An ill-timed Virtual Safety Car was conveniently blamed for Lewis Hamilton’s defeat to Sebastian Vettel in the Australian Grand Prix, but the outcome of the Formula 1 season opener would have been markedly different if the sport’s technical regulations were more overtaking-friendly.
One can legitimately question the VSC procedure after Melbourne, given its purpose is to neutralise the field - rather than giving a driver unfair advantage.
But even before the VSC was added to the sporting regulations, drivers have long taken advantage of full-blown safety cars. As such, Vettel very much deserved the victory, even though it was gifted to him because of the circumstances presented by Romain Grosjean’s retirement.
While the VSC deployment has unsurprisingly been the talking point since the chequered flag was dropped, perhaps one should wonder why Hamilton couldn’t overtake Vettel despite having a significantly faster car.
After making a mistake on lap 47 and dropping back almost three seconds behind, the Mercedes driver was able to return inside the DRS zone within a handful of laps. With that kind of pace, it should have been easy for him to pass Vettel, even after taking tyre degradation into account.
Instead he never managed to get within half a second or in a position to make a move, and eventually decided to drop back six laps before the chequered flag.
Hamilton, along with several other drivers, put the blame on the circuit’s characteristics for the lack of overtaking, even though the cars are primarily at fault.
After coming up with extremely complicated and expensive hybrid regulations in 2014 - which continue to be debated - F1 shot itself in the foot again with the 2017 regs.
While the cars do look spectacular and are faster and harder to drive, the increased downforce has made it even harder to pass.
What is more baffling is that overtaking is yet to be tabled in discussions regarding the 2021 regulations, with F1’s stakeholders’ primary concern being whether the sport should remain as relevant as it is currently to the manufacturers, or scale back on hybrid technology.
Whatever the route they take, making cars overtaking-friendly should be at the heart of the regulations. Otherwise, Liberty Media’s new-look F1 might be no different to the one we’ve been used to for the last half-a-decade.
by Rachit Thukral