Vettel, Baku, the FIA and Liberty Media

The machinations of F1 politics meant the decision not to punish Sebastien Vettel further for his clash with Lewis Hamilton was inevitable. Despite rumours suggesting FIA President Jean Todt wanted to make an example of the German there are plenty of reasons why there was a slim chance of that ever happening.

First up is the burgeoning partnership between the FIA and Liberty Media.

Commercial considerations are never far away when it comes to F1 decision-making. The relationship between the FIA and Liberty Media is in its infancy. With Bernie Ecclestone gone the ‘cosy’ relationship between the governing body and the commercial side of F1 is in flux.  Both sides are sounding each other out as to how they can progress in a mutually beneficial way.

The FIA/Liberty Media honeymoon continues

Thus far it has been something of a honeymoon. The more creative, forward thinking Liberty have been trying new ideas. Cutting deals with classic circuits like like Hockenheim and Paul Ricard. Removing the draconian restrictions enforced by Bernie on social media coverage and broadcasts outside of strict TV deals. Promoters seem to be happier and Liberty is pressing on with fan engagement initiatives that Ecclestone had never the slightest bit of interest in.

Maintaining that honeymoon period cannot have been far from the minds of the FIA committee deciding Vettel’s fate. Why? Simply because the 2017 is offering up a legitimate Hamilton v Vettel battle. No more ‘which Mercedes will win each race?’ And that is a good for F1 and for the value of the sport’s commercial rights.

A cynical perspective

The ramifications of further punishment for Vettel would have been significant for Liberty Media.

Lewis Hamilton fans demanded Vettel was stripped of his Baku points, banned from the Austrian Grand Prix and left to walk a disciplinary tightrope for the rest of the season. Envisaging such a scenario would all but have decided the 2017 championship in Hamilton’s favour.

It might be a cynical perspective to take but this is F1 after all. Liberty surely want Vettel and Hamilton to be fighting tooth and nail until Abu Dhabi. Especially if there is a bit of needle between the two.

At the outset of this new partnership, it is hard to believe the FIA would be happy to derail the big story of 2017 or even wreck it completely.

Perhaps of more significance – to the legitimacy and integrity of the sport certainly – was the need for the FIA to back their own stewards.

Paris is watching

Further penalties for Vettel post-Baku would have set a precedent for the rest of the season. The message to drivers and teams would have been clear: despite what the stewards may decide, Paris is watching. No sport wants to have to wait over a week for a final decision on a sporting result. And that’s is even more critical to F1.

American Ford dealer and drag racer Bob Tasca coined the phrase “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Pretty much every foray in to motor sport by a major auto manufacturers rests entirely or in part on that premise. F1 is no different. Additional scrutiny by ‘big brother’ post race – in this case the FIA – nullifies the entire principle.

Win on Sunday, sell on Monday

The motorsport – and mainstream – media had a field day after Baku. Filling digital and printed column inches with ‘will they or won’t they’ speculation. F1 was in the headlines long after the engine’s fell silent on Sunday evening. But to experience that every other race weekend? F1 would descend in to farce within weeks.

Additional sanctions against Vettel would have opened up a can of worms. Stewards’ decision would be being challenged race-to-race by drivers and teams. Undermining their authority during the race weekend could lead to them eventually shirking responsibility for the big, race-defining decisions. Before long races are being decided by a committee in Paris several days (or weeks) later.

These factors may or may not have contributed to the decisions. It could have had more to do with the relatively low speed of the collision, the difficulty in determining direct action (considering Vettel’s hand were off the steering wheel) or the conspiracy theorists favourite: the FIA bent over to maintain their ‘special’ relationship with Ferrari.

But when you look at it through cynical eyes, it is not difficult to see why allowing Vettel to ‘get away with’ his Baku road rage was inevitable.

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