With Norris’ instincts, Leclerc could have snookered Verstappen into losing the race

2021 Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix

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Lap 34 at Imola: Following a lengthy red-flag period due to the huge crash between George Russell and Valtteri Bottas, the race is about to restart.

Heading out of Variante Alta the Safety Car heads for the pits, leaving leader Max Verstappen in charge of the field. But as he turns left into Rivazza 1, the 17th of 19 turns, his Red Bull breaks traction and he heads for the grass.

There was alarm on the Red Bull pit wall. Team principal Christian Horner said his reaction was “not print-able”.

Charles Leclerc, following close behind Verstappen in second place, faced a split-second decision: Should he overtake the Red Bull driver? The RB16B had gone off the track, albeit briefly.

He chose not to. “I considered this at one point, but at the same time I backed off, “Leclerc explained later.

But behind Leclerc, Lando Norris was surprised his rival chose to hold position. “I think if I was in P2, I would have gone for it, because you have a chance at winning then,” he said. “It’s a risk worth it.

Safety Car, Imola, 2021
Verstappen made an error behind the Safety Car
What would have happened had Leclerc taken that risk? The Ferrari driver would have assumed the lead of the queue of cars, and could have accelerated away, leaving Verstappen behind and setting the restart in motion.

On the face of it, this might seem like a pointless gamble. Verstappen had a quicker car and would have been able to overtake Leclerc. Given the risk the stewards might rule Leclerc was not within his right to pass Verstappen, and issue a penalty, the Ferrari driver surely had too little to gain by seizing the opportunity to make off with the lead?

However the situation is more complicated than this, and Leclerc might have played a blinder by overtaking Verstappen at this point, as the case of Kimi Raikkonen shows.

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At the beginning of the same lap, Raikkonen spun off at Tamburello. He was passed by Lewis Hamilton and Yuki Tsunoda. Having been incorrectly advised by his team that he was not allowed to overtake them, Raikkonen remained behind the pair until the restart.

Norris said he would have passed Verstappen
This was a violation of the rules. It earned Raikkonen a 10-second stop-go penalty (converted post-race to a 30-second penalty) – a swingeing sanction which cost him his first points finish of the year.

Formation laps which take place before race starts, and restarts following suspensions, are treated differently to Safety Car periods. In the latter a driver goes off and loses positions is not allowed to regain them. This was why Sergio Perez received a 10-second time penalty earlier in the same race.

But when a race is being restarted following a suspension, as with a regular race start, drivers must commence racing in their designated order. Therefore if Leclerc had passed Verstappen and the pair restarted the race in that order, the Red Bull driver could have been considered in breach of the same rule as Raikkonen.

The regulation is as follows: “A penalty under Article 38.3(d) will be imposed on any driver who fails to re-enter the pit lane if he has not re-established the original starting order before he reaches the first Safety Car line on the lap the Safety Car returns to the pits.”

Theoretically, Leclerc might have been regarded in breach of the same rule by not letting Verstappen past. But that’s a doubtful interpretation, for the same reason Hamilton and Tsunoda were not punished for Raikkonen’s error. The onus would have presumably been on Verstappen to correct the order by pitting, as per the rules.

Raikkonen paid a high price for being out of position
Had Leclerc acted as Norris suggested, the following scenario is therefore possible: Verstappen spins at turn 17, Leclerc passes him, Leclerc leads the field around turn 18 and crosses the first Safety Car line before Verstappen. At this point Verstappen either takes the restart out of position, and cops the same penalty as Raikkonen, or has the presence of mind to dive in the pits as demanded by the rules.

Either way, Verstappen is snookered, and his chances of winning the race are gone. As the stewards noted in Raikkonen’s case, the 10-second stop-go penalty is mandatory.

None of this is to say that Leclerc definitely should have passed the Red Bull. There remains a risk that the stewards might have deemed he was not within his right to pass Verstappen just because the Red Bull driver had headed briefly off-track. This area of the rules is grey.

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Leclerc’s belief that Verstappen “always had one wheel on the track” during his error may not be quite right, as video footage of the incident shows. But assuming any particular interpretation of track limits is a risky business in F1, especially in a split-second call such as this.

Leclerc defended his decision not to pass Verstappen
However had Norris been driving Leclerc’s car we might have seen a very different end to Sunday’s race – and a rather more controversial one.

