Race Control finally gets it right

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on September 21, 2011 6:12 pm

Another race down, and another set of controversy surrounding Brian Barnhart and INDYCAR Race Control is left behind. Last weekend’s event on the road course at Twin Ring Motegi had not even run to completion before Twitter and TrackForum were lit up with complaints about perceived inconsistencies and favoritism running rampant.

There’s just one problem: Race Control got it completely right this time.

There were three separate incidents that were the most responsible for ruffling the feathers of the INDYCAR Nation. In sequence, they were: Dario Franchitti’s mishap on the restart on lap 26 that resulted in several cars having their days ruined and Franchitti receiving a penalty for avoidable contact; an incident between Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Hunter-Reay toward the end of the race that found RHR in the turn 3 runoff area as Bourdais continued without penalty; and the post-race penalty handed down to Helio Castroneves, who was deemed to have improved his position under a local yellow and which resulted in him being scored as the final car on the lead lap.

To look at these cases objectively, one needs to consider two angles at once. The first thing to examine is which rules were violated and the consequences that are spelled out for breach of those rules. The second is to look at how the enforcement of said rules and consequences is handled. While it is essential to examine both angles from the standpoint of completeness, it is also imperative that we examine each individually to address any charges of bias or inconsistency.

Let’s start with the Dario Franchitti incident. It was obvious that the call for avoidable contact was correct — Dario himself admitted as much after the race. During the ensuing caution period, Franchitti pitted for a new front wing, a fresh set of tires, and fuel.  He restarted the race at the tail end of the field. The issues arose when Race Control did not mandate a drive-through penalty for Franchitti after the restart of the race. Inconsistency was immediately the claim from the armchair/keyboard race stewards.  But was the call truly inconsistent?

From the standpoint of the penalty fitting the crime, I completely agree with those saying that restarting the race at the rear of the field is not enough of a penalty.  Would I liked to have seen Dario serve a drive-through penalty under green flag conditions? Absolutely, but that is neither the rule as it is currently written nor how Race Control has handled this situation all year long. Time and time again, Race Control has been lambasted for not giving drivers a drive-through penalty when they restart at the rear of the field. It started early in the year with Helio Castroneves at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, it continued with Ryan Hunter-Reay at Barber, it happened more times than I could count at Toronto and Edmonton, and it was again carried out with Franchitti in Japan. But the rule all year long has been that the offending driver restarts at the rear of the field under yellow or does a drive-through under green. This explains why Ryan Briscoe was assessed a drive-through penalty at Baltimore when he was charged with avoidable contact against Ryan Hunter-Reay: because Briscoe did not have to pit during the yellow and was therefore not at the back of the pack, he was ordered to serve a drive-through penalty once the race went back to green.

Throughout the year, Race Control has handled these situations consistently. Unfortunately, the majority of race fans and the television broadcast crews are unable to separate the rule from its enforcement. To have given Franchitti a drive-through after he already restarted the race at the rear of the field would have been the inconsistency, not the perceived lack of punishment some observed and decried.

(The one inconsistency that I’ve yet to figure out was the drive-through that was assessed to Alex Tagliani for avoidable contact at Edmonton after he had to pit for repairs. Perhaps this can just be attributed to hyper-vigilance on the part of Race Control immediately following the debacle at Toronto and the universal call for more penalties for bone-headed driving.)

Of course, once fans felt that Franchitti was essentially given a free pass for his avoidable contact, the hackles were raised for the rest of the race. So, when the contact between Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais left RHR in the kitty litter, it really didn’t matter what decision Race Control made because it was going to be wrong in the eyes of the fanbase.  What I saw on the initial replay and have seen described (sadly, replays are now frustratingly unavailable), Hunter-Reay had a slight bobble coming out of turn 2 that allowed Bourdais to get alongside him on the straightaway and going into turn 3. Approaching turn 3, Bourdais was almost completely alongside Hunter-Reay, though Ryan drove it in a bit deeper and was a bit ahead when contact was made. Nonetheless, Bourdais had been all the way alongside Hunter-Reay and did not initiate contact with his right front tire to Hunter-Reay’s left rear.

Thoughout the year, Race Control has been consistent that avoidable contact penalties are not given for instances where a) a passing driver gets all the way alongside another driver as opposed to initiating corner-to-corner contact; and b) a mistake by the leading driver allows the trailing driver to get a good run and a solid passing opportunity on the car ahead.  This, in the eyes of Race Control (and myself, for whatever that might be worth), is truly the definition of a racing incident as two cars were simply trying to go for the same spot and neither driver was attempting a hopeless, banzai move on the other. One or both drivers could possibly have given a bit more room to avoid the incident, but it certainly wasn’t a completely absent-minded move — like, say, Dario Franchitti’s move earlier in the race.

