A disastrous non-penalty

I have taken a little time before writing about the FIA decision not to punish Sebastian Vettel for his actions against Lewis Hamilton in Baku – because I wanted to make sure that I tried to keep my emotions out of it.

Why? Because I am appalled, even if I am not surprised.

Firstly, I believe that there is a key role for the FIA to play and believe that we should respect the federation’s decisions –  as long as they are sensible. Most of the stewards’ decisions these days are pretty decent and the FIA is not interferring in the sport in the way that it used to do. This is a good thing that Jean Todt has done. However, when intervention is required, one expects the federation to act decisively with appropriate force. If this does not happen, the FIA opens itself up to trouble in the future.

It is disappointing to have to report that this appears to be what has happened. FIA President Jean Todt has spent recent years banging the drum about his road safety campaigns and yet he has allowed what was the equivalent of an automotive head-butt to go unpunished, and this is simply incomprehensible. Where is the consistency?

This is the second time in less than a year that Vettel has escaped penalty for appalling non-sporting behaviour. Given Todt’s past with Ferrari, it is inevitable that questions are going to be asked about this, because if the FIA is this weak with Ferrari, it can only be  similarly weak if there are problems with other teams. If it acts more forcefully against other teams there will be loud accusations that the FIA is once again favouring Ferrari – something which we had all hoped would not be heard again in the sport.

Vettel and Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene went to the FIA in Paris today and reviewed the incident with a panel comprised of FIA Deputy President for Sport Graham Stoker, FIA General Secretary for Sport Peter Bayer, FIA Formula One World Championship Race Director Charlie Whiting and FIA Formula One World Championship Deputy Race Director and FIA Safety Director Laurent Mekies.

The FIA says in its statement that it is “deeply concerned by the wider implications of the incident, firstly through the impact such behaviour may have on fans and young competitors worldwide and secondly due to the damage such behaviour may cause to the FIA’s image and reputation of the sport”.

But it is not deeply concerned enough to do anything about it…

Vettel admitted responsibility for everything that happened (apologists please take note) and he extended his apologies and committed to devote personal time over the next 12 months to educational activities across a variety of FIA championships, to be defined at an FIA Stewards’ seminar. President Jean Todt instructed that Vettel should not endorse any road safety activities this year – which is sensible because his presence would undermine any such campaign.

Todt said that given “the severity of the offence and its potential negative consequences”, should there be any repetition of such behaviour, the matter would immediately be referred to the FIA International Tribunal for further investigation.

When all is said and done, the only conclusion one can reach is that this is an incredibly weak ruling – and a terrible precedent.  If the reference about repetition applies to drivers other than Vettel (it is not clear from the wording), then it is clearly an unfair ruling. Why would Vettel be allowed to get away with something outrageous while other drivers are not allowed to? If the repetition reference applies only to Vettel, then any other driver who commits any such offence will be able to argue that there is a precedent for there to be no punishment – beyond some nebulous comunity service.

There may even be legal implications beyond the sport because punishing any future driver when Vettel was not punished in this case would not be fair and that brings into question whether this is good governance. In the Statement of Good Governance Principles, issued by the FIA in 2000, the federation commited itself to ensuring that procedures should be “fair, transparent, accessible and efficient”. In order to be fair to other drivers, the FIA cannot now punish them harshly – because of what it has done with Vettel. And if it does take action, it could open itself to civil action, and perhaps even claims that the federation has not properly upheld its role in the sport.

And all of this is happening in an election year. Todt may recall that a long time ago Max Mosley decided to stand for office because of what he saw his predecessor Jean-Marie Balestre doing. Excessive strength and excessive weakness are as bad as one another.

The FIA is ruled by club-style politics. No-one says anything bad to the face of the incumbent, but they all bitch about him behind his back. At a certain moment a tipping point is reached and the opponents feel that they have sufficient support to stage a coup d’état – and then rapidly all the president’s allies switch sides.