As the stewards also noted in their verdict on Raikkonen, there are contradictions in this area of the rules which need clearing up. It has long been the case that drivers who go off the track and lose positions at the start of the race can and must regain their positions, and those who do so during Safety Car periods must not. However recent changes to the rules to permit mid-race standing or rolling restarts have caused confusion, as last weekend’s incidents involving Perez and Raikkonen show.

On Sunday evening the stewards acknowledged a “contradiction that when the cars are behind the Safety Car during a Safety Car period, [they] are prohibited from passing, but when they are behind the Safety Car for a restart, they are permitted to – even though the reasons for a rolling start are that the track conditions don’t permit a standing start”. There is sound precedent for why the rules have evolved the way they have, yet the inconsistencies are self-evident and should be addressed.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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96 comments on “With Norris’ instincts, Leclerc could have snookered Verstappen into losing the race”

  1. This rule is entirely too confusing. Combine that with a “when the SC turns off the lights to indicate the ending of the SC period, the race leader becomes the de facto safety car until the finish line” and you literally need a PhD to figure out exactly what the rule should be at any given time.

    I can’t blame Leclerc for not going for the overtake, I too figured it would be considered an illegal overtake, but then when I found out penalties were given out for retaking the position earlier, it was all just very confusing.

    Either make a rule you can’t overtake / are allowed to retake your position when behind SC. Or make a rule that when you spin out or exit the track and can’t immediately rejoin you take position at the end of the queue and be done with it.

    1. Even the Sauber pit wall can’t keep up with the rules, how are fans supposed to be able to follow?

    2. Combine that with a “when the SC turns off the lights to indicate the ending of the SC period, the race leader becomes the de facto safety car until the finish line”

      That’s how I interpreted it, @aiii.
      Then I was surprised that the cars following Verstappen as SC did not go off track like he did, and then not being penalised for it ;)

    3. Especially when the teams don’t know if it is going to be a safety car restart or a standing start until the very last minute.
      I miss you charlie.

    4. No you don’t need a phd, you just need to be working in F1 and not be some armchair enthusiast internet forum poster like yourself.

      1. Montréalais (@)
        20th April 2021, 17:58

        Well, Young Anon. You seem to be an angry little man. Too frightened to identify yourself? Troll?

        1. I could identify myself as equally as you by putting my country avatar and naming myself something equally as vague. And I could also add some basic information on a profile on here. But no I’ll stay Anon while you are very well known in the little world you have created for yourself.

      2. “Anon” with a capital “A”. Interesting. A new identity? Or is it someone different from the regular anonymous one? That comment is little more aggressive than what I would have expected from the mysterious one.

      3. You mean like Perez and his team who didn’t even know the basics?

    5. It was not a SC but a rolling start. Even when CL had past MV he had to return the place to MV

  2. Pretty sure the McLaren pitwall would have advised Lando against such a move

    1. Which is precisely the problem with F1.
      The regs are so abundant, complex and, at times, contradictory, that the drivers can’t even make their own decisions without the team.

    2. By the time they could even press the button Norris would be past the safety car line and it would be too late.

      1. This ^ it was a split second decision, by the time the engineers could react, Norris would be stomping along in the lead and Verstappen would have been slapped with a penalty

      2. Theoretically speaking, of course. The entire article is about a theoretical event and a theoretical outcome.

        1. @ Zafka:
          Is it? Kimi had a similar situation and the team advised him against retaking his position (wrong advice!) and got penalised for starting out of position!!!
          So no, it’s not theoretical at all; it could have happened had Leclerc not applied his brakes!

          1. I think that rule should be rewritten as everyone can understand them without a law degree. So SC no overtaking, your going off the track you slotin that position when you enter the track.
            Rolling start the same.

            Very easy and everyone can understand them.

            So in this theory situation Max went off (not in my view) and Max entered the track at P1. Le clerc had to wait untill Max left the track his problem Max reenter the track almost the same time. I wonder how fast Charles could react because there is a very small window he could pass him like a 0.1 or so outside that he would be penaultize.

    3. Not like they had much time to discuss it, Max was on track almost instantly again. And doesn’t the race leader always initiates the restart by starting to drive fast.

  3. So… basically, due to the different type of lap the incidents occurred, a different rule is imposed. In Raikkonen’s case, it was a formation lap as the cars were allowed to unlap themselves. However, on #33’s case, this was already a safety car restart. Therefore, Leclerc would not have been penalized had he overtaken Verstappen at the final corners, and to be the driver leading the restart? But at the same time, Leclerc can decide to just stay behind Verstappen right?

    I can definitely understand why the rules are designed like this.

