Sunday, March 29, 2009

Vettel's penalty and concepts of justice

There was no reason to expect that the FIA stewards would have suddenly discovered wisdom over the winter. Nevertheless, it comes as a disappointment to see those negative expectations vindicated so swiftly.

Sebastian Vettel has been judged culpable, and duly sentenced to a 10-place grid penalty at the next Grand Prix, for his accident with Robert Kubica in the closing stages of today's Australian Grand Prix. One could dispute whether Vettel was fully responsible for the accident, but this is hardly the point. For two drivers fighting over second place late in a Grand Prix, and for what was generally thought to be a 'racing accident', without any deliberate intent, the very notion that the FIA stewards are qualified to pass judgement and issue a penalty, is, to use the language with which such non-entities operate, 'wholly inappropriate'. The penalty issued might be considered absurdly draconian, were it not for the substantial precedent already established by the FIA stewards on the subject of 'avoidable collisions'.

In general terms, there are three possible components to the justification of punitive justice: (i) Retribution, (ii) Reform, and (iii) Deterrence. Consider, then, whether any one of these components can be used to justify the punishment meted out to Vettel:

(i) Retribution. Both Vettel and Kubica retired as a consequence of their collision. Vettel therefore gained no advantage. There was no requirement for the FIA stewards to intervene in order to balance out the scales of justice here.

(ii) Reform. Vettel, if truly responsible for the accident, committed little more than an instantaneous, inadvertent error of judgement. There is no form of punishment, never mind a ten-place grid penalty, which will eliminate small and honest human error. If drivers become less error-prone over the course of a career, it is as a result of experience, not as a result of being victimised by punitive administrators.

(iii) Deterrence. Overtaking is difficult enough as it is. The FIA claims that it wants to encourage racing and overtaking, and has forced the teams to substantially modify the aerodynamics of their cars this year to that very end. Yet the meting-out of penalties whenever a racing accident occurs, does nothing more than deter the drivers from engaging in genuine wheel-to-wheel racing.

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