In the end, it was all about what the regulations didn’t say relative to Lewis Hamilton’s double shuffle at the Hockenheim pit lane entrance on Sunday.
You’ll find among the bulletins at every Grand Prix a coupe of pages headed Event Notes, signed off by Race Director Charlie Whiting. This is a summary of the important house rules pertaining to each event: practice start procedure; pit lane map; position of gates to allow removal of stricken cars from the grid; that sort of thing.
There is always a paragraph or two covering pit lane entry and exit with due reference to crossing white lines, particularly when leaving the pits.
The entry procedure can vary. There were no restrictions whatsoever at Monaco whereas in Austria, the relevant paragraph stated: ‘For safety reasons drivers must keep to the right of the white line preceding the pit lane entry which starts 50m before turn 9, no part of any car entering the pits may cross this line.’
In Germany, paragraph 8 simply said: ‘….drivers must stay to the right of the bollard at the pit entry when entering the pits.’ Nothing more.
The purpose, of course, is to prevent a driver from looking for the fastest entry and diving in at the last second. On that basis, it’s reasonable to assume that Charlie Whiting never thought it necessary to cover the eventuality of a driver actually crossing the white line in the opposite direction. It’s a bit like a store detective wondering what to do about a known shoplifter walking in and leaving goods on the counter.
You could argue that when he passed the bollard on the right, Hamilton had formally committed himself to entering the pits. On the basis of the subsequent acquittal, however, it has to be assumed that you don’t officially enter the pit lane until crossing the timing line a few meters further on. And the rules in operation last weekend made no actual mention of crossing a white line – which Hamilton undoubtedly did.
That then leaves for consideration the method of Hamilton’s cutting across the grass to regain the track – much as he might have done on any other part of the circuit following an excursion. Given that safety car speed limitations were in operation and the Mercedes did not rejoin on the racing line, the stewards felt that punishment should be limited to a reprimand.
Mika Salo was the drivers’ representative on the stewards’ panel; as tough a racer as you will find and one who has stood on both sides of the fence when it comes to driver behaviour.
When driving for Toyota in 2002, Salo was given a 25-second penalty for an aggressive exit that almost caused a collision in Hungary. Last year, he received death threats for being on the panel that penalised Max Verstappen for exceeding track limits in Austin. More recently, he was quoted in the Scandinavian media as suggesting the stewards may not have been consistent in their dealings with incidents involving the Ferrari drivers on the first laps at Paul Ricard and Silverstone.
Above all, though, Salo understands how guidelines of every colour need to be understood and respected; a lesson he learned the hard way at this very circuit in 1999.
Having struggled for many years in the midfield and beyond with the likes of Tyrrell and Arrows, the Finn grabbed his chance as stand-in for the injured Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. Salo qualified ahead of team-mate Eddie Irvine and led the second half of the German Grand Prix (following a tyre failure on Mika Hakkinen’s leading McLaren).
On the last lap, Salo allowed Irvine into the lead of not only the race but also the championship. After playing second fiddle to Schumacher for four seasons, Irvine was the first to warmly appreciate Salo sacrificing the rare opportunity to justifiably claim a result that would have moved him into the exclusive Grand Prix winners’ club.
Irvine’s drive that day earned nothing like the merit attached to Hamilton’s victory, particularly in treacherous conditions underlined by the disastrous consequences of Sebastian Vettel’s simple mistake going into turn 13 (Sachs Kurve).
Paragraph 2 of the Event Notes recorded that the barrier on the outside of turn 13 had been upgraded with additional tyres and belting. Before the weekend got under way, Vettel would have been forgiven for thinking he had no more need of that piece of news than his rival did for the pit entrance white line not being mentioned.