    1. Max kept one wheel on the tarmac at all times. He went slow, but he is allowed to dictate the pace and the others should stay behind. Leclerc did the right thing.

      In Perez’s case, the drivers that passed him while he was briefly off track then held back, creating a big gap to the cars ahead. They too expected Sergio to pass them again and regain position, and by holding back, they even made it hard for him not to get ahead…
      Suppose what had happened if Kimi also held back. Then the gap to the cars ahead would have grown too big and a penalty would have to be issued for that.

      The second car to pass Perez did so just when he was re-entering the track. I’m not sure whether that was timely or not. If Sergio was already back on the track the driver who passed him made the error. It becomes impossible to know for sure what to do in such situations.

      I understand why there are rules concerning maintaining or yielding positions behind the safety car, but the stewards could decide not to impose a penalty when there is neither intention nor unfair gain, or impose a smal(ler) penalty proportional to whatever was gained if there was.
      They should be extra lenient in fringe cases and when there’s no time to instruct the driver or ask the stewards.

      1. Agreed, looked at the angels again and always one tire was on track.
        BTW, it was not a “spin” but a brief partial excursion.
        Lec was in the best position to observe this.

        1. Agreed, this whole article just feels like wishful thinking.

  4. Also, when is the restart of a Safety Car Period? Is it when the lights of the safety car lights turn off?

    1. Jonathan Parkin
      20th April 2021, 15:05

      When they first introduced it the Safety Car turned it’s lights out at the beginning of the lap to notify the field it was returning to the pits.

      When e-mail and pit to car radios was introduced a lap’s notice became the final sector of the lap (or the exit of the tunnel if it was Monaco)

      The driver in the lead became the Safety Car and led the field round and the SC period officially ended at the start of the next lap – this was later changed to a line between the pit lane entry and the finish line but this didn’t apply on the last lap for some reason which tripped up Michael Schumacher in 2010

      If the Safety Car is on the final lap of the race, it comes into the pits as usual to allow the winner to cross the line, but it was still (as noted above) stabilised conditions

      Don’t know what the situation is now

    2. Also, when is the restart of a Safety Car Period?

      When the cars cross the start-finish line.
      But I think it used to be the SC line at the start of the pit straight.

  5. Red Bull would have just told Max he could have retaken the position before the restart.

    It isn’t that complicated really, it’s part of the formation lap. You’ve always been allowed to retake your position in those circumstances (before the racing lap begins) if you’ve had an off, or been slow to getaway, etc. It’s not a live racing lap like a SC. Red Bull would have known this, and I don’t know why Alfa Romeo didn’t to be quite frank. Am I missing something?

    1. Thing is, it happened in Rivazza and he’d have to retake the position until the safety car line (which is very shortly after rivazza) OR start from the pit lane (or get a 10 second stop/go /post race 30sec penalty)

      1. Well then he should start from the pit lane then or take a penalty. I fail to see what is so complicated. Nobody made Max make the mistake, if he cannot regain his position in time then he has to pit/take penalty @mrboerns.

        I agree that would be sad for Max, but the rules are not that complicated, they certainly shouldn’t be for a bunch of engineers with doctorates.

        1. Red Bull would have just told Max he could have retaken the position before the restart.

          This part of your original post makes it sound as if you think it just was completely irrelevant to Max @john-h

      2. Eduardo López Montanaro
        21st April 2021, 15:59

        Ferrari is being fully conservative, and that reflects in drivers mentality too. In a confuse situation, Charles in 1/1000 sec.was logical and priorized team points than personnal glory. Wise? Innocent? Coward? In my opinion Binotto woulf have send the exact message trough the radio.

    2. @john-h But the point is – what if he couldn’t? What if Leclerc had just decided he was now the race leader and could dictate the pace, and just gunned it before Max could recover? I feel that this would be a different case to that of Raikkonen though, where he clearly had time to recover his position but was wrongly advised not to. If Verstappen had attempted to reclaim his correct position but failed because he was too close to the race restart and his opponents prevented it, then I have to believe he would not have been punished for it.

      1. Then he has to pit as dictated by the rules

      2. Then he has to pit as Saad mentions @keithedin, and if he can’t start from the pit lane then take a penalty. It’s up to Max to regain the positions before the restart, and if he can’t then so be it.

        Again, I really fail to see what’s so complicated!

