The Knee-Jerk Brigade: Why F1 Fans Foaming at the Mouth Does the Sport No Good

Andy ShawCorrespondent ISeptember 7, 2008

In yesterday's Belgian Grand Prix, after a thrilling last few laps in which the rains came down and the running order was overturned, Lewis Hamilton, in his McLaren-Mercedes, saw off a challenge from Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, which ended with the Finn in the wall, and the British driver taking victory.

Or so we thought.

A matter of hours later, the stewards of the Belgian Grand Prix announced that they had seen fit to impose on Hamilton a 25-second time penalty, dropping him to third place and handing the win to Ferrari's Felipe Massa.

Hamilton's crime, which cost him victory, was a questionable overtaking move on Raikkonen two laps from the finish: Hamilton cut the chicane at the end of lap 42, moving him ahead of Raikkonen; although he yielded the position before attacking the Ferrari again to overtake, the stewards deemed that he had still gained an advantage from cutting the corner and therefore imposed a penalty.

The eventual result of the race has prompted a predictable howl of anguish from many F1 fans, particularly those who have felt for many years that there is some sort of "conspiracy" in the FIA, the governing body of Formula One and the rest of world motorsport, favouring the Ferrari team above any of the others.

This feeling of injustice has been felt by fans without access to any of the data made available to the stewards, and upon which they presumably based their decision to punish Hamilton.

Hamilton's defenders are, unwittingly or otherwise, believers of the myth that in F1, "What you see is what you get." Because we saw Hamilton let Raikkonen past and surrender the lead he unfairly took at the chicane, so the argument goes, therefore the McLaren driver gained no advantage and should not have been punished.

But Formula One is a complex, multifaceted affair, and very often behind the scenes there is more to a particular incident than meets the eye.

To put this incident into historical context, let us consider the infamous qualifying penalty imposed upon Fernando Alonso at the 2006 Italian Grand Prix, an event that has already been mentioned in the context of this latest penalty amongst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth. Alonso was deemed to have impeded the Ferrari of Felipe Massa, and was therefore demoted from his original qualifying position of fifth to tenth on the starting grid.

At the time of the incident, Alonso had been running ninety metres ahead of the Ferrari. According to basic logic, there is no way that Alonso's running could in any way have impeded the progress of Massa, following so far behind.

However, the stewards had access to Ferrari's telemetry data, which showed that the effectiveness and efficiency of Massa's aerodynamics had indeed been adversely affected by a car in front. No one was implying that Alonso had deliberately impeded Massa, but at the time it was stated under the rules that any impediment of another car's progress, deliberate or otherwise, would result in a penalty.

If anything, all the Monza incident showed is that the aerodynamic effect on a Formula One car of a car ahead is far greater than can be seen on television screens, or understood by those without access to all the relevant data.

So while the armchair critics fume and rage over the result of the Belgian Grand Prix, they are forgetting one important detail: we, as fans, do not have all the facts.

It is distressing to see that so many fans have concluded that the FIA are somehow incompetent or biased, simply because the race stewards of the Belgian Grand Prix have made a decision that they do not understand or agree with.

What is even more disturbing is that these individuals have chosen to vent their collective spleen in the public domain, thus driving more potential fans away from a sport that they will begin to see as contrived as, say, professional wrestling.

We owe it to the sport we all love to reserve judgement on the outcome of this year's Belgian Grand Prix until we know the facts, or at least understand the reasoning behind the stewards' decision.