Well that escalated quickly…

After six fairly forgettable races to start the season that offered just two race winners, Formula 1 finally burst into life for 2019 on Sunday in Canada on a dramatic afternoon – chiefly because of what happened off-track as opposed to on it.

Sebastian Vettel’s time penalty for unsafely rejoining the track and forcing Lewis Hamilton to take evasive action behind has been widely panned by the F1 community in the immediate aftermath of the race, causing outrage on social media.

The Ferrari man himself was angriest of all, lashing out at the “blind” stewards for “stealing” the race away. He held on to cross the line P1, but with the five seconds added to his final time, he dropped to second place behind Hamilton, who scooped up his fifth win of the year.

Vettel initially refused to go to parc ferme for the traditional post-race celebrations, abandoning his car at the entry to the pit lane and storming through the FIA garage en route to Ferrari’s hospitality unit. He was coaxed out to come to the podium – but not after visiting parc ferme and swapping the P1 and P2 boards in front of the cars, placing the former in front of the empty space where his car should have been parked.

The anger turned into frustration as Vettel was more measured speaking after the race. He kept saying that we should “ask the people” about the penalty, before also issuing a concern about what having a race decided in such a fashion could mean for F1. “It’s not making our sport popular, is it, with these kinds of decisions,” Vettel told Sky Sports.

“People want to see us race and that was I think racing. I hope the people come back. That’s the main thing obviously. They’re the reason why we’re able to put this show on and build these incredible cars. It’s just a shame when we have all these funny decisions.”

And Vettel is spot on in that regard.

Did the stewards steal victory from Ferrari? That’s highly subjective. (Mercedes will, of course, say they didn’t; Ferrari the opposite.)

But did they steal away from us a thrilling fight to close out the Canadian Grand Prix, a chance to see two great champions, two great teams battling it out?

Yes. Unquestionably.

The purpose of this race analysis has always been to explain, quite simply, how the race was won. And to boil it down to “because the stewards said so” would detract from the excellent performances from both Vettel – to cross the line first – and indeed that of Hamilton, who kept his rival honest and within sight throughout.

Vettel made a perfect getaway from pole position to keep the lead from Hamilton, who in turn was briefly hassled by Charles Leclerc in the second Ferrari, but managed to just keep ahead for P2.

The early phase of the race saw Vettel edge clear of Hamilton, holding the gap at around two seconds as they neared the pit window to make the switch from Mediums to Hards. Hamilton was able to get more out of his tyres towards the end of the stint, whittling the gap down to 1.7 seconds before Vettel dived into the pits at the end of Lap 26.

Mercedes then appeared to drop the ball on the strategy front. The natural reaction would have been to tell Hamilton to react immediately and come in one lap later to stop the gap growing with the undercut. Instead, Hamilton was told to stay out: “We don’t have the gap. We’re going to extend as much as we can.”

“Extend as much as we can” amounted to one extra lap. At the end of Lap 28, Hamilton came into the pits for a set of Hards, emerging just ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas. Vettel had quickly pushed on with his fresh set of Pirellis, growing the gap to nearly five seconds. Mercedes appeared to have completed missed its chance to make up any ground.

Yet Hamilton was able to do that all by himself. As Vettel struggled with the Hards and had to save fuel – likely what the numbers on the dash he was informed to “take action” on were relating to – the gap shrunk quickly. The 4.9 seconds separating them on Lap 29 was down to 0.7 seconds just 10 laps later, putting Hamilton within DRS range of his rival as they diced through traffic.

Vettel appeared to have things under control though, stretching the legs of his Ferrari through the final sector in particular as its power advantage showed. Hamilton was close, though, and growing in confidence.

And then came the mistake. Add it to the long list that stretches way back to Germany last year of moments Vettel cracked under pressure. Turning his car in for the Turn 4/5 chicane, Vettel lost the rear of his car for a second. While he was able to catch the snap, it sent him running across the grass, losing complete control of his car for a second.

As Vettel rejoined the circuit, Hamilton quickly tried to swoop around the outside, only for the gap to narrow as the Ferrari came across. Hamilton backed out and settled down again into second place, reporting the “dangerous” move over team radio.

The incident appeared to break Hamilton’s rhythm, interestingly. Vettel gathered himself well and began to eke out the gap again, rising to 2.7 seconds just moments before the penalty was handed down.

From that point, the race was settled. Try as he might, Vettel wasn’t able to pull out five seconds on Hamilton behind; he’d been pushing all race just to stay ahead of the Mercedes driver, leaving little in reserve. And as much as he may dislike winning while crossing the line second, Hamilton wasn’t ever going to make a lunge on Vettel for the lead when he didn’t need to take that risk.

The final 12 laps of the race, the crescendo the whole race weekend had been building up to, was totally defused by the stewards’ ruling. Regardless of your view on the decision, it was disappointing to see the battle between Hamilton and Vettel end in such a disappointing fashion.

The post-race drama made for sensational television – but tens of millions of fans from around the world are not tuning in to watch parc ferme. They want to see great racing between the greatest racing drivers in the world, who left nothing on the table for 58 laps at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and were setting things up for a tense fight to the finish.

That was sadly stolen away from us today.

 

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