In Good Conscience

The wheels of sporting justice have come off

One of the main attractions of sport is to see competition pushed to fair limits - and to see justice beyond question. Formula One motor racing and Tour de France cycling cloud those tenets today.

Sebastian Vettel admitted that he deliberately drove his Ferrari into Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes in the race in Baku, Azerbaijan two weeks ago.

The stewards slapped Vettel's wrist with a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. He finished the race in fourth and stayed ahead of Hamilton in the drivers' championship.

A disciplinary panel of the FIA, Formula One's ruling body, decided more than a week later that there was no case for further action. The race to the chequered flag resumes in Austria's "Red Bull Ring" tomorrow.

Hamilton is still smouldering at justice denied. Vettel is cock-a-hoop and still leading the championship.

Meanwhile, at Le Tour, a sprint to the line ended up with one rider in hospital, another disqualified. The race jury on the spot decided that Slovakia's Peter Sagan elbowed Britain's Mark Cavendish into the roadside barrier.

Their races are over. Cavendish has a broken shoulder, Sagan is barred from the rest of cycling's most lucrative marathon event.

Enmity between drivers might be dangerous, but it adds spice to the business of F1 that was losing TV viewers around the world.

The Tour de France, long contaminated by the cheating and potential self-harm of its contestants, is searching for higher moral ground.

This time not only was justice dispensed at the scene, it was endorsed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.

Motor racing and cycling are, obviously, very different sports. One is on four wheels and powered by engines at the cutting edge of science. The other is on two wheels and, despite all the years of doping, is supposed to come down to human endurance.

Clearly they have different codes of conduct, and different levels of sporting values.

Where the two incidents converge is that panels had to decide on perceived "road rage". Without even questioning Vettel and Sagan, the "juries" concluded something that only Vettel and Sagan can know: Whether there was intent to cause harm.

Both men denied at the scene that they purposely forced a collision. Vettel later changed his plea and apologised to the FIA hierarchy for his flashpoint; he felt that Hamilton deliberately slowed to cause the Ferrari to run into the back of the Mercedes and he retaliated by accelerating and bumping him wheel to wheel.

"I'm not proud of the moment," Vettel stated. "Can I take it back? No. Do I regret it? Yes.

"I said I never had the intention to hurt him, like a punch or anything," he continued. "It wasn't to hurt him or damage his car, it was at low speed. But looking back, it was dangerous."

Hamilton thinks the punishment, or lack of it, does not fit the crime. He reiterates that they are two leaders of the sport, and owe a duty to younger drivers, and to the youth of the world, to set an example of road safety.

The line is thin, and blurred. The great and the good of F1 seasons past have weighed in with contrary opinions, and perhaps Nigel Mansell, the 1992 champion, sums up best:

"Between Seb and Lewis there are seven world championships," he points out, referring to Vettel winning the drivers' championship four times, and Hamilton three.

"If they can't respect one another and sort it out between themselves, it is a very sad day."

The FIA considered the evidence before them. They had the telemetry from inside the cockpits. They had Vettel's belated mea culpa.

FIA president Jean Todt probably meant well, but did not appear to consider his words very thoroughly when he concluded: "Sportsmen must be cognisant of the impact their behaviour can have on those who look up to them."

Impact, indeed.

Todt, who was head of Ferrari when another German, Michael Schumacher ruthlessly drove his car into an opponent during one of his world championships, talks about road safety, about heroes, and about the conduct expected of drivers.

But, while the FIA decided that there was no further punishment necessary, there seems to be a dichotomy in the road ahead. On one hand, the authority praised Vettel's commitment to devoting personal time over the next 12 months to educational activities across FIA platforms and stewards' seminars; on the other, it said that due to this incident no road safety activities should be endorsed by Vettel until the end of this year.

The inevitable conclusion is the one articulated at Baku by Bernie Ecclestone, nowadays the "chairman emeritus" of Formula One Group. Enmity between drivers might be dangerous, but it adds spice to the business of F1 that was losing TV viewers around the world.

The Tour de France, long contaminated by the cheating and potential self-harm of its contestants, is searching for higher moral ground.

It was on the flat, in a typical sprint finish to a stage last Tuesday, when Sagan and Cavendish had their momentous coming together.

On first viewing, Sagan used his elbow to push over Cavendish in the 60kmh race to the line. Rewinding the tape gives credence to the view that it was Cavendish, well known for barging his way to the front, who leaned into Sagan first with his head.

And Sagan supporters claim that Cavendish was on his way down even before any contact with the elbow; down and out after a third rider crashed into him.

In F1 terms you might call it a racing incident. In Le Tour, the disciplinary panel initially deemed it worthy of a 30-second race penalty against Sagan. Only later did the disqualification happen.

Later still, on Thursday, Sagan's heavily sponsored German team asked the Court of Arbitration to overrule the international cycle union's disqualification.

"Peter Sagan," the appeal stated, "did not cause, let alone deliberately, the fall of Mark Cavendish... Peter Sagan stayed on his line and could not see Mark Cavendish on the right side."

The appeal rested on the claim that the commissaires panel of the cycle union ignored its own rule by not allowing Sagan to state his case before them.

CAS threw out the appeal. Had it not done so, no one could say how Sagan could have been reinstated in the Tour which by then had gone on another two gruelling, grinding, barging stages.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'The wheels of sporting justice have come off'. Print Edition | Subscribe