Sebastian Vettel, in this weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix, picked up a five-second penalty for re-entering the track dangerously and impeding Lewis Hamilton. The bulk of the F1 community agreed he was harshly done by, but that doesn’t justify his behaviour in response.
I’m a rugby union referee. Not a bad one, but not exactly on the reserve list for the World Cup either. I get most of my decisions right, and a handful wrong. One of the things I love about rugby – which I do worry is being eroded – is that even if I get something wrong, if someone tells me to fuck off they expect to be sent off.
I understand that every sport is different, and that the F1 World Championship is a little different to the Midlands 2 West (North) league. But, when Vettel shouted “Here’s a message for Charlie [Whiting, then-FIA Race Director]: fuck off!” over his team radio in 2016, I immediately felt that he had crossed a very significant line.
Now, three years later, that same driver is childishly stomping away from post-race formalities, appearing to seek out race officials and – in a particularly juvenile move – swapping the ‘1’ and ‘2’ signs in the area where the top three cars were parked. Or rather, would have been parked if he hadn’t wheeled his car away from the track after the chequered flag.
The title of this article may be a touch misleading. The point I’d like to make is not about Vettel per se, but more specifically, talking about Seb. I was left very frustrated watching the Sky Sports F1 coverage, during which every commentator and pundit disagreed with the officials’ decision (which they are fully entitled to do) but not one of them even hinted that the Ferrari driver’s behaviour was not befitting of a four-time World Champion and worldwide role model.
It took until an interview with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to hear some sense being made of the situation. Asked a rather leading question about Vettel’s behaviour, he replied that things had gone against his team in the past and his attitude was to accept that it happens and move on to the next one. The Sky Sports team at that point didn’t appear to know how to respond.
I think those who surround sport have become far too tolerant of flagrant disrespect for the people without whom you could not have sport. When Nick Kyrgios loses the plot and shouts at an umpire in tennis, commentators talk about how wonderfully ‘box office’ he is. When all eleven footballers in a team threateningly surround a referee who has just given a controversial penalty, pundits say they ‘understand why they’re angry’ if the decision was wrong.
When Serena Williams described one of tennis’ greatest umpires, Carlos Ramos, a ‘liar’ and a ‘thief’, I was among those to say that she deserved every code violation that led to her being docked a game. There may be a case about men and women being treated differently in those situations – and that should absolutely be eradicated if so – but the simple fact is that no sportsperson should be able to call an official’s integrity into question without expecting punishment. The majority of the public reaction, unfortunately in my opinion, seemed to land on Serena’s side.
I’m 50-50 on the Vettel incident, for the record. But even if it wasn’t right, unless there is clear evidence that someone was acting dishonestly, no official in any sport should be subject to the public ridicule we saw this weekend. And commentators, pundits, journalists and fans all have a responsibility, to the sport they love, to call out this behaviour when they see it.