COUNTERPOINT: Ryan Hunter-Reay’s penalty

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on April 19, 2011 2:19 pm
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on April 12th, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.

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PAUL’S POINT:

Though my twitter stream is filled with my #PetPeevesOfTheDay, few things in life really yank my chain more than knee-jerk reactions. As soon as our best-laid plans show the slightest hint of trouble, we tend to swing for the fences to make only minute corrections. I always relate it back to the example I used in a post several weeks ago on MoreFrontWing.com describing my dear and blessed wife trying to control the temperature in our car. When she is the slightest bit chilly, she turns the heater on full blast instead of making small adjustments and creeping towards a solution. When she is just a bit warm, the air condition is cranked down to a sub-arctic set point rather than inching towards where she wants the temperature to end up. Thankfully, it seems that INDYCAR is avoiding the all-American knee-jerk reaction and taking the more subtle tweak-as-necessary approach when it comes to driver behavior and double-file restarts.

Standing firm in the belief that double-file restarts were the way to increase the entertainment value of the races, INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard held his ground and decreed that double-file restarts were here to stay — at least for now. Instead of scrapping the new restart system all together, Bernard and INDYCAR race control turned the blame game 180 degrees and put the focus back on the drivers. Though the Series was open and accommodating to tweaking the restart procedures, the point was made clear during last weekend’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama that the onus was on the drivers to successfully figure out how to survive the restarts, not INDYCAR.

Prior to Sunday’s main event, a private, drivers-only meeting was held to discuss some of the conduct that was exhibited on-track at St. Pete. Though no media was present in the meeting, indications are that it became somewhat heated betweens rivals and that at least a few drivers were called out for their aggressive driving. Such would not be surprising as several drivers who made aggressive moves at St. Pete were labels as “idiots” and other non-complimentary terms by their fellow competitors. The buzz word between events was respectrespect for each other, respect for the cars, respect for the speeds, and respect for the show.

As the event at Barber drew nearer, drivers grew to accept that at the end of the day, the success of the double-file restarts, and by extension their own races, lies not with the sanctioning body and the rules but between the seat and the steering wheel.

With that scenario as the backdrop coming into this past weekend, I expected the drivers to be slightly more cautious and a bit more respectful of their competitors. For the most part, I think they behaved better (even though it seemed someone from the outside line got pushed off-track in turn one on every restart). The one truly stupid move of the race, though, drew the ire of INDYCAR Race Control. In my mind, the avoidable contact penalty on Ryan Hunter-Reay was completely justified and absolutely the right call.

If this single event had been looked at in a vacuum and completely independent of other events that took place over the preceding two weeks, I would probably feel a bit different about the penalty. Even though I would still feel that it was justified, I would have probably quickly forgiven race officials if the move had gone unpenalized as well. It was close enough in my mind that the call could have easily gone either way. However, it didn’t happen in a vacuum and must be looked at with respect to what has happened recently and what the IZOD IndyCar Series is trying to move toward.

In this situation, Ryan Hunter-Reay was penalized simply because he didn’t use his head. I could easily point out a dozen other occasions in the race where drivers didn’t use their heads, but what set this incident apart can be summed up in a single word: respect. Sure, Helio drove Meira off course on a restart. Sure, Graham made an overly aggressive move on JR Hildebrand in turn 5 that knocked the Panther Racing car out of the race. Those examples, though, were truly racing accidents and moves that wouldn’t have required gospel-level miracles to complete. Hunter-Reay’s move, on the other hand, never had the smallest chance of working.

In an accident that looked eerily similar to the Rafa Matos/Danica Patrick incident at St. Pete in 2009, Ryan Hunter-Reay attempted a pass on Ryan Briscoe in one of the narrowest corners on the track, a place where it is difficult for a driver to navigate through on his own, let alone two-wide. Hunter-Reay was clearly the faster car but used terrible judgment in an attempt to force the issue and complete a pass that was never going to work. If he had waited another half lap, he could have easily gotten past Briscoe and continued on his merry way.

Double-file restarts can and will work in the IICS. To be successful, though, drivers are going to have to understand that it is their responsibility to act as professional drivers, not only on restarts but throughout the race. Should they continue to drive like Saturday night wankers, race control will need to continue enforcement of rules that place unwavering responsibility on the drivers and penalizes those who unsuccessfully attempt overly aggressive and hopeless on-track maneuvers.

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STEPH’S POINT:

Let’s be clear. The following are points that are not being debated here: Ryan Hunter-Reay tried a very bold move on a part of the course that’s not an established passing zone; he stuck his nose in where he probably shouldn’t have; and it sucks that he ruined somebody else’s day while he got to continue on unscathed.

But hey, that’s racing. You win some and you lose some. RHR thought he had room to take a shot, and he was wrong. It happens.

What’s more wrong, though, is issuing a penalty for the move.

Drivers stick their noses in where they don’t belong all the time. That’s what they’re supposed to do. The more brave and less apologetic a move is, the more entertaining it is for the viewers. Why would anyone want to discourage that?

Plus, there has been zero consistency in the issuance of penalties by Race Control over the last several years, and this is a hallmark example. Inconsistency can be found in this very race. Viso wasn’t penalized in any way for ending Hinch’s day with his boneheaded reaction to being spun. Helio wasn’t penalized for staying well inside the racing line and squeezing down on Sato to make him careen off course and lose multiple positions. Why was RHR the only one to take the fall?

Now, it’s possible that the drivers have been told this year in drivers’ meetings that there will be more cracking down on avoidable contact and that the definition of such has been provided to them. That doesn’t make those penalties right, but it does make them more justified. If that’s the case, though, the general public hasn’t heard about it and the drivers haven’t mentioned it. Based on some of the comments from drivers this past weekend, they’re as frustrated with the inconsistency of calls as the sport’s observers are.

Besides, if every instance of avoidable contact by this definition was penalized consistently, the cars would spend more time doing stop-and-gos and falling back during yellows than they would spend doing any actual racing.

But to penalize an attempted pass made under race conditions simply because it failed is to penalize good, hard racing. If taking a gutsy dive into a corner means that a driver runs the risk of taking a penalty, that driver will think twice about making the move and many potentially great moments of racing will be lost.

In that case, we might as well just tell all 26 racers to strap in for a leisurely Sunday drive. And that’s hardly what this sport is about, is it?

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