There is a cartoon that you may have seen that has a bird eating a frog. The frog, as you might expect, is not keen to be swallowed and has his little froggy hands wrapped tightly around the bird's throat. The caption reads “never, ever give up.”
Obviously, Lotus F1’s Heikki Kovalainen has this cartoon on his bedroom wall as a motivational poster, because his battle to keep Mark Webber at bay, like that of the frog, was the ultimate exercise in futility.
When Kovalainen found himself in the unlikely position of being ahead of Webber in the European Grand Prix at Valencia, he exercised his racing right to defend his position. This apparently came as something of a surprise to the Aussie.
Webber had a massive speed advantage over the hapless Lotus pilot and obviously had better brakes too as Kovalainen braked early and stayed to the inside to protect the corner. Webber had initially moved to the inside, but looked like he was trying to second-guess Kovalainen by going around the outside.
What followed will end up on highlight reels for years to come. Webber's car plowed into the back of the Lotus, became airborne and performed a graceful backflip before slamming down onto the roll bar, bouncing itself upright and sliding into the tyre barrier.
It was a one of those heart-stopping impacts but, in a tremendous testament to the quantum leaps in F1 safety design, Webber was able to walk away looking decidedly grumpy. Perhaps when the adrenaline has left his system, he’ll realize how lucky he was to walk away at all.
Of course, Mark Webber is no stranger to flying in a race car. His 1999 triple backflip in a Mercedes Le Mans car is the stuff of legend. That one had the added excitement of flying off into the trackside trees, but this one was still a very spectacular crash.
Naturally, this incident will generate a whole lot of excited chatter about whether the slower cars are good for the sport or not. In the wake of the Canadian Grand Prix, we had Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo attacking the slow teams for costing Fernando Alonso victory—that’s worth a whole other article—but the detractors will now have a whole new cornerstone for the argument.
There is no question that there is a gulf between the top teams and those at the back of the grid. There was a more than five-second gap between the fastest and slowest qualifiers at this race which, if Formula One terms, is an eternity.
Despite this, the gap would not be sufficient to exclude anyone under the 107% rule that will be returning to F1 in 2011.
That’s not to say that this incident can be ignored. When there is such a massive speed differential between cars, incidents are going to happen. Equally, however, it is the responsibility of the overtaking car to ensure that they get around the slower cars safely.
Was Kovalainen within his rights to defend his position—absolutely. Should he have done it, probably not. Certainly, Kovalainen couldn't have kept Webber at bay for the remaining 47 laps of the race. His team mate finished four laps down at the end of the race, the Lotus simply isn’t competitive.
Lotus Chief Technical Officer, Mike Gascoyne, defended his driver on Twitter from the pit wall, tenaciously arguing Kovalainen’s right not only to race Webber, but to defend his position. Some have cruelly pointed out that instead of Twittering, Gascoyne could perhaps better use his time on race day trying to make his cars go a bit faster.
They have a point, but it’s hard not to see this accident as being at least partially Webber’s fault. Dealing with backmarkers is like juggling chainsaws—when it goes wrong it can end very badly indeed. Setting aside the fact that the backmarkers are driving slower cars, they are also often the inexperienced drivers and are known for doing unpredictable things.
This was just another one of those incidents, more spectacular than most, but not really a surprise. Perhaps that's the really important lesson.