Leaving aside the question marks over whether the Bahrain Grand Prix should have gone ahead or not in light of the continued civil unrest in the country, the race itself bucked the trend of previous F1 races at the Sakhir circuit by being full of overtaking and incident. The race resulted in the fourth race winner from the fourth team in the opening four races of the season. It saw the fourth leader of the World Drivers’ Championship, too, with Sebastian Vettel’s victory seeing him leapfrog several drivers, including previous leader Lewis Hamilton – who finished eighth after his race was destroyed by pit stop issues – and Red Bull Racing move ahead of McLaren in the constructors standings. The race also saw a great result for Lotus, with Kimi Raikkonen producing a storming drive from 11th on the grid to finish second and his French team-mate, Romain Grosjean, joining him on the podium with a third place finish. However, as you will have guessed from the title, this post is not going to focus on any of these things, but instead the two incidents that Nico Rosberg was involved in with Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, both of which were subject to investigations after the race by the stewards.
Mercedes AMG driver Rosberg was on a high going into this race after taking a first pole position and following it up with a first Formula 1 win, in his 111th start, at the previous race of the season in Shanghai. His form in free practice two and three, where he headed the time sheets, made him the clear favourite for pole position, with many also suggesting that Rosberg would go on to win the race. However, an error in the qualifying top 10 shoot out saw the German start the race in fifth position after being too aggressive in his single Q3 run, taking too much kerb and costing himself crucial time. As a result he started behind both McLarens, which started second and fourth, and both Red Bulls, with Sebastian Vettel claiming his 31st pole position. Rosberg has not, up to this point, been known as a particularly aggressive driver, but the same aggression that was his undoing in qualifying was again evident in the race as he aggressively defended his position against Lewis Hamilton on lap 11 after the Englishman was trying to recover ground after a lengthy first pit stop, and again when he made a similarly aggressive defensive manoeuvre against Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso as the Spaniard tried to pass him at the same part of the track on lap 24. The stewards decided to investigate both of these incidents after the end of the race.
Let me turn first to Rosberg’s incident with 2008 world champion Hamilton, arguably the most controversial of the two incidents. The lap 11 incident saw Hamilton pass Rosberg with all four wheels off the track as the Mercedes driver moved hard to his right in an attempt to block Hamilton’s passing move between turns three and four. Indeed, Rosberg moved so far to the right that he himself had two wheels over the white line defining the track boundaries. Some would point out that the McLaren driver could easily have received a penalty for this incident as other drivers had done for off track passes in previous seasons, although Hamilton’s pass was notably different as it did not involve cutting a corner as the past incidents have invariably done. The focus was on Rosberg’s driving, however, with his extreme defending reminiscent of his Mercedes team-mate Michael Schumacher’s defence of 10th place at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix against his former Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello, who was then driving for Williams. In this incident the veteran Brazilian was almost pushed into the pit wall, and arguably would have been had the pit lane exit not become available for Barrichello to make use of in order to complete the pass. The only difference between this and the Rosberg/Hamilton incident is, in my view, that there was more space in Sakhir, with the wall much further back from the track edge. In the end, Schumacher was given a 10 place grid penalty for the next race of the 2010 season at Spa, but not so Rosberg in 2012, who got away without even a reprimand. Why the different verdict from the race stewards?
Other than attributing the apparent inconsistency to differing stewards, with different opinions and viewpoints, it’s quite hard to understand why Rosberg was not given some sort of penalty, or at least a warning following the race. This was made even the more baffling considering the second incident of the race involving Alonso on lap 24, after the second round of pit stops. In this incident, Alonso tried an identical pass to Hamilton between turns three and four, albeit unsuccessfully as Rosberg made the same aggressive defensive move as he had against Hamilton 14 laps earlier. Alonso was clearly unhappy with the move, saying on team radio, immediately after his incident “He [Rosberg] pushed me off the track. You have to leave a space. All the time you have to leave a space.” Hamilton made similar post race comments to the Times, saying “I felt I was forced off the track. It was really dusty, the car started bottoming and I had to make sure I didn’t lose control of the car.”
Certainly article 10.4 of the Formula 1 sporting regulations would seem to agree with the view of Alonso and Hamilton. 10.4 clearly states that: “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.” It’s hard to see how this is not exactly what happened, especially in the Hamilton incident, but the stewards disagreed stating, in their verdict on the Hamilton/Rosberg incident, that:
“1. The driver of Car 8 [Rosberg] commenced his move to the right after the exit from T3 and moved to the right in a constant and continuous straight line manner, not making any sudden movements (as evidenced by telemetry and video evidence) and;
2. At the time he commenced his move, Car 4 [Hamilton] was behind him and no part of his car was alongside Car 8 and;
3. The driver of Car 8 made the move to the right prior to the driver of Car 4 making the same move and;
4. For more than half of the distance travelled by Car 8 in moving in a straight line towards the right hand edge of the track, Car 4 remained behind Car 8 and;
5. Because the delta speed between the two cars was quite significant it was difficult for Car 8 to detect the exact position of Car 4 in relation to his own car;
6. Had a significant portion of Car 4 been alongside that of Car 8 whilst Car 4 still remained within the confines of the track, then the actions of Car 8 may not have been considered legitimate.”
The stewards delivered an almost identical statement in relation to the Alonso incident, substituting point 6, above with “No part of Car 5 [Alonso] was alongside that of Car 8.”
While all of the above is true, the same could have been said of the Schumacher/Barrichello incident from 2010, where the stewards decided differently. It could also be argued that had the incident taken place in 2011, with Lewis Hamilton defending, rather than attacking, a penalty would almost certainly have followed. As in football, it is the inconsistency in decisions from officials that most infuriates and confounds fans. Certainly Alonso was far from happy; the double world champion was quoted after the race as saying “If instead of such a wide run-off area there had been a wall, I’m not sure I’d be here to talk about it,” – perhaps himself drawing comparison to the Schumacher/Barrichello incident.
Alonso clearly disagreed with the stewards’ verdict, and followed up his post race comments once the stewards’ decision was in, saying on Twitter “I think you are going to have fun in future races! You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track! Enjoy! ))”. Hamilton was more overt in comparing Rosberg’s manoeuvre to those of Schumacher than Alonso, saying in his comments to the Times “[Rosberg] pulled really to the right. I thought it was Michael for one second…”
As for Rosberg, he unsurprisingly felt that the stewards’ decisions justified his aggressive defending, calling the moves “tough but okay” and “good racing”. Fernando Alonso, and many others, would certainly disagree.
Has Rosberg’s race win in China ignited a new found will to win? Has it made him a more aggressive driver? After two incidents in a single race it’s much too early to be able to answer that question – time will tell.