Last Sunday at Long Beach, in the middle of a very good race, we saw something none of us wanted to see. Marco Andretti, seemingly clipped by Graham Rahal, saw his car briefly leave the ground before landing in the tire barrier. Marco was able to climb from his car without assistance, but seemed at least a little shaken in his post-race interview, stating afterwards, “I'm lucky I didn't get upside down, I could have been killed”.
With both cars out of the race after the incident, this was not a scenario where Beaux Barfield and company had to make an immediate decision on whether or not to penalize Rahal. Yesterday, after further review, Graham Rahal was indeed given probation for the next six races due to “blocking and initiating avoidable contact”. This was hardly the only penalty doled out Sunday. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves both garnered 30 second penalties for incidents occurring on the last lap of the race. EJ Viso served a stop-and-go penalty after contact with Alex Tagliani. In regards to Beaux Barfield, the new sheriff was not only in town, he was handing out traffic citations at a pretty good clip as well.
So what of the penalty itself?
Certainly during the race, had Rahal continued, there seems no doubt there would have been an on-track penalty. With Rahal taking severe damage to his car along with Marco’s, not much was going to make that P25 look any worse. So, in a post-race setting, we have probation for the next half-dozen race weekends. Is it fair? Of course, you’ll find fans to tell you both yea and nay on that one. But what are we really asking?
“Fair” is a loaded word, when it comes to fandom. It’s not “fair” that Lotus is behind the power curve early in the season. It isn’t “fair” Alex Lloyd isn’t in a full-time ride (and yes, that does stink immensely). The word is used more for anything we find personally disagreeable, and less about what we find inequitable. In the purest sense, fairness is all about being just, honest, and consistent.
Yet, really, this is our first larger driver penalty (engine change penalties aside) we’ve had under the Beaux Barfield administration. What will make this fair is if the next incident that falls under these lines is treated in an equal or similar manner. What fans will look for are the following:
-Will another driver chopping as Rahal did be subject to the same penalties?
-Will the probation period be enforced (i.e., no “final warnings” if Rahal has another incident on track at Sao Paolo)?
Ultimately, fairness begins with consistency. Few people believe the 10-grid engine penalty this year is the right level of punishment for that transgression, but if it is to be enforced, we want it to be enforced for all teams. Likewise, if penalties will be assessed on avoidable contact and blocking, we want those penalties to be enforced for all teams, from Ganassi to Bryan Herta*. The “fairness” in Graham Rahal’s penalty will be in seeing how others are treated when this incident happens in Sao Paolo, Edmonton, or Mid-Ohio. Communication and consistency will go very, very far with racing fans. Before we discuss “fair” and “unfair”, let’s see what happens next time out.
With new blocking/defending rules in effect, Rahal’s probation is a sign that on-track incidents are being held accountable. So long as that trend continues, confidence in INDYCAR’s Race Control should remain firm among a majority of fans.
(*-Bringing up Ganassi of course brings to mind Josef Newgarden’s incident when attempting to pass Dario Franchitti on Lap 1 at Long Beach. I'm still not sure what to think on that one. Part of me thinks they were both at fault, part of me thinks it was more Dario's fault. I'll call it a "racing incident" for now).