2018 Italian Grand Prix - Verstappen-Bottas Clash

Let The Boys Race: Verstappen’s Monza Penalty a Win for Bureaucrats, Loss for Motorsport

Since his Formula One debut at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has produced thrilling drives, amusing team-radio sound bites, and plenty of controversy. That Verstappen delivered in all three of these areas at this past weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, a power-hungry venue that put all Renault-engined competitors on the back foot, should come as no surprise. After jumping Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap, Verstappen kept the Finnish driver at bay with some characteristically tough defending and excellent corner exit speed. After the pair completed their first and only round of pit stops, Bottas was quickly back on the Red Bull’s gearbox. On lap 43, the two came together into Turn 1. Having initially defended the inside line, Verstappen faded back toward the outside under braking, squeezing Bottas’ Mercedes in the process. Wheels touched and Bottas was forced to use the escape road. Obviously, the two drivers had conflicting views of the situation, with Verstappen maintaining, both in the car and after the chequered flag, that he gave his rival space.

Before we dissect the incident and its aftermath, let’s examine the relevant regulations. Article 27.6 of the FIA’s Formula One Sporting Regulations states the following: “More than one change of direction to defend a position is not permitted. Any driver moving back towards the racing line, having earlier defended his position off-line, should leave at least one car width between his own car and the edge of the track on the approach to the corner.” And how are track limits defined? Article 27.4 of the regulations states, in part, “any white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.” For argument’s sake, we will consider the painted green strip (pictured below between the grass and the white line) to be a kerb and, therefore, not within track limits by the FIA’s standards.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen (left) and Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas (right) clash at the 2018 Italian Grand Prix
Image by Sam Bloxham/LAT

So, did Verstappen leave enough room? To answer this question, we’ll have to refer to this article’s title and adopt contrasting perspectives. The bureaucrat will say that Verstappen left less than a car’s width of room. If we observe the FIA’s regulations as literally as possible, this is true (however marginally). Examining the overlap between the pair’s rear tires, we can see that Bottas needed another few centimeters of space to keep his car both within the FIA-defined track limits and out of contact with the Red Bull. In the eyes of Bottas and the stewards, done and dusted – five second penalty added to Verstappen’s race time.

However, not unlike Max Verstappen, I maintain that a better, more dogged racer (Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo, etc.) would have made this move stick given the same equipment Bottas had at his disposal. The green painted strip on the outside entry of the corner is just begging to be used. Does the surface offer exactly the same grip as the tarmac? Probably not. Does the surface offer sufficient grip for continued braking and eventual corner turn-in? Given that it is constructed from the same material found on the outside of the Parabolica – an area that drivers were all too eager to use throughout the weekend – I would bet it does. “But he shouldn’t HAVE to go out there! It’s in the rules!” you scream while perusing the Internal Revenue Code for fun. Fine, whatever – I won’t fight anyone on the letter of the law here. White lines define official track limits and Verstappen squeezed Bottas a few centimeters too far. Penalty assessed. Bureaucrats win.

However, I truly don’t believe the right decision was made here. Max Verstappen put up a titanic fight to keep a talented driver in a superior package behind him for most of the race. This is exciting to watch, which is good for the fans, drivers, teams, sponsors, and F1 as a whole. The outcome of this battle was decided off track by men reading a rulebook. While occasionally necessary, this is unexciting and generally bad news for most of the aforementioned parties. Has Verstappen stretched things too far in the past? Yes. Was the penalty given, at least partially, based on this history? Perhaps. Is he still incredibly talented and electric to watch? Absolutely. Rather than steering straight into a driver who was marginally infringing on an Article in a 75-page set of regulations, Bottas should have taken a lesson from Ricciardo’s book, put his left wheels on the green, and sent it around the outside with the confidence that comes from piloting a faster machine. It’s certainly not the first time in 2018 that we’ve seen him hesitant to complete a pass that should have been fairly easy going.

Rules are necessary to ensure fair and safe racing. When a driver chooses to make contact with an opponent rather than using available kerb space, however, and receives a penalty to his benefit, it is not hyperbole to say that such decisions, as Verstappen relayed to his team, are “killing racing.”