «braking zone moves» issue (which has proved to be Max’s common tactic lately) has to be addressed before something serious happens.