COUNTERPOINT: More or fewer penalties?

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on April 27, 2011 1:00 am
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on April 20th, 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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STEPH’S POINT:

After Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, this much is abundantly clear: for a whole lot of people, the way that rule infractions and penalties are currently being handled isn’t working.

In Paul’s post on More Front Wing earlier this week lambasting many aspects of the race, he advocated for more stringent rules and for more dire consequences to violating those rules, and he continues to do so here (see below).

But from where I sit, the problem needs to be resolved in the exact opposite way: there are too many unnecessary rules, and trying to police them all is leading to inconsistency and is distracting from enforcement of the infractions that matter.

For example, word out of Long Beach was that the drivers were told in their meeting on Sunday morning that turns 1 and 9 are the best passing zones, turns 6 and 8 are more risky, and turn 11 (the hairpin) is not to be considered a passing opportunity.  This kind of micromanagement makes sense at, say, the USF2000 level, where drivers are still learning the ropes.  But by the time a driver gets to the IZOD IndyCar Series, he or she had best be well aware of where the best passing zones are on each track and where an attempt will carry more risk.  A racer at the top level of the sport should also be able to spot an opportunity to pass and weigh the risks, probabilities, and potential consequences of any move in an instant.  Given that, the entire track should be considered a potential passing zone if the right opportunity presents itself, and the drivers should be trusted to make those judgments.  Let’s treat them like the professionals they are, not like children who need to be babysat.

Of course, allowing drivers to judge for themselves will occasionally result in error.  That’s where the human element of sport enters in.  But trying and failing is, in itself, absolutely not worthy of penalty.  The comments on Paul’s post that I mentioned above gave me an opportunity to illustrate this point perfectly.  We’ve all watched The Pass that Alex Zanardi made on Bryan Herta in the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca in 1996.  A great many observers see it as being one of the most jaw-dropping displays of driving in the modern era.  Consider this: if Alex had needed to factor into his decision-making that if the pass went wrong he could be penalized, would he have been so quick to attempt it?  Possibly not, and this fantastic piece of racing history may never have happened.  When we see drivers today who are content to settle into sixth in the late stages of a race and coast home instead of trying bold, thrilling moves to improve their positions, influences such as this can’t help but come to mind.

There is a place for issuing penalties for botched passes, of course, but it’s only when contact is made in bad blood.  If one driver plows straight into another with the intent of taking him out of the race due to temper or vendetta, that’s clearly unacceptable, and an avoidable contact penalty (and possibly other recourse) is perfectly justified in that case.  But penalizing a pass attempt simply because it failed, regardless of whether the incident took place in an “approved” passing zone, is highly detrimental to the quality of the on-track product.

Similarly, telling drivers that they can’t cross this or that imaginary line on the track is begging for trouble.  Why are we telling professional drivers where to put their cars?  A driver knows the fastest way around the track.  If he or she chooses to add a tenth of a second to a lap time to defend a position (defend is the key word here), the built-in penalty for doing so is that the other driver can close in a bit more and have a better chance of getting by soon after.  These days, it feels like every twitch of the steering wheel that puts the car a hair outside the standard racing line might potentially be penalized for blocking.  Here, the old-school way (and the system currently used in F1) feels better: changing your line once is defending; changing it again is blocking.  It allows for a degree of defensive driving and is far more measurable and easier to uphold than the current system.

And meanwhile, as Race Control attempts to keep tabs on the current, highly detailed rules, starts and restarts are allowed to fall apart.  Here is one area where things should be more stringent but are being let go while other rules are managed to the hilt.  Where restarts are concerned, if a driver can gain an advantage without consequence, he or she is going to do it without question.  This weekend in Long Beach, the drivers learned very quickly that not lining up double-file for restarts wasn’t going to keep the green flag from flying, so they didn’t bother.  This is one area where strict enforcement is the only thing that’s going to fix the problem.  But again, this can be simple: just make them do it over and over again until they get it right.  It’ll be embarrassing when a restart needs to be waved off six times, but if there’s simplicity and consistency in communicating what’s expected, it won’t take long for the drivers to shape up and fall in line.

So, on these points, the best course of action really is to just wipe the slate clean and simplify everything.

Passing: Do it wherever you like.  If you succeed: great.  If you don’t and you make contact: still no problem, as long as it’s clear that it wasn’t intentional.  Take someone out on purpose: that’s avoidable contact.  Black flag.

Blocking: Drive wherever you like.  Change your line once while being passed: that’s defending.  Change it again: that’s blocking.  Black flag.

Restarts: Line up in rows of two at a speed and starting distance decided on by the drivers as a collective.  Screw it up once: we’ll wave it off and make you come around again.  Screw it up again: we’ll wave it off and make you come around again.  We’ll keep doing this until you get it right, boys and girls.  And if any one driver is responsible for causing the restarts to be repeatedly waved off: that’s interfering with the flow of the race.  Black flag.

