Inconsistency in Race Control: the plot thickens

IndyCar commentary — By on April 20, 2011 12:15 pm
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Thanks to some skillful interviewing by SPEED’s Marshall Pruett, we now have a better idea of what goes on in Race Control during an event.

Unfortunately, the revelations offered by Al Unser, Jr.’s comments have only served to worsen the predicament.

If anything, Little Al’s responses have bolstered the commonly held opinion that Race Control’s decision-making process is biased and unfair. Take, for example, this quote from Little Al on how the two incidents in the hairpin were differentiated:

“For Tracy, it was from attempting a pass—I forget who he was trying to pass at the time—but he was trying to pass that car and went and overshot and hit Simona. So, Paul Tracy was attempting a pass in a very high-risk corner, OK. So, Helio was behind somebody—Justin Wilson—and it was unclear, or….it was on the fence. He could claim that Justin put the brakes on, and so on, but he hit Justin square in the back. He was not attempting to pass somebody.”

And yet, later in the same article, Scott Dixon give his perspective on the incident between Helio and Justin:

“I was one car back from it. It was totally blatant. OK, Justin was struggling a little bit for rear grip, and it was coming towards the end of the stint, but it still doesn’t make it OK for the following person to say, ‘You’re slowing me down—you’re kind of ruining my race—so I’m going to spin you out so I don’t have to deal with you anymore.’”

If Scott’s take on what happened is fact — and the credentials he holds as a veteran and champion and his impartial view of the situation certainly lend credibility to his stance — then Helio’s punt against Justin was done with intent and PT’s hit against Simona was an honest attempt at a pass. The latter is nothing more than hard racing; the former is unsportsmanlike conduct at best. Which is the more egregious fault? If racing is still a competitive sport, then the answer is clear.

Here’s another revealing quote from Al, Jr. on the decision not to penalize Helio for causing the melee in turn 1:

“All I can say is that we’re watching him extremely close now. He took out his own teammate; he made some poor choices, so we figured [since] it had to do with his teammate, maybe Roger would have more influence on Helio in the races to come. More so than we would have with [giving him] a drive-through penalty.”

Is there any appropriate response to this other than complete shock and dismay? It’s not Roger Penske’s job to penalize Helio for his behavior, nor is it the job of Helio’s competitors. That responsibility falls squarely onto Race Control — that’s what they’re supposed to be there for. And if Race Control does nothing, then Helio has no reason to believe that he’s done anything wrong in their eyes, and neither do any of the other drivers.

Further to that point: here, Little Al talks about how a driver’s past factors into Race Control’s decisions:

“Yeah, [a driver's history] does matter. Let’s use Helio as an example. He’s a great race car driver. He’s a champion. He’s one of the most popular drivers on the circuit. OK, we’ve got those check marks: St. Pete, this happened. Birmingham, this happened. Long Beach, this happened. And so, when you have a driver that has made poor choices for three races in a row, and if he goes down and makes a mistake in Brazil, for example, he most likely will be put on probation.”

There are three massive problems with this statement.

First: Helio’s popularity shouldn’t enter into a discussion of race procedures, period. If that doesn’t indicate bias, then nothing does.

Second: in a fair and just trial process, no previous infraction should factor into the analysis of a current problem. There’s a rule book for a reason. If a rule from that rule book has been broken, a penalty must be issued in every instance or that rule loses all credibility. And if a rule has a grey area that requires subjectivity in its application, then the rule either needs to be rewritten or it shouldn’t be a rule at all.

One would hope that a trip to the rule book would provide some clarification on this issue:

“9.3.C. Avoidable Contact — A Competitor must not initiate avoidable contact that results in the interruption of another Competitor’s lap time or Track position.”

That’s the entire section. What defines avoidable contact? What defines interruption? This rule couldn’t possibly be more vague — in fact, it’s difficult to see how it’s enforceable as a rule at all. (To be fair, this quote is from the 2010 rule book. But if the text was changed for 2011, someone should probably have let the sport’s analysts in on it.)

Third: Al, Jr. stated that Helio is now being watched and may be put on probation if the problems continue. In the case of putting a driver on probation for repeated offenses, the past obviously should factor in — probation is meant to be an escalation of the severity of punishment. But how can Helio be put on probation for repeated incidents that Race Control hasn’t acknowledged as being problematic in the first place? As far as the official records show, Helio has done nothing wrong. We all know differently, but if Helio were to appeal probationary status, he’d most certainly have a case.

In short, the continued lack of consistency from Race Control gets more appalling by the day. If INDYCAR wants to have an ounce of credibility to put behind its claim of having the fastest, most versatile drivers in the world, it needs to put a halt to the mockery that’s being made of its race procedures for the world to see and solve this problem — not for Brazil, and not even for next week — right away.

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Kudos to Al Unser, Jr. for discussing this matter and thereby allowing discussion, and many thanks to Marshall Pruett for supporting More Front Wing in extensively quoting his article.

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