And then we come to Helio Castroneves’s penalty on the final lap of the race. On the lap prior, Vitor Meira ended up in the sand trap outside of turn 3, bringing out a local yellow so that safety workers could retrieve the car. As Castroneves exited turn 2 and headed for turn 3, video replays clearly show him making a pass on JR Hildebrand on entry into turn 3. As a result, Race Control penalized Castroneves by scoring him in the last spot on the lead lap, dropping him from 7th to 22nd in the final standings. In the ensuing hours, Castroneves fired off a vicious rant on Brian Barnhart via Twitter, calling the penalty absurd and amateurish, charging him with inconsistency in his race officiating, and — perhaps most offensively — changing the rule book to fit his own personal interests and labeling Brian a “circus clown.”

Given his tirade and the nature of his argument, I’m not completely convinced that Castroneves thinks he did anything wrong. Passing under a yellow flag is never allowed (though let’s please not rehash the finish of this year’s Indianapolis 500!), and when approaching a corner under local yellow on a road course, it is even more critical that drivers mind their p’s and q’s.  In this case, track safety workers were attending to the car of Vitor Meira at the end of a high-speed straightaway that had already seen several other cars off-track. Those workers don’t have the luxury of a safety cell to hide behind if something goes wrong. At any other time during the race, the retrieval of this car would have justified a full-course caution, but as this was on the last lap of the race, Race Control deemed it an acceptable risk to dispatch only a local yellow. However, slight contact or a bobble by Castroneves or the car he was passing could have easily created a very dangerous situation for the unprotected workers. From that standpoint, I found his violation to be more egregious and worthy of penalty than Franchitti’s avoidable contact from earlier in the race. Castroneves is a professional race car driver and absolutely should know better when racing at the INDYCAR level — in fact, I feel safe in assuming that he already does. His actions needed to be reprimanded. But how?

If this violation had taken place on lap 40 instead on lap 63 race, Castroneves would have served a drive-through penalty, everyone would have gone about their business, and we likely would never have heard another word about this. However, being that it occurred on the last lap of the race, the options are somewhat limited. Race stewards don’t have time to review the replays, confirm the details of the incident, and then issue a penalty when the race only has about 60 seconds left to it. The fact of the matter is that had there been time to issue a drive-through penalty and had there been time for Castroneves to serve that penalty, he would have ended up as the last car on the lead lap anyway. By scoring him in 22nd, Race Control created the exact same result.

Per the INDYCAR rule book, section 9.2(A) pertains to the fulfillment of penalties:

[…] If the imposition of a penalty is near or at the end of the on Track activity and the Driver/Car does not fulfill it, the Senior Official may reposition the Driver/Car in the posting of results or apply the penalty to a subsequent on Track activity to reflect the fulfillment of the penalty.

Is there precedent for moving Castroneves to the last position on the lead lap? Absolutely. Only two races prior, at the conclusion of the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma, Giorgio Pantano was moved from 6th to 17th after he was cited for blocking on the final lap of the race. In both of these cases, the drivers and teams argued that they should only have been moved back to their positions prior to the infraction. Where they fall short in their arguments is that it is about more than just reordering — the penalty needs to bear a negative impact such that it discourages drivers from repeating their actions.  Justified or not, both passing under a local yellow and blocking have serious consequences that carry more weight than a simple apology and reverted position. Whether the penalty is on the first lap or the last lap or any lap in between, the consequence of the penalty must be the same.

We can argue all day long about what the appropriate consequences are for all the various violations that can and do occur during a typical IZOD IndyCar Series race. However, it is critically important that whatever rules we are playing by be consistently enforced throughout the event and subsequent events. I’ve had issues with INDYCAR and their history of changing rules midseason with little announcement or fanfare, but by and large, the issues that were raised during the running of Indy Japan: The Final were handled in keeping with the way Race Control has operated all year long.

We may not agree with the rules themselves or what they mandate, but the charges of inconsistency have been grossly overblown. Inconsistency, like it or not, does not mean changing the consequence of an infraction mid-race to please the blood-thirsty keyboard stewards. Once the season is over, I join many others in desperately hoping that the INDYCAR rule book is overhauled to include more defined and appropriate rules, violations, and penalties. But in the meantime — while there have unquestionably been times where Race Control has dropped the ball with some of their calls — this time, they got them all right.

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