        1. @john-h And Saad It’s not all that complicated (other than different rules while following the safety car in some situations to others) but it’s not necessarily fair either, because he would be in a situation where he is actually forced to suffer a penalty, which is clearly not the intention of the rules. But my other point is that in the case of him falling out of position he would be far better to ignore his penalty and serve it at the end of the race, rather than go to the pitlane and end up at the back of the pack. If he’d ignored the penalty he still could have won the race or at least finished near the front even with a 30 second penalty, but if he fell to the back of the grid he certainly wouldn’t have finished as high up.

    3. It IS complicated.

      If one sees a safety car in front of the queue, why would one intuitively think that formation lap rules apply?

      If one knows that it is going to be a rolling start and no ‘formation’ at end of the lap, why would one intuitively think that formation lap rules apply?

      I actually sympathize with Alfa Romeo. They thought safety car rules apply after seeing a safety car at the front of the queue. Which is what one would intuitively do.

      But FIA rules are the one which are absurd. They really need to change that.

      1. Tommy Scragend
        21st April 2021, 6:47

        If one knows that it is going to be a rolling start and no ‘formation’ at end of the lap, why would one intuitively think that formation lap rules apply?

        Pretty sure that the rolling start was announced before the lap began.

      2. Of course formation rules apply, there’s just been a red flag!!

      3. Which is what one would intuitively do.

        As I mention above, these are engineers with doctorates. It is their responsibility to know the sporting regulations.

        1. But rules are also meant for fans to understand easily. Especially, the casual fans. Think of it from the casual fan’s perspective.

          1) They see a safety car at the front of the queue. Perez spins in front it, regains his positions and gets a penalty.
          2) Same race, they see a safety car at the front of the queue. Kimi spins in front it, doesn’t regain his positions and still gets a penalty.

          Rules shouldn’t require fans to understand complex rules. They should be easy to interpret.

    4. The problem was he spun so close to the end of the lap, that had other cars passed him, he wouldn’t have been able to retake the position before the restart.

      Looking at the footage again, I’m convinced he spun as he was actually intending to launch the restart at that point. I don’t believe he was still warming his tyres as he said in the interview. I think he was actually attempting the restart and to try and catch those behind napping.

      Had Leclerc gone past Verstappen, I bet Norris would have followed him, so most likely 2 places lost. Which would then have resulted in the ridiculous penalty Raikkonen received.

      1. It really isn’t ridiculous, it’s there for a good reason so that the race is started from the correct positions. Maybe if you lose positions instead of gaining them the rules could be rewritten, however in the case of a standing start the drivers for example need to know what grid slot to take up and that can’t change last minute.

        It’s up to Kimi and Max basically to not lose control in the first place @cdavman

        1. It’s up to Kimi and Max basically to not lose control in the first place.

          True, but why should drivers be penalized if they lose a position? If they illegally gain places I fully agree there should be a penalty, but this is just daft. Also, if Verstappen had still one wheel on the track or if Leclerc passed him when he was back on track, would Leclerc then be penalized for breaking the correct order? Or both?

          By the way, what if Hamilton and Tsunoda had pushed like crazy after Räikkönen’s spin? No way he would have recovered his positions then. Now we can blame Alfa Romeo for providing him with the wrong information, but I can imagine in some cases it’s just impossible to take up your original grid slot. If you go off-track and lose positions (as Pérez did behind the safety car), then that should be it. No more punishment is needed or desired.

  6. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but apparently, Leclerc was unaware that it was a rolling start, and not a grid start due to radio troubles. That probably would have factored into his thinking. Why would he blast past Max and into the distance if he believed they were going to form up on the grid anyway?

    1. I do belive the rolling start was communicated via LED boards trackside (the ones that also display SC during a safety car) so he should have been aware

  7. I think it really was marginal in Verstappen’s case. Leclerc would have had to accelerate to clear Verstappen fully as he came back on track. So it’s more snatching the position than inheriting it. Dubious. The question in terms of Verstappen is the same as usual: if he went off the track, did he return to it safely? Just about yes. Had he span round 180 degrees, he’d have been passed by the first group of cars and would then have had to rejoin safely, well out of place. But he caught the spin and didn’t really pose a danger of collision rejoining. I think Leclerc did the right thing on paper. In strategic terms? It may have been worth the risk of pouncing if he had reacted instantly by speeding up as Verstappen lost it.

    1. @david-br Actually given the rule explanation, there was a lot to gain and a little to lose. If Norris knew about this rule it makes his statement a lot more clear. Then Leclerc has very little time to commit for one or the other, it’s more instinct than rule knowledge at that point.

