Brilliant. Brave. Illegal.Chris Medland July 30, 2013
Brilliant. Brave. Illegal. Just some of the words I heard used to describe Romain Grosjean's move around the outside of Felipe Massa at Turn 4 in the Hungarian Grand Prix, but was the decision to penalise him for leaving the track and gaining an advantage right or wrong? Really, it was both.
First: the context. Grosjean had just stopped early for a second time in an attempt to jump Sebastian Vettel having felt he was much quicker than both Vettel and Lewis Hamilton during the first stint. With the Lotus good on its tyres, it was crucial Grosjean passed Massa quickly to run in clear air, set quicker times than Vettel and look after his new mediums.
How much Grosjean needed to clear Massa was evident in Guillaume Rocquelin's message to Vettel when Red Bull decided not to respond to the Lotus pit stop: "Sebastian, we're hoping Grosjean will get stuck up behind Massa so you doing those lap times in clear air is our best strategy".
With Massa slow through Turn 2, Grosjean stayed close through 3 and pulled alongside on the run up to Turn 4. Despite being on the outside for the high-speed left hander - which is blind on entry and often sees drivers run a bit wide - Grosjean had to get the move done and put his faith in Massa that he could turn in. Massa left enough room and Grosjean was half a car length ahead exiting the corner, using all of the kerb and a bit more on exit.
However, that bit more cost him. All four wheels were off the track and the stewards hit him with a drive through penalty for "leaving the track and gaining an advantage". It might have been a highly impressive move, but the stewards can't use the fact that the margins were so fine as justification for letting Grosjean off as it would set a precedent.
But the precedent had already been set. The term "gaining an advantage" does not stipulate how much of an advantage must be gained to make an incident punishable. There's a term which appeared fairly regularly on the timing screens during the race weekend during support race sessions: 'Track limits'. Drivers are supposed to keep at least one tyre on the track - within the white lines either side of the asphalt, so kerbs are off the track - at all times.
Vettel was a touch ragged when stuck behind Jenson Button after the first stops. He was pushing to clear the McLaren with Grosjean right behind him and on numerous occasions he ran wide with all four wheels off the track; most notably at Turn 4 and Turn 11. With some aerodynamic performance lost in the wake of the car ahead, Vettel would have needed to carry less apex speed or take more out of the tyres to keep at least one wheel within the track limits, but he didn't. He gained an advantage by being able to stay closer behind the car in front and stress his tyres less.
I'm not saying Vettel should have been penalised for it - he will have been far from the only driver to run wide as a quick re-watch of qualifying clearly highlights - merely providing an example of how drivers could be seen to be gaining an advantage on many other occasions. At no point in Article 20 of the 2013 Sporting Regulations does it state that if any advantage gained results in an overtake being completed then it should be punished more severely.
Obviously it goes without saying that completing an overtaking manoeuvre is a bigger advantage, but what was most telling was the reaction of the two drivers involved. Grosjean responded to the radio message informing him of the penalty with a shocked "Why?!" While after the race Massa had to be convinced Grosjean had been punished for that move and said "It's completely wrong". Massa even believed Grosjean had kept two wheels on track such were the fine margins as the drivers took the corner just inches apart.
Perhaps it was Red Bull rather than Ferrari which was more likely to urge the stewards to take a look at the legality of the pass with Grosjean's progress central to its own strategy. Either way, the stewards firmly applied the letter of a law which is not always so strictly referenced in other instances in Formula One.
In MotoGP last week, Marc Marquez pulled a stunning move on Valentino Rossi which saw him cutting across the dirt at Laguna Seca's infamous Corkscrew and - forgetting the sporting differences - it's a move that has been constantly talked about since but its legality is not the central question. It's a shame Grosjean's move won't get the credit it deserved, too.