KNUTSON: A New Era Of Hard Racing?

Dan Knutson

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Are we witnessing a new era of no-holds-barred racing in Formula One?

Charles Leclerc seems to think so and that has convinced Lewis Hamilton that he will be more ruthless out on the track as well.

During the Austrian Grand Prix, round nine of 21, Leclerc and Max Verstappen had a wheel-banging duel as Verstappen forced his way into the lead. Both were summoned to see the stewards after the race, but no further action was taken.

“While exiting the corner, there was contact between the two cars,” the stewards said in a statement. “In the totality of the circumstances, we did not consider that either driver was wholly or predominantly to blame for the incident. We consider that this is a racing incident.”

Verstappen’s opinion: “It’s hard racing, otherwise we have to stay at home. If those things are not allowed in racing, then what’s the point of being in F-1?”

Leclerc says the incident in Austria changed the way he races. He certainly was ruthless in defending the lead from the attacking Hamilton during round 14 in Italy.

They were side by side heading toward the second chicane and Leclerc elbowed Hamilton into the runoff area. Then, at the Curva Grande, Hamilton was on the outside and Leclerc moved to his left. Hamilton was not upset but philosophical.

“I don’t think there is an issue,” Hamilton said. “If that’s how we are allowed to race, then I will race like that. As long as we know that you are allowed to not leave a car width (of space for the car of the other driver) for example, as long as you are not contradicting us and there is a clear message.

“You are allowed to run wide even if someone is there and you only get a warning flag (as happened with Leclerc in Italy), you only need that once to potentially keep the guy behind you. As long as it is clear that that’s the way moving forward, it’s fine, so I know how to go into battle and it’s the same for all the drivers.”

The black-and-white warning flag, also known as the bad sportsmanship flag, has not been used for years in F-1, but the FIA’s race director Michael Masi has reintroduced it this season.

The first time it is shown (it is actually an electronic board) is a warning to the driver. The warning is also conveyed to members of the team who pass it on to the driver. If the driver commits a similar offense, it is reviewed by the stewards who then decide what penalty to give to the driver. While it is Masi’s decision to issue the warning, the stewards can also decide to warn a driver.

The first time it was used this year was when Pierre Gasly was warned about moving in the braking zone during the Belgian Grand Prix. The second time it was used was a week later in Italy for Leclerc. Neither driver repeated the foul, so both drivers escaped any sort of penalty.

There is no carryover, so any offense a driver commits in one race does not “count” at the next event. So there are concerns that drivers will pull off some stunt knowing they will only receive a warning the first time around.

Does Leclerc’s change in his attitude on aggression since Austria concern Masi?

“I don’t think aggression is probably the right word,” Masi said. “That might be his words, but I think is it hard racing? Yes.”

Will the use of the black-and-white flag change the dynamics of Formula One racing?

“It changes the dynamic,” Masi said. “There are various factors of the ‘let them race’ principles. And the ongoing discussions that have been happening throughout the year, they’ve all played a part in that.”

During the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, the second race of the season, the FIA had a meeting with the team principals, drivers and team sporting directors about the FIA being more lenient in allowing the drivers to race each other more aggressively.

Hamilton did not seek out Leclerc for a talk after the Italian Grand Prix.

“If we get a moment together,” Hamilton said, “we might chat, just reverse roles and make sure that he is cool with that.”

It seems that we are indeed seeing a new era of hard racing in F-1.