Beaux Barfield, the new IndyCar President of Competition and Race Director appointed at the start of January to succeed Brian Barnhart, has indicated that his interpretation on regulations relating to blocking will be rather different to the "over-officious" style seen in 2011.
Enforcement of blocking rules has become increasingly controversial in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and was particularly highlighted by a clash between Will Power and Dario Franchitti at the Honda Indy Toronto last July.
But after circulating a first draft of the new rulebook
for 2012 to IndyCar teams, Barfield confirmed that he has resisted making any changes to the regulations as currently written, in which rule 9.3 (b) states that "A Driver must not alter his/her racing line based on the actions of pursuing Drivers or use an abnormal racing line to inhibit or prevent passing."
Instead, Barfield says that any change will have to come from the enforcement and interpretation of the rules as they stand. "I didn't feel the need to change the wording, but it would be my responsibility to make it very clear at the drivers' meeting exactly what my expectations are," he said.
"That doesn't mean I'm allowing this to be wide open with dangerous weaving," he was quick to stress. "I'll deal with dangerous moves, but the defensive-type moves that people I think are more accustomed to are basically being restored to our kind of racing."
How would that have changed what happened in Toronto between Power and Franchitti?
"Will was put in a position as he was leading that was clearly stated in the drivers' meeting that the drivers had to be on the left side of the road when they started their braking going into Turn 3,” said Barfield, explaining the context of the controversial clash that spun Power out of a leading position in the race. "As such, that left the door wide open for Dario, who's pursuing, to put his nose right in there. Whether he needed to, meant to, or wanted to, that led to Will being turned around in the corner."
Race Control mandating that Power must keep his line through the corner had left the #12 "as a sitting duck: if I don't allow you to defend your position, I don't allow you to protect yourself." Barfield suggested was that this had left Race Control implicitly responsible for then having to penalise Franchitti for causing the contact - but that did not happen, leading to complaints from fans that the rules were being applied unfairly.
Barfield doesn't agree with that criticism: even if he had been in charge of Race Control at the time, "I would have had difficulty penalising Dario for contact because to me it was incidental," he explained. "He was rightfully there, he didn't lock up the brakes, he got to the apex and Will continued to come all the way for the apex. Dario was there and had nowhere to go."
So penalising Franchitti wouldn't have been a case of 'two wrongs making a right,' only of making it even more wrong. Instead, in Barfield's view, "Suddenly one officious program leads to another officious program."
The root cause of the problem therefore had to lie with the initial rule on blocking that had given rise to the situation in the first place: "It's my radical opinion that the over-officiousness led to a lot of the issues that occurred in turn 3 at Toronto," Barfield confirmed.
That gives rise to the question of how to frame rules that balance the "right" sort of blocking from the "wrong" sort.
"It is still really open for interpretation," acknowledged Barfield, adding that there had been a lot of discussions with drivers about the most appropriate position for Race Control to take on blocking, and that these would continue into the new season. "Not that just taking this stance will alleviate that, but it's a big step in the right direction for the kind of racing that drivers are comfortable and familiar with and for what our fans want to see."
Signalling Race Control's new less-officious stance on blocking, Barfield announced that the series would no longer be painting guidelines in key areas of the track dictating the line that drivers had to follow in 2012.
Barfield also suggested that ultimately the issue of blocking was a technical matter that needed to be addressed in the long term through innovation rather than regulation.
"A basis for the strong stance on blocking was that our cars have become sort of notorious for being difficult to pass so a little bit of defensive manoeuvring leads to processional-type races," he said. "My opinion is that it is dealt with better technologically - either with power to pass or aerodynamics or whatever the case is - not in how a driver intuitively tends to drive or behave on the track."