Driver’s Etiquette, or “Why I’m Disappointed with Hamilton & Vettel”

Driver’s Etiquette, or “Why I’m Disappointed with Hamilton & Vettel”

Before you start reading this rather long article in which I critise the actions of two world champion drivers, I ask you to keep three things in mind:

  1. A lot of the comments are made in the heat of the moment when the driver is obviously emotionally angry/sad/disappointed.
  2. A racing driver is, after all, human. We all make mistakes and say things we didn’t mean or wish we didn’t. However, I argue that part of the curse of being a public icon is that your actions and words have a greater impact than most and thus you need exercise more caution when making them. I’ll explain in more detail further on.
  3. Please read both the Hamilton and Vettel sections with an open mind, regardless of any personal affection of either driver. I welcome all comments below, whether you whole heartedly agree or disagree with my opinion.

Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton suffered an unfortunate puncture on Lap 3 at last weekend’s grand prix. What followed was an unprecedented show of negativity starting with “That’s it guys, we should retire the car” to constant incessant complaining and finally ending with the question “Is rain coming?” on a bright, sun day. To me, that was immensely disappointing to hear.

Before I explain why so, it’s important to acknowledge that pit radio messages are often delayed. I watched back the highlights from BBC F1 on iPlayer to confirm when this message was played to find out it was on Lap 4, after he had pitted for tyres. However, it could just as well have been on Lap 3 when he was crawling back to the pits.

Let’s try and put ourselves in Lewis’s helmet during that crawl back to the pits.

It’s his 100th Grand Prix. McLaren have had a tough few weekends where they have been lacking in pace. This weekend, McLaren have a strong upgrade package that have given them a very competitive car. The expectations are high. He hasn’t had a great qualifying. Jenson’s out-qualified him for the first time this year. He doesn’t even get to move up a grid spot like Jenson because of Mark Webber penalty. He gets a puncture very early on in the race for no fault of his own (most probably caused due to debris on track from Massa’s front wing collision). He feels immensely disappointed because he knows that every second he is lumbering back toward’s, his rivals in the world championship fight are flying ahead in the race. He knows he very little chance to score points. A wasted weekend.

What does Hamilton do? He wants to retire the car?!

Why it was immensely disappointing to hear

Lewis Hamilton is a Formula One world champion. He has ascended the very peak of motor sport and has held the title that quite literally inscribes him as the very best driver in the world that year. With that, I believe, comes some responsibility. He has thousands of fans worldwide and is an inspiration to many upcoming drivers. His actions are thus held to a higher regard than most. At last week’s grand prix, Hamilton let down his supporters.

How many dedicated fans travel to a grand prix and pay increasingly ludicrous ticket fares to watch their hero, their world champion race? How will they feel when they find out he wants to retire the car and give up? I understand retiring the car late in the grand prix if it meant a free gear box change next race (instead of a 5 place grid penalty) but retiring it on lap 4 because you lack motivation to race? That’s not on.

If you’re a racing driver, you have one primary, rather obvious & self titled titled job – to race. To race no matter rain or shine, no matter what the conditions. You’re being paid to race. Think of all those upcoming racing drivers or drivers looking for a seat in F1. They’re giving everything they’ve got to be given an opportunity to drive these cars. These Formula One cars that represent the very best of science in motion. These cars that have been worked on by hundreds of team members that sweat blood to make them a tenth faster. You’re in an incredibly privileged position that many would dream to be in. And you chose not to race? You give up?

My view is simple: No. You shouldn’t. You’re a professional. You should show resilience, tough mettle and grit to fight your way back. So what if you’re not racing for points? You’re still racing! Be thankful your incident wasn’t terminal and drive the wheels off your car.

Lewis’ Psychological Grit

I’ve personally regarded Lewis as psychologically the weakest driver amongst the top few fighting for championships. I referred to that in an article I wrote last year about how Jenson’s form affected him. His race engineer last week constantly pushing him “we can make this work, Lewis” or “you are the fastest car on the track, Lewis”. He seems to need constant positive reinforcement from the team in any moment of dispair, a “big up” urging him forward.

It’s not that Lewis lacks any urge to go racing. Normally, he’s probably eager than most! (As portrayed in the brilliant McLaren ‘Tooned’ cartoons) However, when the going gets rough, he very often forms a negative aurora around him. If the car isn’t the fastest, he’s the first to complain. If something goes wrong (which sadly through no fault of his own has happened quite a bit to him), instead of using it as motivation to push even harder, he seems to get into a cocoon.

What is disappointing as a fan of his great on track racing is how he lets these negatives actively hurt his performance and racing. For example, he was a glum face all towards the end of 2011 because he was going through troubles with his girlfriend, Nicole Sherzinger. He actively acknowledged he wasn’t in a “happy place” and that was affecting his performance. To put forward a comparison, Fernando Alonso went through a divorce with his wife of 5 years and made no fuss about it. His performance on track wasn’t even slightly affected. He recently said on one of his twitter interviews:

María Cristina Rama Gómez (FB)Q: How do you manage to stop a bad moment in your personal life from affecting your performance in a Grand Prix?

Alonso: When you step into one of these cars, believe me, you’re not thinking about anything else.

To me, that’s what being a professional sportsmen is all about. It’s about never giving up, fighting to the last moment and never letting anything else affect you from competing. You have to take in all the weight of expectations from yourself, your fans, your team and sponsors to deliver on the arena. But hey, Alonso is also human and infamously said “I give up, I give up” in Korea 2011, although I strongly believe that was a coded message to Ferrari for letting Massa block him earlier in the race.

Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel called Lewis Hamilton “stupid” post race for unlapping himself and ‘interfering’ with the race leaders. I’m disappointed because in my view he made mistakes:

  1. There was absolutely nothing wrong with Hamilton’s actions. Blue flags are for cars that are slower, not cars that are lapped. Many times in history a driver has unlapped himself from the leader. It was a highly unusual situation but fantastic to watch. Hamilton showed true fighting spirit for the only time in that race when faced with the embarrassment of being lapped.
  2. He called a fellow driver “stupid”. This is not for the first time he has shown a tendancy for calling others names, he also called Narian Karthikeyan an idiot in Malaysia.

Just like I did for Hamilton, I’m going to try and step into his racing boots.

You’re steadily closing the gap to Alonso by two-tenths of a second lap after lap. Suddenly, Hamilton uses DRS to come up behind you and despite being a lap down, overtakes you! He becomes an obstacle between you and Alonso. He is faster because he has a much fresher set of tyres and in his dirty air you can’t overtake him. Every second you’re stuck behind his rear wing is every second his team mate Jenson is using to close the gap to you. Every second by which Alonso is escaping further and every second one that takes away your chances of your first home grand prix win. On a circuit few miles away from your place of birth.

Immensely annoying I’m sure but certainly no reason to call a fellow respected driver “stupid”. My same argument from above applies; you are a world champion who inspires many drivers and are the adoration of many fans (who will most probably send me comments for criticising you). You thus have a certain burden to act responsibly and not descend to petty name calling. Here is a tweet from Josh Hill (Damon Hill’s son and Graham Hill’s grandson. Upcoming racing driver too – no pressure!) that I found amusing but telling:

This leads me on to my concluding point where I ask you to refer back to my first words of this article (which you probably read a good 15 minutes ago) – both Sebastian and Lewis are humans who are say these comments in the heat of the moment. Both are undoubtedly two of the best racing drivers we have ever had in F1 history. Both are “young guns” who are extremely competitive and strive for nothing less than victory. However, both of my favourite drivers to watch showed disappointing behaviour this weekend. I hope that as they gather more experience (perhaps by driving a thoroughly mid field car), they will show the relative grace in defeat shown by world champions like Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button.

  • Frieda-2

    I have to agree on many of your points. Hamilton:  Schumacher has won from the back after an accident (if I remember correctly) at the least he could have scored points for his championship.  His was one of the fastest cars out there and he could have done something. I wonder how much McLaren are prepared to pay for someone they have to mollycoddle through a race? Has his ‘bargaining power’ dropped? The drivers don’t even spend very much time in the car so his wishing to give up is hard on up-coming drivers dreaming of being where he is. Vettel: Many drivers have started calling each other names recently, has the respect for other drivers dropped too? Is it because it isn’t so deadly that they are no longer respectful or is it the pressure of too many races? Are they being brought up in the ‘instant gratification’ era the cause?

  • Michael Hogan

    I agree with you bothe Vettel and Hamilton don’t act like world champions at times. They act more like spoiled brats at times. There are responsibilities to the sport when you are a world champion. Which means controlling your temper, not calling people names. That’s just childish. You don’t press an advantage and expect the other to yield just because you are/were a world champion. NUF said.

  • Adrian

    Great article, as usual! I fully agree with your thoughts. Both are extremely talented drivers, and Hamilton in particular is a delight to watch in my opinion. But both lack maturity yet. With regards to Hamilton, from what he publishes in tweeter/instagram, he might not be leading the most adequate life outside the circuits. He has succumbed to the bling bling of his “homies” Ludacris, Chris Brown and the likes. Lewis, you are a sportsman, not a rockstar!

    As for Vettel, besides his talent and ambition, I believe has has become too accustomed to driving the best car in the paddock. To the extent that I perceive him somewhat arrogant. I believe that a couple of years with a not so competitive car (similar to Fernando Alonso in Renault after his season in McLaren) would do him some good.  

  • Devin Lgls

    Joshua Hill’s tweet summarized with brevity your well written article. Though it was long, i think this instance calls for such an emphasis.  Yes, they are humans but when millions of people are following, they need to control their emotions.

    For instance, take Jenson Button, though he was disappointed he remained very civil and didn’t curse Vettel for grabbing his 2nd position!

    When the boys fight, the leaders race & surge forward.

  • Aditya Karumanchi

    F1 drivers have always been sore losers since long ago. i’m an alonso fan myself,but his gesturing to Petrov after the 2010 Abu Dhabi GP is an example, which, as u say, shows they’re human too, and sometimes might act impulsively. and all this, “they’re being watched and idolized by millions” shouldnt, IMO, affect their behaviour or make them put on a mask. i think i respect Kimi in that aspect – he’s known for being an irritation, but he’s honest at least. he never said he’s a saint, he’s just a racing driver. for all we know, a serial killer might be a very good racing driver (i know, i’m just exaggerating to make a point here). but yeah, they are supposed to have immense fighting spirit, coz we all know the odds they had to beat to get into F1, so listening to Lewis, who is a self-confessed Senna fan, say “we shud retire” is just disappointing. and yeah, his radio-talk is always very snobbish and negative. about time he’s been thrown in a marussia. actually, i think that wud be brilliant – throw vettel and lewis in the marussia or caterham, and bring timo glock and heikki in their place (lewis himself said heikki deserves a fast car).

  • Bahman

    Another great article with very fair and balanced view. Just one point: Lewis DID get to move up a grid spot because of Mark Webber penalty. In Q3 he finished 8th but he started from 7th.