Grid penalties, drive-through penalties, time penalties – hardly an F1 session passed this year without some driver falling foul of the stewards.
Penalties spoiled races and one particularly controversial one almost decided the drivers’ championship. Why were there so many this year?
Controversial penalty decisions – especially ones involving championship contenders – are nothing new.
In 2006 Michael Schumacher was thrown to the back of the grid at Monaco for blocking the track during qualifying, and Fernando Alonso was controversially penalised for impeding Felipe Massa in qualifying at Monza.
Alonso was at the centre of a penalty controversy last year as well, after blocking Lewis Hamilton in the pits at the Hungaroring.
This year we saw more penalties in what seems to be a growing trend for stewards to dish out punishments.
The big controversies
First, the headline-grabbers: Hamilton’s penalty at Spa cost him the race win. He was also penalised at Fuji for allegedly forcing Kimi Raikkonen off the track, and in the same race Sebastien Bourdais got a post-race penalty for a collision with Felipe Massa.
These were the most controversial calls of the season. At Spa, many felt Hamilton had ceded advantage back to Raikkonen after cutting the track; at Fuji, his team mate Heikki Kovalainen seemed to be the real culprit; and for Bourdais, many felt Massa was responsible for their collision, if blame could be placed at all.
A season in penalties
We seem to see more penalties each year. Not every penalty this season were as controversial as the three above, and many of these calls were correct, but it’s disappointing to see so many of them and you can’t always blame the drivers and teams for them.
Both McLarens picked up qualifying penalties in two separate races: Sepang, where both impeded traffic in qualifying, and Magny-Cours, where Kovalainen was again punished for impeding and Hamilton had a penalty from the previous race where he had crashed into Raikkonen. Nico Rosberg received the same penalty for hitting Hamilton.
Rubens Barrichello was disqualified in Melbourne for leaving the pit lane while the red light was on. Hamilton was penalised at Magny-Cours for going off the track to pass Sebastian Vettel. At Spa Kovalainen ran into Webber and was penalised, and at Fuji Massa got the same penalty for running into Hamilton.
During 2008 we also saw more of a new breed of penalties created in 2007, for pitting while the pit lane was ‘closed’ under the new safety car rules. Several drivers fell foul of this: Kovalainen at Melbourne, Nick Heidfeld at Catalunya, and Rosberg and Robert Kubica at Singapore.
Plus Glock at Melbourne and Spa, Massa at Valencia and Singapore, Raikkonen at Monte-Carlo, Nakajima at Sepang, Fisichella at Hockenheim, Bourdais at the Hungaroring… And this excludes misdemeanours in practice and penalties for engine and (new for 2008) gearbox replacements.
Consistency – or the lack of it – was a big talking point, both in terms of what got punished and what punishments were used. Kovalainen received five-place grid penalties for his two acts of impeding during qualifying; Nick Heidfeld (at Singapore) got a three-place penalty. The stewards did not explain why.
Though Hamilton got a penalty for forcing Raikkonen off the road at Fuji, Raikkonen did not get the same for putting Adrian Sutil off the road (and out of the race) at Monte-Caro. Nor did Jarno Trulli for forcing Bourdais off at Interlagos.
Above all, there seems to be a desire to place blame where before certain decisions would be called ‘racing incidents’. Once the stewards choose to punish a driver, they are expected to do so for similar incidents in the future.
Changes for 2009
The FIA were heavily criticised for their handling of some of the more controversial penalties – not just for whether they chose to punish a driver, but the lack of reasoning they gave behind their decisions, and how the governing body conducted itself when it was challenged.
When McLaren appealed the Spa penalty it was ultimately told its appeal was inadmissible, though it took several weeks for that to happen. We learned the FIA’s own race steward, Charlie Whiting, told McLaren during the race they were in the clear, preventing the team from being able to return the position to Raikkonen a second time and avoid a penalty. During the appeal, the FIA claimed former race steward Tony Scott Andrews supported its position, but McLaren produced evidence from Scott Andrews suggesting the FIA had lied.
FIA president Max Mosley and chief steward Alan Donnelly rubbished claims that the stewarding process was unfair. But the FIA later confirmed changes to its procedure for 2009, bringing in new stewards for training (incredibly, this doesn’t happen already) and providing more video evidence to the public.
At the beginning of the year, Mosley brought in Donnelly to improve the stewards process, lauding his experience from working for the International Olympic Committee. Many were quick to point out the name ‘Ferrari’ also appears on Donnelly’s resume. It was inevitable that was going to lead to accusations of bias – justified or not – and that is exactly what happened.
The governing body is also looking for solutions to the pit lane closure rules problem, two years after creating it.
Its changes for 2009 promise greater transparency and improved training for stewards. But the fundamental problem remains: the rules governing what is and what isn’t allowed on the race track remain poorly documented, and stewards too often give inconsistent decisions from one Grand Prix to the next.