Since entering Formula One in 2010 life has not been easy at the back for Caterham, Marussia and HRT. All three teams even today remain rooted to the back of the “pecking order” that is often talked about from winter testing to the end of the season. During a Grand Prix it is common for these three teams to be constantly lapped by the leading cars and for strategies to be planned around the amount of time that is lost through having to let the leaders through.
Currently drivers about to be lapped are obliged to let leading cars through when they are shown the blue flag, if they are shown the blue flag more than three times they are given a penalty. This also means that a lapped driver must also shift out of the way very swiftly and it can cost a surprisingly large amount of time.
Last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix was an eventful one for HRT’s Indian driver Narain Karthikeyan, after starting the race on the wet tyres he quickly took advantage of the wet conditions as they became worse. By the time the red flag was shown he had worked his way up to an excellent 10th whilst others pitted to change onto the wet tyres or spun off. After the restart he dropped back through the field and on his way down had a collision with Jenson Button at Turn 9 after the McLaren driver made an uncharacteristic mistake, expecting Karthikeyan to leave more room for him.
Later on in the race Sebastian Vettel was homing in on Lewis Hamilton and came up to lap Karthikeyan’s HRT. Karthikeyan remained to the left side of the circuit to allow Vettel by but Vettel chopped across too soon and his rear left tyre made contact with the HRT’s front wing causing a puncture. This blunder left Vettel out of the points and in a foul mood. Afterwards the stewards made the harsh decision to give Karthikeyan a 20 second time penalty and Vettel called the Indian driver a “cucumber” to the German media.
Vettel’s costly mistake and childish reaction to it has demonstrated a fact I alluded to in this week’s post-race podcast; the ability to negotiate backmarkers – a skill which Ayrton Senna often excelled at – is a dying art. The current blue flag rules concerning backmarkers and penalties were introduced in the 1990′s, before then you were very lucky if backmarkers were co-operative, let alone if they got out of the way!
Vettel should consider himself lucky that he is not driving in the 1980′s and early 1990′s as during this period drivers such as Andrea De Cesaris, Philippe Alliot, Olivier Grouillard and René Arnoux – in the twilight of his career – were all erratic drivers who would never co-operate with leading drivers when being lapped or in some cases caused incidents through deliberately chopping them up! Now how many backmarkers do you see today deliberately holding up leaders or taking them off?
Formula One drivers are supposed to be the best drivers in the world, the ability to deal with traffic infront of them is a key skill in progressing through any ladder of motorsport, why should it stop at Formula One? Backmarkers should be given the opportunity to race as much as the leaders, afterall even if Caterham, Marussia and HRT don’t score any points at all this season 10th spot in the constructors Championship is still up for grabs and can be achieved through finishing as many races possible. This why for the past two seasons Marussia (as Virgin) has finished bottom of the constructors championship despite having a faster car than HRT.