Watching the two championship rivals fight wheel to wheel (at last) has been a delight. Oddly enough, Vettel and Hamilton have not engaged into a direct battle on track often, except from some starts. At Sochi, we were blessed with this opportunity. Vettel defended hard, but Lewis finally got past. Sebastian’s defense tactics were investigated by the stewards, who found nothing wrong.
I have to admit, my first impression of Vettel’s moves was quite straightforward: the German moved to the right, clearly indicating to Lewis that this line was taken. Lewis thought he could make it next to the Ferrari before the gap disappears, but this didn’t happen. In that respect, Vettel was at no fault. However, after examining the footage in more detail, it seems that Seb was a bit naughtier than that.
Breaking down the incident
Seb moves first and Lewis follows. The move is swift, probably in order to break the slipstream for Lewis. However, as soon as Vettel reaches the white line in the middle of the track, he reduces his steering angle. The Ferrari is not “straight”, but it’s significantly less turned to the right than the initial chop.
Lewis insists diving to the right. When Vettel realizes that his initial chop was not enough to scare Hamilton off, he steers again to the right, closing the door.
Crucially, Hamilton has not managed to slot his front wing on the side of Vettel’s rear right wheel. As such, Vettel is under no obligation to leave one car width space, considering also that this is not yet a braking zone. He then re-positions slightly to the left for the next corner, but Lewis has already backed off, so this move is not part of the fight.
What do the regulations say?
In the 2017 Regulations, we had two very specific articles on the issue:
27.6 More than one change of direction to defend a position is not permitted. Any driver moving back towards the racing line, having earlier defended his position off-line, should leave at least one car width between his own car and the edge of the track on the approach to the corner.
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.
However, the 2018 Regulations are limited to the following:
27.2 Drivers must observe the provisions of the Code relating to driving behaviour on circuits at all times.
27.4 At no time may a car be driven unnecessarily slowly, erratically or in a manner which could be deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers or any other person.
Which means that we are redirected to the FIA Apendix L to the International Sporting Code Regulations of 2018 for all types of circuit racing, which states:
Chapter IV – Code of driving conduct on circuits
2. Overtaking, car control and track limits
b) (…) More than one change of direction to defend a position is not permitted. Any driver moving back towards the racing line, having earlier defended his position off-line, should leave at least one car width between his own car and the edge of the track on the approach to the corner. However, 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 strictly prohibited. Any driver who appears guilty of any of the above offences will be reported to the Stewards.
For the avoidance of doubt, if any part of the front wing of the car attempting to pass is alongside the rear wheel of the car in front this will be deemed to be a ‘significant portion’.
Was Vettel at fault, then?
So, what’s the verdict? Well, Vettel does a “staged” single move. Is it two moves? It’s certainly a single direction change, since he both times goes to the right. It’s not in the braking zone and Lewis was never next to the Ferrari. A penalty would be on the table if there had been contact, based on the nature of the movement. But this is what happens when two top tier drivers fight wheel to wheel. They can avoid disaster even if the fight has crossed the line of the regulations. Brilliant stuff and well done, guys…