Hamilton penalty: The trial (Poll)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Lewis Hamilton will be in Paris tomorrow to appeal against his Belgian GP penalty
Lewis Hamilton will be in Paris tomorrow to appeal against his Belgian GP penalty

Lewis Hamilton’s penalty in the Belgian Grand Prix has provoked unprecedented levels of debate and discussion on F1 Fanatic – nearly 900 comments spread across four articles.

Tomorrow the World Motor Sports Council meets to pass judgement on McLaren’s appeal against the penalty. Will they change the stewards’ verdict? Will the penalty be decided on a technicality? Here’s a look at what to expect from the trial – plus a vote on what the outcome should be.

An unusual appeal

It’s very rare to see an appeal about a stewards’ verdict on a racing matter to be the subject of an appeal. The majority of recent hearings have concerned technical infringements and other matters, such as ‘spygate’.

McLaren’s track record

However appeals brought by or concerning McLaren are much more common. And their track record is… not good:

May 30th, 2007: FIA investigate McLaren for allegedly using team orders to keep Lewis Hamilton behind Fernando Alonso in the Monaco Grand Prix. McLaren found not guilty.

July 26th, 2007: FIA investigate McLaren after Ferrari accuses them of illegally using their intellectual property. FIA does not punish McLaren, but…

September 13th, 2007: Ferrari appeal against McLaren’s spygate case victory. McLaren fined $100m and have their constructors’ championship points confiscated, for bringing the sport into disrepute.

November 16th, 2007: McLaren appeal against Williams and BMW for using fuel of an illegal temperature during the Brazilian Grand Prix. FIA decides the appeal is inadmissible.

December 12th, 2007: McLaren appeal against Renault for using confidential McLaren information. Renault found guilty but no penalty imposed.

The rules

There were similar recriminations after Klien was passed by Alonso at Suzuka in 2005
There were similar recriminations after Klien was passed by Alonso at Suzuka in 2005

As has been discussed at length elsewhere, there is no written rule that states ‘a driver who overtakes a rival by cutting a corner must let their rival past and not overtake them at the following corner.” If there was, this matter would be a lot simpler!

Hamilton was originally punished under Appendix L to the International Sporting Code (Chapter IV, Article 2.g) which reads:

The race track alone shall be used by the drivers during the race.

See the Sporting Regulations and International Sporting Code for more.

But of course, not every driver who goes off the track gets a 25-second penalty. Therefore, we have to look at past precedent to understand what a driver is expected to do if they go off the track.

Precedent

I don’t know of any past instances where a driver has passed another by cutting a chicane, given the place back, re-taken the place at the next corner, and subsequently been given a 25 second penalty.

The closest example to this I can think of was when Fernando Alonso passed Christian Klien by cutting the chicane at Suzuka in 2005. Alonso gave the place back, but then passed Klien at the next corner. He was initially instructed to give the place back, but the stewards then changed their minds and decided he didn’t have to (although by the time they got around to telling Renault, Alonso had already conded the place back to Klien).

This example is discussed in detail here and based on that it seems McLaren were expecting race control to tell them if they needed to give the place back to Raikkonen.

Since the Spa incident the FIA has issued a ‘clarification’ stating:

Drivers [have been] informed that in the event of a driver cutting a chicane and gaining a position, he not only [has] to give that place back but should also wait for another corner before he [can] attempt to retake it.

A crucial point of the hearing will be whether this instruction has been communicated to the drivers before. There does not appear to be any precedent which indicates it has (though as ever if you know of one please post details in the comments). Mosley seems to think there is (emphasis added):

The primary mistake in my view was the team’s. The team should have decided on precedent, and from everything they know, what advice to give [Hamilton]. I’m not going to express an opinion but the correct procedure was for the team to decide what to tell their driver.

Will the appeal be decided on a ‘technicality’?

