OpEd – Blocking in Modern Motorsports
The Blocking Problem
Blocking is certainly nothing new in motorsports, or racing in general for that matter. As soon as two people raced each other on foot, I’m sure that the leader blocked the person behind and probably violently. In various types of horse racing, we see blocking and crowding a competitor against the rail, and given that automobile racing is simply an extension of horse racing, its no surprise that we see blocking in modern motorsports. The challenge of the various sanctioning bodies of modern motorsports series is to find the balance of preventing egregious blocking that can prohibit any type of passing, yet still allow a driver to mount some kind of defense of their position.
Blocking in IndyCar
Of course, the impetus for this whole dissertation is the call by Race Control of blocking by Helio Castroneves in the final laps of the Edmonton Indy Grand Prix. In IndyCar racing, fans and drivers have always commented about blocking, but with a closed rule book and closed drivers’ meetings, we’ve never really known what the actual blocking rule was. If you didn’t see the race, on a late-race restart with just a handful of laps remaining, Helio Castroneves lead his teammate Will Power down the front stretch and ran an extreme inside line down to Turn 1 in an attempt to defend his position. Power followed him down the inside while the rest of the field lead by Scott Dixon from P3 headed down the standard racing line and set up on the outside of the turn. Power eventually moved to attempt an outside pass on Helio, who was sticking hard to the inside line. In their skirmmish in T1, Dixon had the better angle and therefore the better exit speed and took P2 from Power and almost took the lead from Castroneves. Race Control immediately called a blocking penalty on Helio which confused not only us fans, but also the very experienced Versus commentating crew of Bob Jenkins, Robbie Buhl, and Jan Beekhus.
“You have plenty of options on where to put your car and we should not have any defending or blocking. Again we will be visually dividing the braking point through the entry into the corner in half. You can only be on the inside half if you are attempting to pass someone. If you are on the inside half because you are under attack from someone else, it is blocking. Don’t move your car in reaction to a following car and don’t impede the progress of a car with a run on you.” — Brian Barnhart, Vice President of Competition, during the pre-race drivers’ meeting at Edmonton
This is all well and good, but where was the enforcement of this rule at Toronto when Ryan Briscoe used the inside line into Turn 3 to block Graham Rahal, an incident that resulted in Briscoe’s early retirement from the race. No one disputes that what Helio did at Edmonton was blocking according to how the rule is written. What is being disputed and debated is the rule itself. Is this how we want blocking to be defined? Let’s look at how its defined in some other top-tier series.
Blocking in other Racing Series
Formula 1, the self-described pinnacle of motorsport (Le Mans might have something to say about that), has an infamous reputation for drivers blocking and defending their positions aggressively. Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber are two current drivers that are notorious for having extra-wide cars. The actual rule against blocking in Formula 1 is pretty standard as far as such rules go, its the “one move” rule.
In overtaking battles the driver in front’s best defence is his ability to pick braking points and cornering lines. A skilful driver can hold off an opponent by adopting a ‘defensive’ driving style. Typically this means reducing the angle available for the car behind to use going into corners where there is a substantial risk of being passed. Providing that the driver ahead only changes his line once going into a corner (not deliberately attempting to block the car behind) this is a perfectly justifiable form of racing, and with it a driver in an inferior car can successfully hold off a faster rival. — Understanding the Sport: Overtaking, Formula1.com
This rule is seldom enforced, however, unless there is an egregious move by a driver that cannot be ignored. Earlier this year, Lewis Hamilton zigged and zagged all down the front stretch at Sepang to impede trailing driver Vitaliy Petrov. At the Hungaroring, the worst block of the season was thrown by Schumacher against his old teammate Rubins Barrichello. Both of those incidents were called out by race control and the offending drivers took a penalty. There are numerous other examples, however, where a driver can get away with two or more moves so long as the officials don’t notice its apparently ok. Mark Webber is expert at this, just ask his teammate Sebastian Vettel.
The ACO and IMSA have similar rules regarding blocking, both following a one-move philosophy. Perhaps because of the nature of class-racing, blocking is more strictly enforce in series sanctioned by these two bodies. This is especially true in the American Le Mans Series. Earlier this month, in the waning laps of the ALMS race at Lime Rock, Klaus Graf driving the Porsche RS Spyder LMP car for CytoSport made a move around GT traffic that caused David Brabham to take evasive action in his Patron Highcroft Racing’s HPD ARX-01c ending with Brabham off in the grass accelerating the deterioration of an already weak tyre. Graf immediate incurred a drive-through penalty for the blocking infraction. Graf didn’t dispute the penalty, and admitted that he was guilty as charged. Its this type of behaviour that one elicits with consistent and decisive officiating.
Is there really a solution?
Blocking has always been, is, and always will be a problem in motorsports. Drivers will always do what they can to protect their position. Rules against blocking, though, should focus on the safety of the drivers and spectators. Extreme weaving, or making a second move that could put to cars in contact puts not only the drivers at risk, but also the track marshals and the spectators around the two cars. What a blocking rule should not do is to fabricate results. This is what the rule carried over from the Champ Car World Series into the IZOD IndyCar Series does. It removes from the lead driver the freedom to choose a line through the course. It dictates to the driver what side of the course to drive in order to facilitate more passing. A driver in competition should by all means be allowed to choose their own preferred line through a turn, whether that be setting up to the inside, middle, or outside. It is the job of the trailing driver to analyze the lead driver’s line and determine a best way of exploiting any weakness that line may have. This doesn’t necessarily mean a one-move rule. Its more akin to the rule that IndyCar uses on ovals. Pick a racing line and stick to it. A strict one-move rule could allow a driver to chop off a driver passing on the inside with a single blocking move from the outside line to the inside. It would be a single move, but it would still be a block and potentially very dangerous.
So in the end, my official recommendation to the league is three-fold:
- Make the rule book publicly available so there is no confusion as to the nature of the rules.
- Limit blocking by mandating a ‘pick-n-stick’ rule allowing a driver to choose any line they like, so long as they adhere to that line once chosen.
- Most important of all, be consistent in the enforcement of the rule. A rule does no good if it is inconsistently enforced. In fact, inconsistent enforcement is worse than having no rule at all.
Thoughts? Counter-arguments? Let me know in the comment section below.