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Core Characteristics of Formula One: Sportsmanship

Written by Ishani Aziz, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

This upcoming series "Core Characteristics of Formula One" seeks to take a look at the qualities that lie at the essence of the pinnacle of motorsport. Through past instances and famous quotes, writers will aim to explain why each characteristic forms the essence of Formula One. Continuing our series is Ishani Aziz, writer at Divebomb.

Photo by: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

One such characteristic at the heart of Formula One is sportsmanship. It is essential in any sport, and we’re too often given evidence against it. Whether that be the aggression faced by referees in football, smashing rackets in tennis, or even refusing to give up sixth position despite already winning the championship. Fans are quick to focus on unsportsmanlike behaviour, but Formula One has seen some stellar examples of sportsmanship displayed by drivers, despite the sport’s individualist nature. This has permeated across multiple eras of the sport. If we think of sportsmanship as four main components: Fair play, grace in defeat, teamwork, and responsibility, the drivers of Formula One consistently display these traits.

Fair play is perhaps the most basic component of sportsmanship. It not only requires adhering to rules of the sport, but also putting aside competition and rivalry, for kindness. A famous example of this was in 1956, when Juan Manuel Fangio’s steering arm snapped while on his way to P2. As was the norm then, his teammate Luigi Musso was asked to give the more likely championship contender his car. With Musso’s refusal, Peter Collins, who was now P2, instead decided to offer his car to Fangio, allowing the Argentine to win P2 once more. Just two years later, in Portugal in 1958, Sir Stirling Moss protested the unfair penalty against his rival Mike Hawthorne. The latter was disqualified after a spin during which the stewards deemed he rejoined the race by driving in the wrong direction. Moss spoke out vehemently, demanding that Hawthorne be able to keep his second place, and the seven points coming with it. Whether Moss knew he would then lose the championship by one point just two races later, it was undoubtedly sportsmanlike. Fair play even extends to simple gestures. At Silverstone in 1991, Ayrton Senna ran out of fuel, and Nigel Mansell allowed the Brazilian to ride on his Williams to the pits, despite a steward attempting to intervene. Similarly, during the Chinese Grand Prix weekend in 2019, Sebastian Vettel insisted that his Ferrari mechanics tend to Alex Albon’s overheating brakes, urging his own mechanics to help the young Toro Rosso driver.

The contemporary races in Formula One are also exceedingly tight, leaving more chance for loss. Hence why being graceful in defeat is such a unique characteristic of sportsmanship in Formula One. This can be as simple a gesture as congratulating your rival. As Lewis Hamilton earned his fifth world title in 2018 and Sebastian Vettel finished second in the standings, the German driver rushed to congratulate the Mercedes team in a heart-warming scene. Hamilton, of course, would famously display the same grace when Max Verstappen took the title in 2021.

Photo by Jean-Pierre Muller

Teamwork is an equally important component of sportsmanship, especially with the notorious nature of team orders. A popular instance is of course between Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. During their dominant 2002 season, at the Austrian Grand Prix, Ferrari ordered Barrichello to cede to teammate Schumacher, to allow the German a victory. As Schumacher, who was acutely aware of these orders, was about to take the winner’s step, he gestured to Barrichello to take his position on the podium instead, costing the team and the German a $1M dollar fine. As team orders followed the driver pairing in the USA Grand Prix that same year, Schumacher, a hair's breadth away from the chequered flag, decided to try a dead heat on the line with his teammate, giving the victory to Barrichello by a slender margin. More recently, during the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso’s defence on Hamilton, aiding the victory of his Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon, was one of the best displays of working as a team.

Photo by Jose Breton

Taking responsibility for your actions is the final component of sportsmanship, one that tends to get overlooked. Responsibility in sportsmanship is two-fold, firstly, simply taking responsibility for your actions, but perhaps more importantly is a responsibility towards your fellow drivers. At Imola last year, seconds after the start, Daniel Ricciardo made contact with Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, ending the Spaniard’s race before it had even started. While the Tifosi would certainly have been raging in the stands, Ricciardo took immediate responsibility for his actions, and Sainz graciously accepted his apology, sealing the matter with the utmost professionalism.

In the past, being responsible for the fellow drivers on the grid was quite literally life-saving. During the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Roger Williamson had a left rear tyre failure on Lap 8, sending him hurling into the barriers. David Purley, his fellow racer, immediately sprinted across the track to turn the car over. Although Williamson would ultimately succumb to his injuries, Purley would be awarded the George Medal for gallantry. Similarly, at Monza in 1978, Ronnie Peterson and James Hunt fell victim to a multi-car crash in the opening lap, and Hunt rushed to Peterson’s aid. Although Hunt would save Peterson from more grave injuries, the latter unexpectedly succumbed to his minor injuries later. The most famous example of this of course was in 1992, at the Belgian Grand Prix. Érik Comas crashed heavily, and was unconscious, continuing to press on the throttle. Senna was aware that the fuel was still pumping, and stopped his own car to cut off Comas’ engine. His actions most likely prevented an explosion, and Comas would later state that Senna saved his life. Tragically, Comas would run to Senna’s aid in 1994, and unable to help him, retired from the sport that same year. Even as recently as last season, drivers’ innate responsibility towards their fellow peers has stayed consistent. At Silverstone, Zhou Guanyu’s crash was a shock to most fans. The first lap of the British GP unleashed a cascade of collisions, amid which George Russell collided with Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri, knocking Zhou’s Alfa Romeo. Fans witnessed Russell practically leap out of his own car to Zhou, despite his race ending prematurely.

These are just a few of the many displays of sportsmanship in the world of Formula One. In a sport where the competition is uniquely and increasingly tight, sportsmanship remains a core attribute of an F1 driver. Although fans mostly hear what drivers frustratedly exclaim on the radios in the heat of racing, we should also pay attention to those displays of sportsmanship that we have learned are typical of F1.

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