Why a race ban wouldn’t have been too harsh a penalty for Australian GP ‘avoidable’ collision

Thomas Maher
Albert Park, Melbourne, Australian Grand Prix.

Nikola Tsolov and Alex Dunne came to blows exiting Turn 9 at the Australian Grand Prix.

Nikola Tsolov’s intentional collision with Alex Dunne in Formula 3 practice at the Australian GP has resulted in a penalty, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Towards the end of the practice session, Tsolov and Dunne were involved in a strange incident which resulted in the latter driver ending up in the barriers.

Nikola Tsolov and Alex Dunne collide in bizarre incident

The ART driver was approaching Dunne on track as the pair exited Turn 9, with a speed differential in Tsolov’s favour, when Dunne slowed down off the racing line to give the track to his rival.

But Tsolov appeared to have been incensed by a weave across the track from Dunne immediately exiting the corner, and opted to crowd the MP Motorsport car – only to full-on bang wheels with Dunne and force the Irish driver into the wall.

With damage to his car from hitting the concrete, Dunne resumed the track but was forced to pull over and stop – bringing out the red flags – while Tsolov returned to the pits.

The stewards met with both drivers and team representatives and handed over a three-place grid penalty to Tsolov for causing an avoidable collision. Dunne was also reprimanded for his part in the incident after it was ruled he “unnecessarily impeded” Tsolov.

But the nature of the incident warrants a greater penalty than simply adjudging it based on usual stewarding standards for a collision.

Why the stewards should be coming down hard on Nikola Tsolov

In the vast, vast majority of racing incidents and collisions that require the stewards to have a look, there’s an assumption that the actions requiring a closer look have not been done with the intent of malice or purposeful impediment or destruction.

With the presumption of innocence made of all drivers, it makes stewarding decisions relatively easy to fairly judge and establish precedent.

But it’s in the incidents where the intent isn’t entirely innocent that this precedent should be completely discarded, and looked at with far harsher eyes.

Watching the footage back, there’s no doubt that Dunne does weave in front of Tsolov as they exit the high-speed Turn 9 – the Irishman explaining that he had not been aware of Tsolov’s approach as he hadn’t been actively looking in his mirrors for approaching cars.

To that end, he apologised for the lapse – fair enough, give him the reprimand.

However, in judging Tsolov, the stewards chose to rule on it with the usual assumption of innocence. Tsolov said in his hearing that his lap had been affected by Dunne and that he wanted Dunne to know that.

As a result, Tsolov “deviated from his normal racing line and drove close to Dunne” to highlight his presence. He “misjudged” this action, and collided with Dunne.

Astonishingly, the stewards ruled that Dunne’s actions, not Tsolov’s, had led to the following collision and retirement of his car – pointing the finger at Dunne for having started the fuss in the first place.

Sorry, but what? Dunne moved his car out of the way and did not deviate from his line after doing so. He did not aim his car at an opponent – only Tsolov can be to blame for the collision and for Dunne’s damage, and whatever potential alternative outcome could have occurred.

What logic is there that a driver can deviate from accepted sporting behaviour to such an extent, yet escape with a standard sporting punishment?

Swerving your car at a rival “to highlight your presence” is not typical behaviour, and should be viewed as using your car as a weapon – behaviour which should be stamped out at every level of motorsport, particularly junior categories, and it warrants more than a typical three-place grid penalty.

According to the FIA’s International Sporting Code, cars are not permitted to be driven “erratically or in a manner deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers”. However, the intent behind the erratic driving or the manner is not taken into consideration – an oversight in the wording which perhaps needs tightening up.

But, even under the current wording, if Tsolov hadn’t actually made contact with Dunne’s car, would his erratic swerve to “highlight his presence” have been looked at?

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In 2017, Sebastian Vettel caused an outcry when he engaged in similar behaviour when he got annoyed with Lewis Hamilton after feeling the Mercedes driver had brake-checked him under the Safety Car.

The wheel-to-wheel contact was found “potentially dangerous” (and hadn’t stuffed Hamilton into the wall!) and he was given a 10-second stop-go penalty and three penalty points on his licence.

So why the leniency of only a grid penalty and two penalty points for Tsolov? Why ignore the context of the incident by judging it as a standard unintentional collision? There was nothing unintentional about Tsolov turning his steering wheel in Dunne’s direction at reasonably high speed, was there?

“I knew he was there, but then I suddenly just felt the hit. I didn’t do anything strange. I was just on the racing line,” Tsolov told Feeder Series – a very different interpretation of events from the video footage.

As for whether it was deliberate: “I have no intention against him. There’s nothing to win in a practice session, so I wouldn’t do something like that.” So deliberate contact doesn’t make sense in the context of a practice session, but might in a race?

It’s for this reason that the stewards should have come down like a tonne of bricks on Tsolov. Hitting Dunne with a reprimand for the unintentional weave is a fair and balanced outcome, but pointing the finger of blame at him for triggering an incident of deliberate retaliation simply is not.

There should be nothing less than a race ban for deliberate contact or weaving at a rival with the intent of physical intimidation. After all, what has Tsolov learned from this “avoidable” incident now?

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