Paying the penalty
The driving standards displayed by two of F1's emerging talents again came firmly under the microscope at Spa, but as Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes explains, while Romain Grosjean's craft just needs some fine tuning, Pastor Maldonado is running out of time to control his 'red mist'
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 03/09/12 2:36pm
Bad boys featured heavily in the story of the Spa weekend, but as Lewis Hamilton's infamous tweeting of a team telemetry sheet didn't carry any official censure it was left to Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean to attract the heat of the governing body.
Their various misdemeanours earned one of them a race ban and the other a combined grid penalty of 10 places for Monza. Inevitably, there is an assumption that their previous 'form' played its part in the race stewards' respective decisions. Both the Venezuelan and the Franco-Swiss have punctuated demonstrations of their undoubted skill with a string of controversial incidents this year.
Grosjean's incidents - seven in the 12 races so far - have invariably come in the early moments of a race. In Australia it was a bump while fighting out territory with none other than Maldonado that took him out on the second lap. In Malaysia he tangled with Michael Schumacher four corners into the race. He tangled with him again away from the grid at Monaco. At Silverstone he clashed with Paul di Resta on the first lap, dislodging his nosecone and puncturing the Force India's tyre. Only his Hockenheim incidents - he was involved in three separate scrapes as he struggled with an ill-handling car - were not in the very early stages of a race.
In between times he has made some breathtakingly committed and finely judged big moves pay off. His start-line shimmies between other cars as the lights went out at both Bahrain and Valencia were perfect and bought him several places. Later in the Valencia race he went millimetre-close wheel-to-wheel with both Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and displayed perfect judgement in both attack and defence.
Big early moves have always been a major part of his game - his first season of GP2 was littered with them. Sometimes they bought places, occasionally they brought trouble. When his confidence is up he's prepared to commit big in the opening moments, when the opportunities - and risk - are at their greatest.
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His disastrous Spa start, however, was pure misjudgement. He was squeezing Hamilton, but simply didn't leave the McLaren enough space between him and the pit wall. The consequences triggered by his error, as the cars funnelled into the notoriously tight La Source, were frightening. That spatial misjudgement has logically brought a question mark to his earlier incidents.
But it doesn't bear close inspection. Most were a consequence of hard-headed stubbornness that a driver needs early in his F1 career if he's not to be considered a soft touch in 50/50 situations. At Monaco he was simply a victim of four cars not fitting across the width of the track as Alonso flicked left to pass the car in front of him. As Grosjean moved left to avoid contact with the Ferrari, so it squeezed him into Schumacher's path; a plain racing incident.
Grosjean is a hard racer with a ready willingness to make an aggressive move in the opening moments of a race. Sometimes they may not work - that's just the price you have to pay sometimes. But his general wheel-to-wheel judgement has not previously been suspect. As such the Spa misjudgement would appear to have been an anomaly.
It can happen: take a look at the start in the 1994 German Grand Prix that earned Mika Hakkinen a one race ban. It was a terrible misjudgement but no-one questions today that Hakkinen - World Champion of 1998 and '99 - was one of F1's greatest drivers. Grosjean's race ban will pull him up short, cause him to re-assess and may temper the final excesses from his game. But it's a game that just needs a bit of fine-tuning.
The pattern of Maldonado's incidents are quite different. But, like Grosjean, though perhaps not as often, he has shown that he has a very fine skill that can be applied with great discipline and freedom of error. See his flawless victory in the Spanish Grand Prix as proof of that.
Pastor's accidents really do seem to be triggered by 'red mist' - in high stress situations, he seems unable to control his emotions. His incident with Grosjean in Australia can be written off as just two hard racers being uncompromising with each other. But banging wheels with Sergio Perez in Monaco practice this year or with Hamilton at Spa last year, barging back onto the track and into an accident with Hamilton at Valencia this year: these are all red mist incidents. It means that when he makes a genuinely innocent misjudgement, like his blocking of Nico Hulkenberg in qualifying on Saturday, he is penalised.
That three-place penalty then snowballed into further incident. Having qualified third fastest with an outstanding lap, he seemed desperate to claw back the penalty at the start. His explanation of 'the clutch paddle slipped out my hand' for his jump start was met with universal disbelief. After pitting for damage at the end of the first lap, he was in the emotionally challenging situation of finding himself at the back in a car he knew he could be running at the front - and, just like when he was in the same situation at Monaco, he crashed pretty much as soon as racing was underway.
Out of the car, the team see an intelligent and gifted driver with a fantastic feel for the tyres and an ability to combine speed with looking after the rubber that's potentially gold dust in 2012. Yet that all goes out the window when a situation trips those emotional triggers in him. There's a potentially fabulous driver in there, but F1 is not a finishing school. He may run out of time.