But such changes of fortune are, to an extent, to be expected in sport. Any rivalry will ebb and flow – and although Hamilton has now overtaken his teammate to pull 19 points ahead as we go into the summer break, this year's World Championship still hangs very much in the balance. Rosberg can fight back.
What he can't fight is an uneven playing field, and I fear that inconsistency in the way the rules are applied, and the way drivers are penalised for breaking the rules, is having too much of an impact on results. Whoever ends up becoming the World Champion this year, that should not be because of discrepancies in the stewards' decisions, or slapdash application of regulations – as in any sport, the rules must apply equally and fairly to all, and every effort must be made to ensure that every driver is treated the same by those who decide what is fair racing and what isn't, and who hand out punishments when it is not.
At the moment, we are not seeing this. We frequently see a driver penalised for a move a carbon copy of which another driver previously got away with. And we are seeing the rules change from one weekend to the next; on track limits, radio communications, etc., the goalposts keep being moved. This makes for race weekends where focus is being taken away from the action on track and diverted to lengthy discussions about the latest tweaks to the regulations – and it results in wheel-to-wheel racing where drivers are hesitant to make an overtaking move, as they cannot be sure whether their racing instinct will be applauded, or saddle them with a time penalty.
Uncertainty, inconsistency, and a completely lack of clarity – if you wanted a masterclass in how to ruin great racing, this is it.
Today at Hockenheim, Nico Rosberg was awarded a five second time penalty for an overtake on Max Verstappen, where it was deemed he "forced Verstappen off the circuit". If those are the rules, then I suppose that's fair enough – but we have all seen other drivers make overtakes almost identical to Rosberg's, and not be punished in any way. Perhaps most notably, Lewis Hamilton on Rosberg himself in the USA last year – the race at which the British driver clinched his third World Championship title.
|One of these moves resulted in a five second time penalty.|
The other warranted no action from the stewards. Fair?
And speaking of Lewis Hamilton, a very interesting thing happened in Free Practice this weekend. Hamilton was deemed to have been involved in an unsafe release from his pit box during the practice session; his punishment for this was a fine. The only other time when a driver has been penalised with a fine for unsafe release in Free Practice – as opposed to being given a grid penalty or formal reprimand – was at the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix, when the driver in question, Jolyon Palmer, couldn't be given a grid penalty because he was only a test driver doing a practice session and wouldn't be competing in the race anyway.
2014 Spanish GP, JEV 10 place penalty for unsafe release in FP— Jack/F1StatMan (@F1StatMan) July 30, 2016
2015 Belgian GP, Kvyat reprimand for unsafe release in FP
2016 Australian GP, Haryanto 3 place penalty and 2 penalty points for unsafe release in FP— Jack/F1StatMan (@F1StatMan) July 30, 2016
So why wasn't Hamilton given the same penalty that every other driver in that situation in recent years has been given? Were the stewards just being soft on him? Hamilton already has two reprimands this year; a third is serious – a guaranteed ten-place grid penalty. But if other drivers got reprimanded for the same transgression, then he should too – otherwise, it simply amounts to special treatment.
I guess my big concern is that something like this will end up being the deciding factor in who gets the be World Champion this year – that the allocation of penalties is so random (and so completely baffling at times!) that a driver will end up being denied a race win or a Word Championship title because of shonky, off-the-cuff stewarding. If we reach the end of this season, and we can look back and say "decision x was what meant that so-and-so won, or did not win, the title" that will not be in any way good for the sport.
It is time for transparency in rule-making, clarity of meaning, and consistency in application. That is the only way we can ensure a level playing field for racing hard, but racing fair – and the only way we can ensure that the World Championship winner truly deserves his crown.