Marco Andretti penalty may be a good call, but a slippery slope awaits

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary, Uncategorized — By on June 29, 2014 1:51 pm
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IndyCar made a new rule but also set a dangerous precedent today.

As reported earlier, IndyCar President of Operations Derrick Walker and IndyCar race control penalized Andretti Autosport driver Marco Andretti for failure to heed the blue flag (IndyCar Rule 7.2.5.2) in yesterday’s Race 1 of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston presented by the Greater Houston Honda Dealers.

Andretti was shown the blue flag for “holding up” then race leader Takuma Sato for a number of laps mid-race (and Sato then took himself out of contention a few laps later in another high profile incident with Mikhail Aleshin). It’s quite clear that Andretti’s delay did allow James Hinchcliffe to erase a large portion of a nearly four-second deficit to Sato, but what is not as clear is whether that was intentional. Both sides of the argument have already been very vocal about their perspectives, and quotes on the subject are available at the story linked above.

Andretti maintained his innocence on Twitter this morning, saying that he was “fighting for his life” and was not attempting to aid Hinchcliffe, while More Front Wing Co-editor Steph Wallcraft was able to obtain highly reliable information that Hinchcliffe’s team stated on the radio that Marco was going to hold up Sato. This information was later corroborated by Walker himself in an interview with Matt Weaver of Open Wheel Now, Joey Barnes of Tribute Racing, and Christopher DeHarde of Motorsport.com.

“We were listening on the radio and they were talking about it,” Walker said. “They knew what was going on and they were using it to their advantage.

“The fact that he ignored (the blue flag) long enough for his teammate to catch up with Sato, we said we’re going to review that and that’s what we did.”

The blue flag rule itself seems black and white enough, and I would have little issue accepting it on face value — until, that is, you see Walker’s admission that the last car on the lead lap is not normally blue-flagged.

“Marco was going to be a lapped car and he was given a blue flag,” Walker says. “That wasn’t a penalty, it was an instruction from Race Control. He disobeyed that for – I don’t know how many laps – more laps than he should have.

“A last car on the lead lap is not being blue flagged like that,” Walker said. “That’s something we haven’t done. So, we made a new rule. That’s another discussion.”

Admitting that a new precedent was set in the middle of a race weekend is a very, very slippery slope for Mr. Walker and IndyCar. In a series that already catching flak for flying by the seat of its pants at times, you would think that IndyCar would be more careful in deciding and announcing its rulings.

But what’s even more surprising is that Walker had a perfect rule at his disposal to use in this situation rather than deciding to create a new one on the fly.

IndyCar rule 9.3.4 specifically prohibits “team orders or tactics” of any kind with the resulting penalty prescribed as a black flag, which is what was given to Andretti in this instance anyway. Given the information that IndyCar has presented to us so far, this would have seemed to be the most fitting penalty.

I come away from Houston race 1, though, wondering if this penalty was even more off the cuff than imagined. I base this assumption on that fact that, at least for his part, Walker seemed to be more upset with Andretti’s failure to heed race control than the incident in question itself.

“It was about ignoring race control’s decision,” Walker said. “You can’t just say screw you, mate, I’m going to do it because I think I’m right. You have to argue about that later. It came down to race control saying to itself, can people just tell us to take a hike or is there some price to be paid to do that?”

IndyCar officials, and especially Race Control, have a very difficult job that I envy in no way, shape, or form.  Every incident in IndyCar can be and is seen through at least two different lenses, and both sides always have strong feelings on the matter.

That said, Walker’s decision to create a penalty on the fly is going to make it even more difficult for Beaux Barfield and his team, as you can rest assured that teams in the ultra-competitive Verizon IndyCar Series will now be knocking down Race Control’s door every time they feel as if they are being impeded.

I hope Beaux Barfield has a deadbolt handy for the Race Control door. I think he’s going to need it.

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