COUNTERPOINT: Should the blocking rule be retained?

Counterpoint, IndyCar commentary — By on September 12, 2011 6:20 pm
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This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on August 31st, 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 the checkers flew to conclude Sunday’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Giorgio Pantano parked his car on pit lane feeling very satisfied after bringing home a 6th-place finish in his first outing in the IZOD IndyCar Series in six years.

A few minutes later, he learned — during a post-race interview with Versus, no less — that he would be scored not in 6th but in 17th after defending his position against Sébastien Bourdais in a way that’s contrary to IZOD IndyCar Series rules.

Pantano was confused. Viewers sounded off against the rule again. The people at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing still refuse to acknowledge the adjusted finishing position.

Was the call correct? Based on the letter of the rule and the precedents (think back to Helio’s outburst at Edmonton last year), it definitely was.

Should the universal bewilderment this rule causes among the sport’s participants and observers alike be allowed to continue? Absolutely not.

Many people assume that this rule is in place to create passing opportunities for the current spec cars — with the field being so highly competitive, forcing drivers to keep the inside line open is sometimes the only way to create overtaking. So, with the changes coming to the equipment in 2012, the rule shouldn’t be needed any longer, right

Not so fast. In an interview with More Front Wing, Tony Cotman told us that the rule is actually in place as a safety measure and that the current intention is to keep it for 2012. When drivers are allowed to pass willy-nilly, wheels can touch and disaster can result.

Making changes to the sport in the name of safety is extremely important. The rates of driver mortality and injury have gone down markedly in the last 50 years. Innovations like the HANS Device, the SAFER Barrier, and even something as simple as building the cars out of carbon fiber have all made significant contributions to safety in the world of motorsport.

But telling drivers how to do their jobs — or rather, not to do their jobs at all, since the ability to execute a pass with daring and precision is meant to be a primary driver skill set — takes the concept of safety too far. It sucks away the entire essence of what makes motorsport great. It removes the drivers’ right to take a risk, hang it out, and display their immense talents for the fans. No other form of motorsport on Earth uses a similar rule, open-wheel or otherwise, and that’s for very good reason: when you don’t allow drivers to pass in any way they see fit, you’re not allowing them to be race car drivers anymore.

There’s a line that should be drawn, of course. Swerving sharply to keep another driver behind you is unnecessarily dangerous, and officials have a responsibility to police that. But the rule that’s good enough for every other racing series in the world — you can change your line once to defend, but changing it again is a block and will draw a penalty — should be good enough for INDYCAR, too.

Besides, if wheel contact is what we’re really worried about, won’t the covers over the rear wheels on the 2012 safety cell take care of that problem for us? When the wheels are designed such that they can’t possibly touch in the first place, a rule that’s intended to prevent the same becomes redundant.

With the launch of the new safety cell, the return of engine manufacturer competition, an influx of sponsor support, and more, INDYCAR is already going into 2012 with a massive opportunity to wipe the slate clean of many of its ills and make a fresh start. Doing away with one of the most questioned and reviled rules in its rule book would be another huge leap in the right direction toward bring INDYCAR’s fullest potential to fruition.

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PAUL’S POINT:

Few rules in the current INDYCAR rule book have stirred as much controversy as the blocking rule that came to light last year when Helio Castroneves was denied victory at Edmonton.  The rule has been universally criticized by drivers, fans, and media as overreaching and against the spirit of racing, and it’s widely considered one of the rules that must be done away with in 2012.  I’m not quite ready to make such a charge, though.

One of the main arguments for wiping the rule from the books is that it is a function of spec racing and the inherent lack of difference in the speeds of the cars.  With competition returning to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, many feel it is no longer needed.  The problem is that there is no way of knowing at this stage whether there actually will be a significant variance in speeds next year.  With a single chassis, single aero kit, and a single tire manufacturer, the only difference will be in the engine compartment.  In the absence of a single shred of evidence to indicate significant performance variability between the incoming Hondas, Chevrolets, and Lotuses, to say that ease of passing is a foregone conclusion is a bit farfetched at this time.

I’ve also heard people lament that this rule is isolated to the IZOD IndyCar Series and would never be accepted elsewhere in the world.  That may be true, but that doesn’t mean INDYCAR is the only sanctioning body with rules specifically designed to encourage more exciting racing.  The most obvious example in North American racing is NASCAR’s lack of rules regarding on-course etiquette.  Essentially, NASCAR has said that if your car isn’t good enough to make a clean pass, simply knocking your competitor out of the way is an acceptable way to proceed.  After the festival of carbon fiber (credit to pressdog) at Toronto this year, INDYCAR fans very clearly voiced their displeasure over having a similar system allowed in the IICS.

Likewise, in Formula 1 where competition is king, their new Drag Reduction System (DRS, more commonly referred to as the adjustable rear wing) is more gimmick than anything and causes a bigger disadvantage to a leading car than INDYCAR’s blocking rule.  In the F1 races I’ve seen this year, the advantage of the trailing car appears to be about 10-15 mph, and while the leading car is not forced to yield the inside line, the speed differential is so great that the leading car, which cannot use the DRS, has almost zero chance of holding his position, even if the trailing car is forced to use the outside lane.  Not only does this leave the leading car almost no hope of maintaining position, the rule itself and the availability of the system is riddled with confusing conditions of when and where it can be used on the track.  Essentially, the same goal is accomplished in F1 as is INDYCAR — the trailing car gets a free pass on the leading car.  INDYCAR gives the advantage by allowing the passing driver to use the inside line (though it is usually less-preferred and generally accepted to be slower).  F1 gives the passing driver the equivalent of about 100 extra horsepower.  It’s six of one, half dozen of another.

Finally, my personal opinion is that more than a few people are using the rule as simply another excuse to crucify Brian Barnhart when the evidence suggests that it isn’t his rule at all. A couple of years ago, I was playing in a golf tournament at the Brickyard Crossing with a car owner who had operated under both Brian Barnhart and Tony Cotman.  When I asked him about the difference in the Race Control styles of the two, this owner explained that the biggest one was in their definitions of blocking.  Barnhart was known to have a more traditional definition: a leading car was able to make one move to the left or right to defend his position, and anything more was considered blocking.  Conversely, Cotman considered any deviation from the accepted racing line in an attempt to impede the progress of a following driver to be blocking.  It seems that the controversial rule fits Cotman’s reputation to a T, but most people continue to lay the fault for this rule at the feet of Barnhart.  In the end, it was Barnhart’s decision to fold the rule into the INDYCAR rule book, and it’s his decision to retain it and enforce it. But it doesn’t appear that he was the genesis of it, so to use it as part of the Barnhart witch hunt is to refuse to give it objective consideration.

Regardless of whether INDYCAR develops a mechanical system that encourages passing on the road and street courses or simply continues to use the current blocking rule, everyone can no doubt agree that we’d like to see more passing.  While discussion on how to implement a somewhat more fair rule is warranted, I’m nowhere near ready to throw out the rule altogether — at least, not yet.  At the end of a full year of racing with the 2012 INDYCAR and with time to evaluate its performance characteristics, next year’s off-season would be a more appropriate time to discuss whether to retain this rule going forward.

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