Sebastian Vettel secured his fourth consecutive World Drivers’ Championship last weekend in India, winning the race in commanding fashion and underlining just how dominant he is at this stage of his career. After the race, he celebrated by doing doughnuts on the start-finish straight. His celebrations earned him a reprimand from the stewards, who also fined his Red Bull team for the incident.
The rules of Formula One are clear – each driver must proceed directly to parc fermé after the race in order for the cars to be scrutineered in the condition that they were in when they finished the race. The purpose of that rule is simple – these cars run on the limits of weight restrictions and various other regulations and the rules are designed to stop the teams from, among other things, finding ways to add weight to the cars post-race.
And here’s why Vettel’s reprimand is ridiculous: his doughnuts after the race could not possibly have helped him in scrutineering. Spinning up the rear tyres as required for doughnuts heats them up and wears them down, which reduces the overall weight of the car. Additionally, revving the engine as required to do doughnuts burns fuel, which again reduces the weight of the car.
In Formula One, each car is required to provide a fuel sample after the race, and consequently each car must have a certain amount of fuel remaining when it reaches scrutineering. Vettel’s doughnuts, which would have reduced the amount of fuel he had in the car, could only have taken him closer to risking not having enough fuel for the required sample.
In short, by celebrating his fourth World Championship in the manner he chose, Vettel could not possibly have gained any advantage in post-race scrutineering. The problem then is not what Vettel did, but the rules themselves. They are intended to prevent post-race cheating, but they ended up punishing an action that was clearly not going to give Vettel or Red Bull any advantage.
Apart from the technical side of the rules and the offence, the reprimand showed the disregard that Formula One rule-makers have for the fans of the sport. Vettel’s post-race celebrations were very well received by an enthusiastic crowd in India. Formula One has been trying to build up a following in India, and what Vettel did can only have helped that cause. He engaged with the fans by sharing his moment of glory with them before he shared it with anyone else.
The FIA should be recognising the positive work Vettel has done in bringing F1 closer to the fans in India, rather than punishing him for breaking a rule in a manner that could not have given him an advantage anyway.
Just a few races ago, Fernando Alonso was very much the favourite to take the 2012 World Championship. Now, after four consecutive race victories, Sebastian Vettel has taken over the position of championship leader, and is beginning to assert himself with the assurance that was so evident in his 2011 campaign.
Vettel is now 13 points ahead of Alonso in the standings with three races to go. With 25 points for a win and a seven point difference between first and second places, Vettel will be World Champion for the third year running if he wins the next two races, even if Alonso finishes second on both occasions.
For Alonso to take the title, he has to beat Vettel on the track. Barring reliability issues for the Red Bull driver, that is not looking particularly likely. In yesterday’s Indian Grand Prix, Vettel was untouchable, winning comfortably by just under 10 seconds from his title rival. Alonso did manage to finish ahead of Mark Webber in the second Red Bull, but that was largely due to a KERS problem on Webber’s car in the second half of the race.
Webber is now realistically out of the running for the championship. He is 73 points behind his team-mate with only 75 points still available in the season, which effectively ends his challenge. That should mean, in the absence of problematic intra-team politics at Red Bull, that Webber will assist Vettel to the title if required. The recent dominance of the Red Bull RB8 added to the support of a quick and tenacious team-mate makes Vettel a fairly safe bet to become the youngest triple World Champion in history and only the third driver ever to win three consecutive titles.
On the other end of the grid, the most successful driver in history may be wishing he had stayed in bed yesterday. Michael Schumacher suffered a puncture in the first corner when he was hit from behind by the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, and that resulted in him being so far behind that he was lapped in the opening stages of the race. With no chance of points, the team retired the car in the closing laps of the race for “technical reasons”, although there was no indication of what those might be.
Schumacher’s three-year return to Formula One is fizzling out as he gets closer to retirement. He is now last of the Mercedes-powered drivers in the championship, even behind the Force India pair of Hulkenberg and Di Resta. While Schumacher’s lack of points is arguably largely due to reliability problems on the car in the early part of the season, it will not be satisfying to the seven-time World Champion to be bowing out on such a low note.
Racing resumes in a few days’ time in Abu Dhabi, scene of Vettel’s first Championship victory. Vettel will be the favourite for victory once again, although Ferrari and Alonso will be working round the clock to close the gap. Vettel cannot clinch the title this weekend, but Red Bull are likely to claim yet another Constructors’ Championship. Ferrari must score six more points than Red Bull in Abu Dhabi just to keep the Constructors’ Championship alive. Based on recent form, it seems more likely that Red Bull will be celebrating on Sunday night.