Colton Herta, Abu Dhabi 2021 and Formula 1’s Relationship With Its Rules

In recent days, AlphaTauri announced their willingness to let Pierre Gasly out of his contract, allowing him to join a different team for 2023 (most likely Alpine). However, that was dependent on their ability to sign IndyCar driver Colton Herta for the next year. This required a super licence exception for Herta, who currently lacks the 40 points needed to receive permission to compete in Formula 1. With no exception incoming, it has now been announced that Herta will be remaining Stateside for 2023.

To recap, the current super licence points system rewards drivers based on their accomplishments in series outside of Formula 1. Assuming Colton Herta finishes the IndyCar season in eighth place (his best possible finish), he would have a total of 32 points. Herta could push that to a total of 38 points, assuming he drives 100 km in every first free practice session from Singapore to Abu Dhabi. That would still leave him short of the aforementioned points requirement. The FIA has to decide on such a special exception, and at the time of writing, no decision has been made. Some sources inside the paddock feel such an exception is unlikely, but a confirmation remains pending.

There has been discussion online on whether such an exception should be granted. Many are in favour of it, either out of a general opposition to the FIA Super Licence points system or out of appreciation towards Herta’s driving abilities. Others argue against it, pointing towards a number of competent drivers who would have sufficient points to compete in Formula 1 (to prove their point, a random selection of names who will have 40 or more super licence points at the start of 2023, assuming current championship positions: Felipe Drugovich, Sacha Fenestraz, Victor Martins, Edoardo Mortara) and believe there is no need to hand out separate permissions that circumvent the system.

As far as the author is concerned, he believes that such an exception will be granted if Red Bull went the whole mile in terms of public pressure (even under possible conditions such as being actively required to run him in aforementioned free practices in 2022). While Liberty Media may be content with just having three races in the United States of America to encroach that motorsport fanbase, having an American hero to market to the people would be rather valuable. Of course, Logan Sargeant and Jak Crawford are Americans in the feeder system that could actually earn a super licence in the way the rules intend, but a) neither of them are close to making it to Formula 1 and b) compared to Herta, both are rather unknown to the American public.

In the end, this debate is a product of the idea of the “spirit of the law” versus the “letter of the law”. The idea of the FIA super licence (just like all licences in driving in general and in motorsport) is to prevent drivers who are incapable of driving Formula 1 cars in an appropriate fashion and at speeds that do not make them a threat to other competitors. In that regard, Colton Herta is clearly not someone who needs to be kept out. Regardless of how much you think IndyCar results are worth in terms of driving talent, anyone who thinks Herta could not be trusted to run a Formula 1 car in a competitive and safe manner just because he lacks the required super licence points would be complimented if called an idiot.

The author could go over how the super licence system has failed to prevent subpar paydrivers from getting to Formula 1, how it creates an undeserved feeder series monopoly for Formula 2 and Formula 3 by undervaluing other series and how that in turn makes Formula 1’s ladder unduly Eurocentric, but that has been addressed in a Gravel Trap before. The much more interesting topic is the philosophical question about how much a governing body is bound to follow its own poor regulations. Is it right to disregard or make exceptions to the rules if they are poorly designed?

This ties back to other discussions in recent memories, such as the debate on whether Andretti should see the $200m fee for new entrants waived; yet another example of the rules of the sport clashing with how the sport – at least in many fans’ eyes – should be run. However, the prime example of the content of the rules versus their intent and the desirability of the proper execution of rules is the now-infamous 2021 season finale.

More than enough virtual ink has been spilled on the timeline of events and even GP Rejects had its two main contributors go on an elongated whinge about that race, so this Gravel Trap will not go over what actually happened near the end of the race. Instead, it will focus on the fact that all of those events were perfectly aligned with the rules of the time. Article 15.3 of the sporting regulations at the time gave Michael Masi full permission to override the safety car rules laid out in 48.12. Said rules require any cars lapped by the leader to unlap themselves, which would have required an additional lap, resulting in the race ending under the safety car. The “official statement” by the FIA at the start of the following season should not be seen as a denial of those facts, especially given their emphasis on the validity of the 2021 championship standings and the impossibility of changing them. In fact, the FIA has explicitly not removed the ability of the race director to alter the use of the safety car from the rulebook: Article 15.3 remains unchanged in the 2022 sportive regulations. Therefore, it is easy to conclude that the FIA press statement was merely meant as appeasements toward the legions of fans drawn to Formula 1 by Sir Lewis Hamilton and not as either an admission of guilt or a plan to change their approach towards the interpretation of the safety car used by the race director at the time. It stands to reason that Formula 1 will continue in future to not follow safety car rules to the letter in pursuit of The Show™.

Many would rightfully argue that Masi should have forfeited his ability to end the safety car period and allow cars to unlap themselves as was necessary to have what constitutes an artificial one-on-one showdown for the victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the world championship as a whole. Others would be opposed to that. They would point towards the anti-climax of the first Formula 1 season since 2012 to go down to the last race between two drivers from different teams ending under a safety car period. Their arguments are looking either at the audience’s perspective or from the commercial interests of the sport. 

Of course, an argument that some people like Toto Wolff have brought forward is to deny an exception but alter the rules so in the future, American open-wheel drivers have an “easier” time of getting a super licence. On the face of it, that would seem like a common sense solution. However, that approach bodes an inherent problem that leads to the question of exceptions to rules to begin with: time.

It is all good to follow a bad rule, realise that it is bad and take steps to change the bad rule. Unfortunately, by that time the person that is disadvantaged by those rules may no longer be able to make use of those changes. Being considered for a Formula 1 debut, especially in the current franchise era, is a rare opportunity. A rule change could be made to allow Herta to drive in Formula 1 in 2024 by increasing the super licence points awarded for IndyCar results. Unfortunately, by that time, AlphaTauri may no longer have interest in him. It is not like Red Bull are lacking in young drivers, even if they apparently consider their Formula 2 drivers either not worth a ride in Formula 1 or not ready for it. Still, Ayumu Iwasa could be considered ready for Formula 1 in 2024 with a good second season in Formula 2, Red Bull-sponsored Formula 3 drivers Isack Hadjar or Jak Crawford may move to Formula 2 and sufficiently impress there to get the 2024 drive with AlphaTauri (even if the author considers that unlikely) and thus Colton Herta may never get the opportunity to drive in Formula 1.

Both those with an interest in an American driver in Formula 1 at the earliest opportunity (i.e. Liberty Media) and fans of Herta’s abilities would consider this a massive disappointment. Therefore it is understandable that they want to see the rules bend, just like those who are opposed to that do not want to see the rules bend, whether they feel a change of the rules afterwards is appropriate or not. Both approaches have their pros and cons and have implications towards other facets of the execution of the rulebook that may not directly be obvious to the observing eye and can have championship-altering implications.

With those points in mind, what is the perfect solution for the question of Herta? In the end, the author unfortunately does not have one – outside of the highly unproductive suggestion to not make corrupt super licence rules to give a flawed and intentionally overpriced F2 a feeder series a quasi-monopoly, officially designed to prevent any future repeat of the debut of a driver that since then has gone on to win 30 races at time of writing and is soon going to be a multiple-times Formula 1 world champion barring a historic collapse.

That might help.

Sources: Auto Motor und Sport, FIA, motorsport-total.com

Image Sources: GP Fans, Lukas Raich (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, resized), Mercedes

Author

  • Lennart Gottorf is an opinionated motorsport fan hailing from the Federal Republic of Germany. When he isn't working on the Gravel Trap, he is struggling with his cheese cube addiction and loves reading.