Jarno Trulli got off on a technicality in 2001
Jarno Trulli got off on a technicality in 2001

Many appeals to the FIA end up being dismissed on technicalities. Most recently, the FIA threw out McLaren’s appeal against BMW and Williams on a technicality after waiting 25 days to hear the case despite the drivers’ title depending on the result of it.

In 2001 Jordan won its appeal against Jarno Trulli’s disqualification from the United States Grand Prix by showing that one of the stewards’ signatures was missing from the official text of the original decision.

A frivolous appeal?

The FIA can throw out appeals it considers “frivolous”. Max Mosley’s reaction to the appeal suggests this outcome is not out of the question:

My immediate reaction was this is going to waste a great deal of everybody’s time. Which is true, it’s what always happens. A tiny incident and it takes up hours of your time.

Writing in the Autosport Journal (sub. req.), Tony Dodgins argued why the FIA might throw the appeal out as ‘frivolous’:

An appeal court might conclude that in light of the Alonso precedent, McLaren’s appeal is actually frivolous.

However, Dodgins’ description of the ‘Alonso precedent’ appears to overlook the fact the stewards eventually told Alonso he didn’t need to give the place back. (Details here).

On one of the last occasions I can recall a penalty like this being a subject of an appeal, the FIA increased the penalty to the driver concerned. Eddie Irvine was originally given a one-race ban for his part in a crash in the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix, but after his appeal the ban was extended to three races, because the FIA deemed the appeal ‘frivolous’.

Admissibility

Just as with the Williams/BMW fuel protest last year, there are questions over whether McLaren can appeal against the penalty. Hamilton’s 25-second penalty was served instead of a drive-through penalty because the infringement occurred so late in the race. Drive-though penalties during races cannot be appealed.

I’ve had a look at the regulations and I can’t find a part that says why McLaren’s appeal would be inadmissible. (See the links to the regulations above if you want to have a look).

The role of Charlie Whiting

McLaren has pointed out that it twice asked race director Charlie Whiting whether Hamilton had done enough to cede the place back to Raikkonen, and Whiting twice affirmed they had. Mosley had the following to say about that:

I think there were two mistakes made there. One is that McLaren should not have asked Charlie. The second is that he should not have answered. […] Charlie is in one of the most high-pressured situations and in that situation the teams should not answer him and he should not answer them because he is not in a position to give even the beginnings of a considered opinion. So there were two mistakes made. […] What I think Charlie said was: ‘I think it was OK’. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I’m not there and that will be for the court to decide. It’s all going to the court of appeal and it’s all open to the press.

The role of Whiting in the matter is a debatable point. Clearly in 2005 race control were involved in instructing Alonso whether to give the position back to Klien or not, which is presumably why McLaren wanted to clear the move with Whiting.

The Mosley factor

Mosley has been scathing of the coverage the incident has received in Britain. His relationship with his home nation’s press has already been tarnished this year after revelations about his participation in sadomasochistic sex orgies. Will this colour his view on whether Hamilton should get a penalty?

There is debate over what role Mosley plays in taking decisions to begin with. At Spa the stewards that decided to penalise Hamilton were Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatthi and Yves Bacquelaine. Their positions are filled by different people at each race weekend.

However the only steward that asked Hamilton any questions during the deliberations was Alan Donnelly, the FIA’s representative who attends every race meeting. Questions are being asked about how close the communication was between Donnelly and Mosley, and Donnelly’s suitability for such a role given his past work for another team.

If noting else, the appeal might at least serve as a starting point for a debate on whether F1’s racing rules should be written down properly, instead of leaving them to unclear and often contradictory ‘precedents’ and poorly-communicated ‘clarifications’. Drivers and fans alike deserve better.

The poll

What SHOULD be the outcome of Hamilton's appeal

  • Hamilton should receive a lighter penalty (14%)
  • Hamilton should receive a harsher penalty (7%)
  • Hamilton should receive no penalty (56%)
  • The FIA should throw out the appeal (24%)

Total Voters: 693

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The hearing starts at 10am tomorrow (Monday).