By Fernando Lanzer
The Anglo-Saxon cultural Commonwealth was stressed out yesterday when at the end of the Japanese Grand Prix Max Verstappen was pronounced Formula 1 World Champion for the 2022 season.
CNN: Chaos and confusion as Max Verstappen is crowned world champion.
BBC: Verstappen seals title amid confusion after Japan win.
So, what happened in Japan, and what were the cultural factors behind the news?
It rained at the Suzuka racetrack, a lot. Because of that, the start of the Grand Prix was delayed. Eventually the race began, but after just two laps it was suspended (red flag) because visibility was very bad. The track was too wet, and a few cars had spun out of control and crashed, with no serious injuries. For safety reasons, the race director ordered the red flag.
They waited for the rain to stop, or at least to diminish. The problem was that, as the afternoon went on, it might be too late to have a race, because the evening was coming, and soon there would not be enough daylight to have a race, even in a dry track. Eventually the race was re-started, and the race director announced it would finish by 17:00 local time.
This is all within the extensive Formula 1 rule book, which stipulates a maximum of three hours for races that have been interrupted, or two hours without interruption. This meant that the race would have a shorter distance: 28 laps, rather than the standard 53 laps for the Japanese Grand Prix under normal conditions.
The culture background behind the news
Culture issues play a significant role notably when different cultures are involved, and Formula 1 racing is a very international sport. Many cultures are involved in F1, but the most relevant regarding its organization are the French culture (a Solar System culture, according to Huib Wursten’s Mental Images of National Culture) and the Anglo-Saxon culture (a Contest culture as per the same framework).
The ruling body of motor racing is FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile). It’s not just the official name that is in French, the institution has been heavily influenced by the French culture since its creation and continues to be.
The racing teams, by contrast, are very influenced by the British culture. Even though Mercedes is German, Red Bull Austrian, Ferrari Italian and Alpine Renault French, all teams have many British nationals in their staff as engineers, managers and mechanics, working alongside other nationalities. The Formula 1 commercial organization (Formula One Championship Limited) who organize the races has also a predominantly Contest culture mindset. It has a French CEO and four Brits as their Management Team.
The most relevant factors regarding what happened in Japan relate to the Contest and Solar System cultures (notably, in this specific case, British and French).
As the race resumed, the media apparently assumed that just 50% of the points would be awarded, since the race had been shortened. This was also the assumption among the teams. Everybody was focusing on the race, and nobody bothered to check the rule book. It seems also that nobody sought clarification with the FIA officials.
It is typical Contest culture behavior, of course, to: (a) be independent and reach your own conclusions without having to ask others what to do; and (b) leave regulation details aside and focus on the competition and final results.
The F1 rulebook, however, is a typical Solar System (French) endeavor. It has 63 items (plus countless sub-items) over 107 pages. And this is just the volume on “Sporting.” There are three other separate volumes dealing with technical, financial and miscellaneous issues. In Solar System cultures, (a) rules tend to be extensive and detailed; and (b) when a contentious issue is raised, consult the detailed rules and interpret them.
In Contest cultures the legal framework is less detailed. Issues in court are decided by jurisprudence, that is: by checking on past decisions made previously on similar cases. This is why we often read about legal issues in the US and UK as “Roy vs Wade,” and others. They are references to previous legal decisions made on concrete cases. In Solar System cultures, by contrast, court decisions are made by interpreting the written law.
When discussions in Formula 1 arise, FIA immediately refers to the detailed rule book, happily. The Contest culture players in the situation are forced to do the same, but they don’t enjoy doing it, since it goes against their core values.
In Japan there was a communication breakdown between FIA and the broadcasters and teams. The latter assumed that half of the points would be awarded, because they had seen that happening in similar situations in the past, when races had to be shortened. Nobody checked with FIA, who would have pointed out that Article 6.5 (page 5 of the rule book) clearly states: “If a race is suspended in accordance with Article 57, and cannot be resumed, points for each title will be awarded in accordance with…”
The key detail here is the phrase “…and cannot be resumed.” The staggered points only apply when the race is suspended and cannot be resumed. In Japan, the race was resumed; therefore, full points should be applied to the race.
This meant that, for Verstappen to be declared champion already in Japan, he would need to win, and his closest competitor Charles Leclerc would need to finish third or below. Then the accumulated points gap between them would be mathematically too wide to be closed in the remaining races.
As they crossed the finish line, Verstappen was first, and Leclerc was second. Therefore, no championship yet for the Dutchman.
But wait! In the last three laps of the race, Sergio Perez, Verstappen’s teammate in the second Red Bull car, was right behind Leclerc, desperately trying to overtake him. If Perez did succeed in overtaking, Leclerc would finish third and Max would be champion. In the very last lap, a few turns before the finish, Leclerc went off the track (his tires were worn out and he was struggling to stay ahead of Perez); he returned to the track and almost pushed Perez off it. This was a typical case of “leaving the track and gaining an advantage.” It happens rather often in F1 races, and the driver is typically given a 5 second penalty. When it happens at the end of the race, often the penalty is announced an hour or two later. Some fans even raised the issue as it happened and lamented: “Does this mean that, if a penalty is awarded to Leclerc and he is demoted to third place, Verstappen might be crowned champion hours later, after the race podium celebrations are over? What a bummer!”
FIA surprised everyone by making a quicker than expected decision. It was justifiable, of course, because the incident was straightforward in itself; and it would be better for the sport to have the championship announcement before the podium, rather than after the party was over. I could see the media coming down hard on FIA for taking too long to make an announcement. So, congrats to FIA: they made a quick and timely decision, for once.
Why did the media cry “chaos?”
Basically, because they were the ones caught with their pants down on the points issue (full points, rather than staggered), and they were at fault for not clarifying this with FIA when the race was resumed almost an hour before it finished.
The Red Bull team were also unsure because (a) they also had not sought clarification on the points issue when the race was resumed; and (b) in theory, Ferrari could have appealed the 5-second penalty, in which case the whole thing would have been pushed to Monday for a definite decision. Ferrari had an elegant attitude (more typical of the Italian culture, also Solar System), contrasting with Mercedes at the end of the 2021 championship, when they filed three appeals against the result of the final race in Abu Dhabi, and lost all three.
The culture angle regarding the (Anglo-Saxon) media is that they were not happy trying to find their way through the regulations. They would certainly prefer to simply report on the race itself and the winners, rather than having to sift through a 107-page document, or having to ask FIA bureaucrats about what was going on.
The Dutch culture angle
It was amusing to see that when Max Verstappen was told he was champion, he still hesitated to celebrate. In the Dutch culture winners should be modest and should not show off.
An F1 official met the three winners in the back room before the podium ceremony. He guided Max to an adjoining room where they had previously set up a large red throne and asked him to sit there while being filmed by the TV cameras. He did so for a few seconds and was visibly uncomfortable. He said, “it feels lonely” and quickly rejoined the other drivers in the back room. That was such a display of Dutch lack of comfort when pushed to a position of showing off and appearing to be better than anyone else!