Fine for Ferrari, Massa gets off free, and the FIA gets it wrong on every count

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Felipe Massa escaped punishment for his slighty-too-fast getaway
Felipe Massa escaped punishment for his slighty-too-fast getaway

Felipe Massa has not been punished following his incident in the pits with Adrian Sutil in today’s European Grand Prix. His Ferrari team has been fined ??10,000 (??7,979) for releasing him into the path of Sutil’s car following his second pit stop on lap 37.

It’s a baffling verdict by the FIA and one that will be seen by many as further evidence the sports’ governing body goes out of its way to favour Ferrari.

I’m not convinced by Ferrari’s claim Massa gained no advantage, I think the penalty is totally unsuited to the infraction, and it is inconsistent with past FIA decisions.

Ferrari’s defence

Stewards\' document 41 explained Massa\'s penalty (click to enlarge)
Stewards' document 41 explained Massa's penalty (click to enlarge)
As expected the stewards deemed Ferrari’s release of Massa a violation of article 23.1 (i) of the Sporting Regulations: “It is the responsibility of the competitor to release his car after a pit stop only when it is safe to do so.”

The decision issued by the stewards described the incident as: “Unsafe release from pit stop, although no sporting advantage was obtained.”

The use of the phrase “no sporting advantage was obtained” is surprising. It echoes the defence of the incident given by Ferrari’s Luca Colajanni immediately afterwards, that neither Massa was advantaged nor Sutil disadvantaged by the move.

The defence that ‘no advantage was gained’ is not ordinarily one that has much currency with the FIA. As Autosport’s Thomas O’Keefe, an expert on the FIA’s regulations, wrote in 2002 (sub. req.):

The Court of Appeal tends not to take kindly to defenses of competitors that sound like “we had no performance advantage” or there were “exceptional circumstances” or “it was unintentional,” which the FIA seems to regard as equivalent to The-Dog-Ate-My-Homework.

Apparently on this occasion the stewards of the meeting were quite happy with Ferrari’s claim that no advantage was gained by them – even if it wasn’t true.

I’m not convinced there is absolute proof Massa did not gain an advantage. Afterwards he admitted that he had lost time letting Sutil go past him:

I came very close to [colliding with him], so I needed to back off, and for sure I lost a lot of time.

Despite that he still left the pit lane about as close to the Force India as he could possibly have been.

So did he gain an advantage? Let’s imagine Ferrari had kept him in his box, and waited for Sutil to pass before releasing him. Would have have been able to leave the pits as close to Sutil as he did?

I would say almost certainly not. I think it is more than likely he gained an advantage by being released alongside Sutil, and then merging in behind the Force India, than being released by the team from a standing start as the car went past.

Massa’s defence

Massa’s reaction to the incident was, bizarrely, to blame Sutil:

I think it wasn?t very clever from his side, because even if he got out in front of me he would need to let me by, so it was a little bit of a shame to fight with him in the pit lane.

I stopped behind him on the pit stop and we left together. So when he was passing me by I was leaving the garage, so we were side-by-side. But, I mean, I was the leader and he was a lapped car.

This is irrelevant and rather silly. The rules say one car should not be released until it is safe to do so. It’s not realistic to expect cars that might be a lap down to stop and wait for another car to come out.

Precedent

The precedent based on how the stewards have handled previous ‘unsafe releases’ is somewhat confusing.

On several occasions F1 cars have left the pit lane two abreast. For example, Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel had just such a run-in at Hockenheim:

One might argue that on that occasion the pit lane was wide enough for both cars, whereas at Valencia it clearly was not. Presumably that was the FIA’s opinion as on that occasion neither driver was punished.

During the GP2 feature race at Valencia Karun Chandhok received a drive-through penalty after being released into the path of another competitor. The stewards wasted no time in punishing him.

Was Chandhok’s pit violation that much more unsafe than Massa’s? It’s hard to see how.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

Given the FIA have accepted Massa’s release from the pit lane was unsafe, their choice of punishment is completely wrong.

The purpose of a punishment should be to prevent someone from breaking the rules. When a team has broken the rules and gained an advantage, as Ferrari may have done here, and their punishment is a small (by F1 standards) fine, they are not going to be dissuaded from doing it again.

If Ferrari saved as little as half a second by releasing Massa too soon, they may consider it ??10,000 well spent. Extra performance does not necessarily come so cheaply in the wind tunnel.

Yes, it would have been a shame to see Massa punished for a mistake he was not responsible for (despite his pathetic attempt to balme Sutil) having driven so well. But it is the only worthwhile way of penalising safety violations.

And just to make it worse…

Whether the FIA had punished Massa or not there would have lots of people unhappy with the outcome. During the F1 Fanatic live blog a poll on whether Massa should be punished split the audience 49% to 51%.

But what the FIA unquestionably got wrong was delaying the decision until after the race. Given that they were able to render a verdict on Chandhok’s misdemeanour in the GP2 race so quickly, it appeared very dubious that they deferred a decision on Massa’s penalty.

In the same weekend many were surprised to see Timo Glock go unpunished after delaying two other cars during qualifying. Once again the FIA’s decision-making seems totally arbitrary and inconsistent.

Do you think Massa should have been penalised for the pit lane infraction?

Comments have been split across multiple pages. If you’re having trouble viewing the pages click here to see all comments.