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Has anyone seen Formula One’s soul?

The battle to improve safety in Formula One is long and arduous but still necessary. But was the decision to penalise Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso at the weekend symptomatic of a trend that is robbing F1 of its soul?
Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 13, 2013 (F1plus/Victor Brown-Villedieu).- It’s funny that these days while on the one hand we’re thankful that, mercifully, deaths in motorsport have become a rarity, we are still resistant to moves that can further reduce the risks that could potentially lead to a death.

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Take run-off areas, for example. Many of the modern-day Hermann Tilke-designed tracks have been sketched out with racing in mind but with the added bonus of being a safe arena for competitors because they provide plenty of margin for error in the form of large run-off areas – the same cannot be said of the old banked circuit at Monza or the Nordschleife.

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Gravel traps are scarce at most modern-day F1 tracks with acres of concrete run-off the preferred option.

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Critics say this makes it too easy for drivers to make mistakes and recover, something which would not be possible if gravel were used, or even a barrier placed on the edge of the track as you find with most street circuits.

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This has even been replicated on traditional circuits as the FIA tries to bring all tracks in line with modern safety standards – the famous Eau Rouge at Spa looks very different now to what it did twenty years ago, say.

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The result is grandstands are pushed back, which has the consequence of distancing fans from the action, and corners that were once considered a challenge have their personality taken away.

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Felipe Massa even this year uttered words that many would consider F1 blasphemy: Eau Rouge is no longer great.

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But even if the tracks may have lost some of their joie de vivre it can still be found elsewhere, right?

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Well, the decision to reprimand Mark Webber for getting a lift on Fernando Alonso’s car after his Red Bull’s engine caught fire on the last lap of the Singapore grand prix – his third of the year meaning he automatically receives a ten-place grid penalty for the next race – might be considered a betrayal of what was, after all, an act from Alonso made with the best of intentions.

The verdict of the stewards triggered a fierce debate in Formula One about the rights and wrongs of what the two drivers did with some saying Webber and Alonso were rightfully punished as they had endangered their own lives as well as the lives of others while others, including Webber and Alonso, thought the penalty was absurd.

Webber pointed out the irony of the punishment by posting a photo to his Twitter account showing Derek Warwick – who was the drivers’ representative on the panel of stewards who issued the reprimands – receiving a lift from Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari back in 1988.

What many believe was so wrong about the penalty is that it seemed to punish what was a rare act of genuine sportsmanship between two friends in a sport characterised by fierce rivalries.

The reality was that the stewards had their hands tied by the rules, which dictate the decisions they must make. But some feel this case warranted the stewards using their discretion.

And it is events such as this that lead me to ask if Formula One has maybe lost some of its soul.

It’s up to individuals to draw their own conclusions but it is an unfortunate by-product of the modern world in which sponsors rule and PR is all important that inevitably some of the soul in F1 dissipates.

The remnants of some of Formula One’s soul can still be found in certain places and it’s encouraging to see more circuits allowing fans onto the track at the end of races to allow them to celebrate under the podiums.

However, a decision made on safety grounds must never be confused with the abandonment of F1’s values.

Everyone understands the risks involved in motorsport and that risk is part of what makes the sport so appealing.
But does a safer F1 mean a less soulful F1? I don’t think so.

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