Damon Hill has spoken to the Times today, questioning the validity of former drivers acting as a fourth steward and sitting in judgement on fellow professionals.
He also revealed that he has received hate mail from Schumacher fans for his part in the decision to punish the German for his overtaking move on Fernando Alonso on the final lap. Hill insists that he acted impartially.
This issue has aroused huge interest. My Sunday night post on the subject here has attracted 532 comments in 36 hours and a majority of fans seem to agree with Schumacher and his Mercedes team that the track was green and therefore the pass was valid.
I have to say that my impression at the time was that the debris from the crash between Trulli and Chandhok was not fully cleared and that if it had not been the last lap of the race, the safety car would have stayed out.
After plenty of criticism of the way stewarding was handled under the Max Mosley regime at the FIA, one of new president Jean Todt’s first acts was to add in a driver to advise the panel on 50-50 calls.
Already this season we have seen them put to the test, with some controversial moves in China involving Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel and the question of Hamilton “weaving” in Malaysia. So far they have been quite lenient.
But Sunday’s decision was all about interpretation not only of the rule regarding the safety car, but also the end of a race. In other words, rules which need to be taken in conjunction with each other.
“I imagined I would be there as a consultant providing driver insight to the stewards, who would then make the decisions, ” said Hill. “My expertise is as a driver rather than a lawmaker or interpreter of regulations.
“It was a fascinating experience but I wonder whether it is right that drivers are put in the position of interpreting the regulations,”
This is a fair point. Stewards have tended to be lawyers or people with some legal background, because rule interpretation is very much what it is about. And once an appeal is made, that is absolutely a legal process, so the basis for the decision needs to be right. F1 is a complex sport.
These people are often derided for having no knowledge of what it is like to race an F1 car. So the temptation is to ask an ex driver for his opinion. F1 drivers understand what is going on, but they don’t have the legal understanding to judge the rules and in the case of most drivers I’ve known, they couldn’t be bothered with the minutiae of it all.
On paper, a mixture of both should be a winning solution and this was what Todt intended. But Damon’s history with Schumacher has overshadowed this decision.
Hill is an intelligent man and a deep thinker. He also loves the sport. There was always a risk that he would be put in a situation where he would have to sit in judgement on his old rival and he has clearly found the experience uncomfortable.
“Partly, of course, my discomfort was because I was called to make a ruling on an incident involving Michael. I acted entirely properly but I have already received some stinging e-mails accusing me of prejudice.”
This does not surprise me. We get some stinging comments here on JA on F1 when fans feel that there is some prejudice in a post or a comment. F1 fans are passionate people.