The British August Bank Holiday weekend is nearly upon us and as many of us eye the weather forecasts anticipating a late summer sojourn to the beach or the park, F1 teams and drivers are returning from their own four weeks vacation ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. As the second half of the season begins, we will see if anyone can chase down Sebastian Vettel to deny him a fourth World Championship in a row. England’s cricketers will also have enjoyed a week off savouring their Ashes series victory before the 5th Test Match begins at The Oval tomorrow. In any other series this final game might be dubbed something of a dead rubber after Australia succumbed in Durham and went three down with one to play. However, with another five-test series beginning in Australia in as few as 90 days, there are scores to settle and points to prove for members of both sides.
So other than the fact that many people will be tuning into their car radios whilst sat in stationary traffic to listen to these two sporting events over the next few hopefully sun-drenched days, what else connects them? Well, there’s plenty really, but as Arsene Wenger might say, “I want to talk about the refereeing”. In cricket they have umpires and in motor racing the stewards officiate, but in both cases the purpose of those in charge is to ensure the rules are respected and applied consistently. Questionable umpiring has been an unfortunate theme of this year’s Ashes series and has detracted from some closely contested cricket. In the same way, the harsh treatment by the stewards of Romain Grosjean at last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some F1 followers.
To refresh your memories, Grosjean – who has taken plenty of flak recently for his Mario Kart-like approach to wheel-to-wheel racing – cleanly overtook Felipe Massa around the outside of the Hungaroring’s Turn 4 (a blind left-handed corner at the crest of a hill taken at 130 mph). The last few seasons have seen the introduction of a number of regulations designed to define what is and what isn’t acceptable with respect to overtaking. The simple rule which always existed was that a driver must respect the track limits i.e. keep at least part of the car inside the white lines that define the track. It used to be that there was a gravel trap, a barrier or even a lamppost at the edge of the track to make the drivers respect the track limits. In the interests of safety these are more and more frequently being replaced by tarmac run-off areas, affording drivers the opportunity to overtake whilst technically off the track. This creates the problem of drivers deliberately forcing an opponent off the track to avoid being overtaken so a regulation was written in decreeing that an opponent should always be given a car’s width of space. The problem comes when you try to send two cars through a 130 mph blind corner. Sometimes there’s only space for one car and it then becomes a matter of opinion as to who left whom space and who deliberately left the track. Fans and seasoned pros alike all agreed that Grosjean’s move was a thrilling example of exactly the type of thing we want to see every other Sunday. The stewards disagreed and found that the Frenchman was a couple of centimetres beyond the track limits during the manoeuvre. The subsequent penalty denied Grosjean the opportunity to challenge for a victory that was very much a possibility.
You could argue for and against the application of this penalty just as you could argue for and against many of the contentious umpiring decisions at the Trent Bridge and Lords Test Matches. In many cases it’s a matter of opinion. It’s interesting though to look at the two contrasting approaches the two sports have taken to improving their standards of officiating.
In the cricket, a lot of the controversy has surrounded the implementation of the Decision Review System – DRS for short. DRS was adopted in 2009 in an effort to increase the number of correct umpiring decisions. The standard of on-field umpiring had improved markedly over previous years with the advent of the International Cricket Council’s elite umpiring panel but with players’ careers potentially resting on the umpires’ decision making ability, it was felt more use could be made of the television replays and technology already being used by the broadcasters to enhance their coverage and inform their viewership. And so, in came DRS, granting teams the opportunity to refer any decision that they felt was erroneous to a jury of super-slow-motion replays, infrared thermal imaging cameras and military grade ballistic ball tracking software. Cricket’s approach to improve decision-making was to take away as much of the subjective as possible and use technology to deal with matters of fact.
In some ways this is in contrast to the approach taken by Formula 1’s governing body the FIA. The FIA’s solution to provide consistency was to bring along driver stewards to each race to give their objective opinion on contentious matters. Of course this comparison is not entirely fair; cricket umpires are trying to adjudge matters of fact, whereas motor racing stewards are often dealing with matters of opinion.
Before the advent of Hotspot and Snicko, we had to make do with only grainy slow-motion replays to decide whether a batsman had got a slight feather on the ball. If it was not clear-cut, we were happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and move on. Now with the microscope of DRS we demand a definitive answer and while the technology allows us to get more decisions correct there is still going to be the odd one where we just don’t know for sure. It’s the same in motor racing; it used to be that the fairness of an overtake was judged on whether each driver still had four wheels attached to his car following the move. If the answer was yes then it was probably fair game. If not, it was probably Eddie Irvine’s fault. These days we go through the video replays to try to show definitively who’s to blame and again it’s not always possible.
What’s clear in both cricket and F1 is that the more you scrutinise the rules and the decision-making process the more contentious issues you will create. The traditionally sedate game of cricket has taken the hi-tech approach to decision-making and Formula 1 has attempted to use good old-fashioned common sense. In both cases the end result has been to create more grey areas. Let’s just hope the grey areas stay away this Bank Holiday Weekend.