Why Leclerc and Stroll should have been punished after FP3

Lucky ? A little. The fact that Charles Leclerc and Lance Stroll finished FP3 in Barcelona without receiving more than a reprimand for what can generously be described as “avoidable contact” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

The end of the last free practice session at the Barcelona-Catalunya circuit took place in a tense atmosphere, with several drivers fighting excessively for a position on the track which did not make much sense. In fact, the session was almost over, but the circuit started to resemble rush hour in the city center of your choice, for no apparent reason.

It all started when Stroll and Lewis Hamilton collided at turn 5; Stroll appeared to have been hampered by Hamilton a few corners earlier and reported that the Mercedes driver “thought he was alone on the track”. Hamilton therefore took the outside of the tight left turn to let Stroll pass, but the Canadian then followed him wide and made contact with him, damaging his own floor.

Moments later, a few meters away, Leclerc cut in front of Lando Norris at the exit of turn 5. The Monegasque was also frustrated by Norris, who then moved towards the inside of the track to let him take the lead. outside in preparation for turn 6. But Leclerc seemed to drift to the left, which caused more than one contact between the two drivers.

Lewis Hamilton ahead of Sebastian Vettel during the 2017 Azerbaijan GP.

Photo by: Sutton Images

It appears that both maneuvers were born out of frustration. They taste rather similar to Sebastian Vettel’s intentional wheelie on Lewis Hamilton during the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, with the German furious at the idea that Hamilton might have break-tested him under Safety Car. This earned Vettel, at the time, a 10-second stop-and-go penalty and three penalty points on his license, so there was clearly a benchmark for similar incidents.

Instead, Leclerc and Stroll were reprimanded. The message sent by the stewards is therefore this: drivers are perfectly allowed to hit someone intentionally and only receive a slap on the wrist, as long as they do not do so “dangerously”.

The commissioners’ decisions read as follows, beginning with Stroll’s contact with Hamilton: “The driver of car 18 said he was hampered by car 44 in turn 5 and that upset him. He admitted to having wanted to express his displeasure to the other driver by coming up to him at the exit of the corner. The two cars came into slight contact, accidentally. However, the stewards consider that the maneuver of car 18, although not dangerous, is erratic and therefore impose a reprimand on the driver, in accordance with precedents.

This doesn’t hold water. Stroll admitted to pushing Hamilton to send a message, which resulted in the contact. Dangerous or not, it nevertheless appears to be an attempt to use a car as a weapon, simply to relieve frustration. This is a decision made based on consequences, rather than cause. No one was hurt, so “all is well.”

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin F1 Team

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Regardless, it’s a little more like 50/50 than the Leclerc/Norris incident; Stroll could have simply defended himself by saying that he had been caught by the slope or that he had steered more than he had planned, because these are entirely possible situations in this corner. It is very good that he admits his intention, but his statement should be subject to a more severe sanction.

The commissioners’ decision regarding Leclerc’s hit on Norris is even more egregious and might even provoke a few nervous laughs of disbelief at what South Park fans might call the “Chewbacca defense”: “The driver of car 16 said he was interfered with by car 4 in turn 5 and that upset him. He then had to abort his flying lap and claimed that while trying to exit the racing line before turn 7, he misjudged his car’s position and made slight contact with car 4.”

“Regardless of any intention, the stewards consider that the movement made by car 16, without being dangerous, is erratic and therefore impose a driving reprimand in accordance with previous ones.”

Leclerc was driving more or less at full speed while Norris had pulled over inside. The Monegasque then looked in his mirrors as he changed direction and moved away. At best you could say he thought he had passed Norris and was in too much of a hurry to veer left, but that’s giving way too much credence to the situation.

Perhaps Hanlon’s Razor applies here: “Never attribute to malice what stupidity is enough to explain”but the fact of knowing that Norris was there and choosing this precise moment to abandon a trick which was already doomed is at least a touch of cynicism.

Leclerc at least stuck to his version of the facts, declaring that it was a “disagreement” and that he did not intend to cause contact. “The version is very simple. Lando came out of the pitlane and I was behind on an attack lap”he explained. “Then when it slowed down, I had an abortion too [ma tentative]I braked to be next to him and I made a misjudgment, which meant I ended up on the right.”

“I didn’t want to get in the way of the cars behind and so I was kind of in the middle getting frustrated and looking in the mirrors trying not to get in the way and then we collided but it was more of a disagreement than anything thing. You’re always frustrated when it happens to you but you never want contact, because obviously in FP3, damaging the car is the last thing you want.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images

Sanctions have two roles: that of punishing and that of deterring. And since there hasn’t really been a sanction, drivers can now indulge their less laudable inclinations and force contact between them, provided that it happens in practice, that they have been blocked before and that contact occurs at low speed.

Formula 1 is not the place to play with deliberate contact. This is not an environment where “rubbing is part of the race”. Exchanging paint between passenger cars presents much less risk in the context of a body without attachment points and covered wheels.

If the wheels touch in F1, it’s likely that someone will do a little gliding and then come to an even more abrupt stop. Avoidable contact is one thing and carries its own risk; intentionally creating this risk seems to go against all the increasing safety measures present in modern motorsport.

And these are just free trials. This isn’t a pass for the lead or a last-ditch effort to save the last point at stake – this is a few cars taking part in a luxury test session. It’s simply unnecessary.

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