And the penalties that come with each of those black flags should be consistent and weighted appropriately for the infraction.  If what’s expected of the drivers is simple and clear, they’ll be able to do their jobs without being bogged down by uncertainty and inconsistency.

It’s been said that race car drivers will always find a way to dodge the rules for their own gain.  It logically follows that the fewer rules there are to dodge, the fewer tricks drivers need to pull to get around them.  By adopting an all-around simplified rule book and treating the drivers like the professionals they purport to be, the quality of the racing product can be improved dramatically.

In short, let’s drop the unnecessary policing and let them race.

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PAUL’S POINT:

I admit to feeling a bit awkward calling for more penalties.  But for all their talk, it doesn’t appear that today’s INDYCAR drivers are willing to actually settle a score, on track or off.  In the old days (did I really just use that term?!), if one driver knocked another out of the race, there was a good chance the offender was going to be knocked out after the race.  In today’s racing, the biggest threat a driver faces is hearing his name whined about in the media or facing a really “scary” tweet.  That’s hardly what one might consider a retaliation that really strikes fear.

Let’s make one thing crystal clear: I would never call for any driver to retaliate against another on a high-speed oval.  The stakes are just way too high when cars are on the ragged edge at over 200 mph.  It’s one thing for a driver to be punted in retaliation on a slow-speed street corner or even while braking to navigate at Milwaukee or New Hampshire, but it is completely unacceptable to take such vigilante action on the high-speed, wide-open ovals, no matter how egregiously a driver might think he or she has been wronged.

That said, I would really like to see a bit more self-policing going on in today’s IZOD IndyCar Series, but it seems nobody is willing to take on that role.  Given the costs associated with destroying these racecars, I do understand why drivers are apprehensive about sending each other into the wall, but without the fear of penalties, there is no hope for clean, entertaining driving.  If the drivers aren’t going to enforce respectful driving, it is then up to race officials to do it for them.

Race Control is now in a position where it must become more involved with the enforcement of rules and procedures during the race to ensure fairness and entertainment.  If INDYCAR is going to maintain that starts and restarts are exciting portions of the race that fans want to see executed properly, then Race Control needs to enforce the rules that way.  Quite simply, if the polesitter jumps the start and causes the race not to be started properly, to the back of the field he should go.  It isn’t that difficult to start a race in formation.  NASCAR does it.  USAC does it.  World of Outlaws does it.  It can be done — especially if INDYCAR really is comprised of the fastest, most versatile drivers in the world.

Unfortunately, the view of Race Control over the last several years has been that races aren’t won in the first turn and that the drivers need to be coddled until they can get themselves into a less dangerous, single-file formation.  Race Control has not only allowed ragged, unappealing formations to support this but has dictated that the polesitter has earned the right to be the leader.  That simply isn’t the way races should be started.  Race Control should be dictating that procedures be followed and that the cars be aligned properly with equal spacing between rows, not who should be the leader into the first turn.  If drivers continue to jump the start, then the field can just continue to run pace laps until they get it figured out, preferably with a new driver at the point each time.  Brian Barnhart has said that not throwing the green flag has almost caused some pretty big pile-ups and that is why he has started races when the second attempt at lining up looks as bad as or worse than the first.  But if the drivers would quit jumping the start, there wouldn’t be these near-calamities.

More important, though, is the issue of penalties for avoidable contact.  At each event so far this year, we’ve seen drivers try heroic passes in the first few turns after the green flag is displayed.  A couple of them, like Tony Kanaan’s at Barber, have been successful, but most have ended with multiple cars on the sidelines.  It comes down to drivers having a lack of awareness and respect for those around them.  The most offending driver this year has been Helio Castroneves, who in two separate incidents has essentially eliminated a total of 10 cars from competition without drawing a penalty for either.  Would Helio have made either of his very aggressive moves if he was confident that failure would have brought about a stiff penalty for him?  Sure, Race Control will rightly point out that in the situation at St. Pete Helio’s penalty was his many laps lost during repairs, but what about the damage inflicted on his competitors?  At Long Beach, Helio took teammate Will Power and Newman/Haas driver Oriol Servia out of competition for the win while Helio essentially drove away unscathed.  Shouldn’t there be repercussions for ruining those drivers’ races?

My theory is that in this type of situation, Helio should be assessed a penalty for each driver that his aggressive move impacts.  In this case, Helio should have gotten three drive-through penalties for causing damage to Will Power, Oriol Servia, and Scott Dixon.  Harsh?  Absolutely, but perhaps that it what’s needed to finally get these drivers to understand they must respect their fellow competitors!  There are certainly opportunities to pass that don’t require over-the-top aggressive moves.  The drivers are responsible for finding those opportunities.

Nobody likes penalties; not the fans, not the officials, and certainly not the competitors.  Sadly, until the drivers quit trying to skirt the rules, consistent and harsh use of penalties may be the only way to get them to start driving a bit more professionally.

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