      I was surprised also how lenient Perez penalty was given penalties for Raikonnen or Vettel which are of similar nature. He didn’t capitalize on it but it was definitely worth taking 2 places back for 10sec penalty that you can take whenever you want.

      1. @jeanrien This is a point that has been mostly overlooked due to all the other incidents in the race, but I really hate it when the penalty for breaking the rules is so lenient that the driver is better off having broken them. If you have a faster car stuck behind a slower one, then a 5 or 10 second penalty is often worth taking since in free air you can regain that time or more and end up ahead of where you would have been. So Perez did the right thing in not obeying the rules there since he benefitted from it, which should never be the case.

        Likewise in the example listed in the article – if Verstappen was put in the situation where he was ‘snookered’ and had a choice between following the rules by returning to the pitlane, or breaking the rules and serving a 10 second stop-go penalty post race, then he absolutely should have ignored the rule and remained on track. Actually given that he probably wasn’t pushing that hard and still had a 22 second lead at the end of the race, it’s possible that he could have won even with the 30 second penalty. But he most certainly would not have won if he had re-entered the pitlane as the rules would have dictated.

        1. Spot on @keithedin. If you’ll only get penalised 5s for each car you pass why wouldn’t you try and make up a place or two behind the safety car?

        2. Tommy Scragend
          21st April 2021, 6:54

          breaking the rules and serving a 10 second stop-go penalty post race

          That’s not how a stop-go penalty works. If you are issued a stop-go in the race, you have to serve it in the race otherwise you will be disqualified (unless it is issued within a couple of laps of the end).

          Raikkonen got 30 seconds instead of a stop-go because his penalty was issued *after* the race – in this situation a 30 second time penalty is considered the equivalent of a stop-go.

          It’s not the case that you can just choose which one you would rather have.

          1. Tommy Scragend
            21st April 2021, 6:56

            Meant to add, there’s no way anyone could have known when the penalty would have been issued – it could easily have been issued during the race.

            I don’t know why it took so long to penalise Raikkonen, maybe the stewards didn’t notice at the time. If it had been the race leader it might have been a bit more obvious!

          2. Tommy Scragend This is true, but going by Raikkonen’s treatment then maybe the stewards didn’t know the rule either and had to research it after the race. So given that the stewards might not have issued the penalty immediately he was still better to continue and wait for their reaction/instruction.

      2. @jeanrien Maybe Norris would have accelerated into the lead – but imagine the post-race fuss that would have generated compared to the track limits issue last race.

    2. I’m pretty sure Gasly made the extra effort to make sure he was ahead of Perez when he rejoined (catching right up to Ricciardo) and that was probably more dubious as it was under safety car conditions. Then Ricciardo nearly stopped holding up Gasly effectively ushering Perez through https://www.formula1.com/en/video/2021/4/2021_Emilia_Romagna_Grand_Prix__Perez_gets_10-second_penalty_for_Safety_Car_overtake.html

  8. Seeing as how Lewis easily passed Leclerc, Max would have had no problems regaining the lead anyway.

  9. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    20th April 2021, 15:02

    It sounds to me like you will be penalized for what you do and damned for what you don’t. Did James Hunt write these rules while he was out partying?

    Clearly no one in the paddock knows the rules and certainly the drivers know a fraction as evidenced by the pit lane closure last year.

    Obviously Leclerc had no idea what the rules were but he just started racing 15 years ago. I think if we quizzed Todt, Masi, and Brawn they’d barely pass and both were team principals and hold top positions.

  10. Well it would have been a farce, so thank god Leclerc didn’t…

    It’s a stupid rule anyway, I can understand it for a standing start, where getting into grid position can be tricky and could create a number of potential dangerous situations but in a rolling start you should just lose the positions and go.

    1. @afonic Exactly the point. There is absolutely no reason to have this rule for rolling starts. Imagine getting a stop-go penalty for it.

      Even the rule about not getting taking back your position behind the safety car like Perez fell foul of doesn’t make sense at all.

  11. Great read, thank you. Had he done it, the controversy would’ve been huge.

    1. What? Max having to go through the pits and Ham coasting to a win after being a lap down? Can’t see any problem with that. Maybe a few saying, as they have in the past, ‘well he should have known the rules’. Other than that it would hardly cause a ripple I would have thought. :)

      1. I hope people realise verstappen had the pace to win even with 30 sec added to his lap time, provided he knew there’d have been this penalty before the race, he just had to push for a few laps, he didn’t since there was no risk whatsoever.