Formula 1

Punishing Wolff and Vasseur would've been a travesty

by Matt Beer
4 min read

The FIA Formula 1 stewards have given Toto Wolff and Fred Vasseur - Mercedes and Ferrari team principals - warnings over the language they used in an explosive press conference at the Las Vegas Grand Prix last week.

That's an extremely sensible outcome to a summons that was probably technically necessary in terms of keeping up proper decorum, but an instance where it would have been a travesty if either had been formally punished.

The 'Friday' (this one was ostensibly Thursday night but technically early hours of Friday morning) team principals' press conferences can be genuinely fascinating and are an underrated source of insight at times, invariably more engaging than the often turgid Thursday driver conferences in which host Tom Clarkson does his utterly professional best to satisfy the demands of that role in the face of understandable boredom from drivers over this decades-old format.

The Vegas bosses' session was a thrilling watch at times. Vasseur was enraged by having one of his cars wrecked by a loose water valve cover on the track little over an hour before, and yet to calm at all over the cost (in both financial and disruption terms) for his team and the potential consequences his driver Carlos Sainz had escaped. He flat-out refused to play the game when Clarkson (the hero of the episode) tried to get him onto the event and season overview topics originally expected to be the focus.

Later Wolff absolutely lost it over a combination of a line of questioning he felt was unfair to F1 and the Vegas event and (this was the real trigger) what appeared to be an interruption by another journalist in the room when he was answering.

In the course of their answers, Vasseur used the phrase "we f***ed up the session for Carlos" and Wolff used the phrase "you’re speaking about a f***ing drain cover that’s been undone".

Personally I'm glad my children weren't watching because I've gone out of my way to reassess my old profanity-laded habits (at least when speaking out loud) since becoming a parent and that would be a terrible example to them.

I'm also glad my children weren't watching because it would be bizarre for them to be watching an F1 team principals' press conference at 6am on a school morning.

In other words, this was a niche enough event that a bit of strong language should've been permissible, especially in emotive circumstances.

That's the conclusion the stewards reached after talking to Wolff and Vasseur in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.

They concluded that Wolff's swearing was "in this case unusual and was provoked by an abrupt interjection during the press conference" and that Vasseur was "extremely upset and frustrated by the incident that had occurred in FP1 and that language such as this, by him, was not usual".

Hence the action stopped at a warning.

But it was still preceded by this:

"The FIA regards language of this type to be unacceptable, moving forward, particularly when used by participants in the sport who have a high public profile and who are seen by many, especially younger, followers of the sport, as role models, and that in future the FIA will not tolerate the use of such language in FIA forums by any stakeholder."

Fine. As an idealistic theory. Swearing can offend and should be avoided.

But actually F1 relies on human drama, and sometimes it's OK for that to be expressed in a strong manner. And personally I was glad to see a little human drama slip into an FIA press conference.

An apology for the language during the press conference (as I'm sure Clarkson inserted) and perhaps a quiet word with Vasseur and Wolff by a member of the FIA media team when everything had calmed would've been plenty sufficient for this, rather than the rigmarole of an official summons process to draw attention back to it all one week on.

Despite his fury, Vasseur went out of the way later in the press conference to squash any inference that the track deficiencies were because too much attention had gone into the Vegas event's glitz (fair point - it's unlikely the same person was tasked with both securing water valve covers and booking Kylie Minogue).

He and Wolff were overall positive and supportive of F1, while also showing that they're real humans with real opinions in high-pressure roles in a high-drama sport.

They swore a bit along the way. They were also great for F1.

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