Drivers' meeting 'promises to be very interesting'
Oh to be a fly on the wall at the drivers' briefing ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix next month.
The controversial decision not to penalise either Nico Rosberg for his aggressive defence against Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain Grand Prix or Hamilton for overtaking by going off the track has led to considerable debate within Formula 1.
So much so, that Alonso, a man who weighs his words carefully, has decided to speak out about it. After learning of the ruling, the Ferrari driver said to his 400,000-plus Twitter followers: "I think you are going to have fun in future races! You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track! Enjoy!"
Nico Rosberg (left) and Lewis Hamilton may have differing views at the drivers' meeting. Photo: Getty
On the face of it, and at first glance, the stewards' decision does appear difficult to understand.
With both Hamilton on lap 10 and Alonso on lap 24, Rosberg veered dramatically to the inside - and, unusually, right across to the white line that demarcates the edge of the circuit.
Both Hamilton and Alonso went off the track in avoidance, to varying degrees. Whereas Hamilton kept going and succeeded in passing the Mercedes, Alonso backed off and tried for the outside line, but had lost too much momentum to pull a move off.
Article 20.4 of the sporting regulations says: "Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted."
So why was Rosberg not penalised?
The stewards said his defence was legitimate because although it was Rosberg who started to deviate from his line first, he did so in a "constant and continuous straight-line manner" and neither Hamilton nor Alonso had "a significant portion of their car... alongside" Rosberg's.
In other words, because Rosberg moved first, he was always clearly in front and it was therefore effectively the other driver's decision to keep moving to the inside to the point that he was off the track.
In Hamilton's case, if you watch the TV footage back, you can clearly see this is the case.
It is less obviously so with Alonso - and the stewards had to use the footage from the Ferrari's onboard camera before they came to a conclusion.
I have not seen the footage, but I'm told it showed again that a) Rosberg moved first; and b) at no point was "a significant portion" of Alonso's car alongside the Mercedes.
During the race, viewers heard Alonso say over his team radio: "He pushed me off the track. You have to leave a space. All the time you have to leave a space."
This, though, is not actually what the regulations say.
A new rule, article 20.3, was introduced this year to formally enshrine that "any driver moving back towards the racing line, having earlier defended his position off line, should leave at least one car width between his own car and the edge of the track on the approach to a corner".
But this only applies when he is making a second move - there is nothing in the rules to stop drivers going right to the edge of the track in their first defensive move.
In other words, you might think - as Alonso did - that Rosberg's driving was unfair, overly aggressive, even dangerous, but the rules contain nothing the stewards could use to penalise him.
There is no obligation, I'm told by a senior figure, to leave room for a rival, unless he is partially alongside. The question then becomes, how far alongside does a driver have to be before the man he is overtaking has to leave him room with his first move?
That's where it starts to get awkward.
"It's no different," a senior insider says, "to a conventional overtaking manoeuvre when one driver dives down the inside, gets halfway alongside and they collide. One guy says: 'You should have given me room.' The other says: 'You weren't far enough alongside.' Often drivers' perception of a situation differs from the reality."
The stewards have to use their judgement, including factors such as speed differential between the cars, when a driver moved, how many moves he made, and so on.
Back, though, to what the rules do say. Article 20.2 says drivers "must use the track at all times". This is why Rosberg said over his team radio: "Hamilton passed me off the track."
Which Hamilton clearly did. So why was he not penalised?
The stewards, I'm told, asked: "What advantage did Hamilton gain by going off the track?" And they concluded that if he had gone to the outside, he was carrying so much momentum he would have passed anyway.
The most obvious of several counter-points to that is: "Yes, but Hamilton did go off the track when you have established he didn't need to, and he did pass him by doing so, so he should be penalised."
At least two leading drivers share this view, I'm told. But you have to bear in mind that Hamilton is not the most popular driver on the grid and his rivals are "always looking for ways to nail him", as one source put it on Monday.
The problem arose in the first place because concrete run-offs surround the circuit in Bahrain. Drivers can use these with impunity, safe in the knowledge that if they are forced off the track they are not going to spin on wet grass or hit a wall.
Had there been grass there, Hamilton would not have been able to pull off the same move (another argument for a penalty being applied) and Alonso might have backed off sooner.
Equally, had there been grass there - or even a wall - Rosberg might well have given them both a bit more room.
The stewards weighed it all up and felt that, in this instance, penalising Hamilton would have been overly harsh.
The result is some drivers believe Hamilton should have been penalised, some believe Rosberg should have been, and Alonso is saying the stewards' ruling gives drivers carte blanche to overtake off the track or crowd their rivals as much as they like.
Which is why that drivers' meeting in Barcelona promises to be so interesting.