Do the punishments fit the crimes?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

BAR were thrown out of a total of three races in 2005
BAR were thrown out of a total of three races in 2005

It’s highly unusual to see the FIA’s international court of appeal soften a penalty that’s been handed down to a team. But that’s exactly what happened to Renault yesterday as their one-race ban was withdrawn and they were given just a $50,000 fine.

In recent years we’ve seen multi-race bans, championship exclusions and $100m fines handed down by the FIA. Does Renault’s comparatively light punishment make sense when compared with other major controversies?

2005: BAR’s fuel tank

What the team did: BAR driver Jenson Button and Takuma Sato finished third and fifth in the San Marino Grand Prix that year. But when their cars were drained of fuel following the race – including a secondary reservoir within the fuel tank – they fell beneath the minimum weight limit.

What the FIA said: “The inspection revealed that on top of the 160 grams of fuel that was emptied, 8.92 kg of fuel still remained in a special compartment within the fuel tank and a further 2.46 kg remained in the bottom of the fuel tank. These quantities remained in the vehicle after the BAR Honda team had confirmed ‘That’s it’ when asked if the draining process was completed.”

How they were punished: Both BARs disqualified from the San Marno Grand Prix and excluded from the next two rounds, the Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix.

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2007: McLaren at the Hungaroring

Fernando Alonso blocked Lewis Hamilton in the pits during qualifying
Fernando Alonso blocked Lewis Hamilton in the pits during qualifying

What the team did: Fernando Alonso is observed to wait in his pit box during qualifying for an unusual length of time while team mate Lewis Hamilton queues behind him. Because of the delay, Hamilton is unable to complete his final lap in qualifying. McLaren later admit Hamilton had refused to let Alonso past under instruction earlier in the session.

What the FIA said: “Alonso was asked why he waited for some 10 seconds before leaving the pits after being given the signal to leave. His response was that he was enquiring as to whether the correct set of tyres had been fitted to his car. When asked why this conversation did not take place during the 20 second period when his car sat stationary all work on it having been completed, it was stated that it was not possible to communicate by radio because of the countdown being given to him.”

How they were punished: The points scored by McLaren during the race did not count towards their constructors’ championship total (a subsequent penalty rendered this irrelevant) and their representatives – except for Hamilton – are not allowed onto the podium after the race. Alonso is moved back five places on the grid.

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2007: McLaren ‘spying’

McLaren were found guilty of stealing Ferrari's intellectual property
McLaren were found guilty of stealing Ferrari's intellectual property

What the team did: McLaren designer Mike Coughlan is given a 780-page dossier by Ferrari’s Nigel Stepney, the contents of which are discussed by several people at McLaren.

What the FIA said: “The WMSC has full jurisdiction to apply Article 151(c)* and stresses that it is not necessary for it to demonstrate that any confidential Ferrari information was directly copied by McLaren or put to direct use in the McLaren car to justify a finding that Article 151(c) was breached and/or that a penalty is merited. Nor does the WMSC need to show that any information improperly held led to any specifically identified sporting advantage, or indeed any advantage at all. Rather, the WMSC is entitled to treat possession of another team?σΤιΌΤδσs information as an offence meriting a penalty on its own if it so chooses.”

How they were punished: McLaren are thrown out of the 2007 constructors’ championship, fined $100m, and must have their 2008 car inspected by the FIA to ensure that certain specified technologies are not present.

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2007: Renault ‘spying’

A Renault engineer was found to have McLaren data
A Renault engineer was found to have McLaren data

What the team did: During the Ferrary spying hearing, McLaren claims that a former engineer named Phil Mackereth took confidential information from McLaren to Renault when he moved jobs between the two teams.

What the FIA said: “While McLaren is right to be extremely concerned about its employee taking information upon his departure, the concern of the WMSC is not with what Mackereth took. This is a matter between McLaren and its former employee. The WMSC is concerned with what Renault had access to or was influenced by as only this could have had an impact on the Championship.”

How they were punished: Renault are not penalised: “due to the lack of evidence that the championship has been affected,” according to the FIA.

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2009: McLaren lying

Lewis Hamilton gave third place to Jarno Trulli, then lied about it
Lewis Hamilton gave third place to Jarno Trulli, then lied about it

What the team did: Lewis Hamilton passes Jarno Trulli during a safety car period in Australia, then lets the Toyota past after discussion with his team. They later tell the stewards they did not choose to let Trulli past.

What the FIA said: “The WMSC considers ?σΤιΌΤΗ£ and McLaren has accepted ?σΤιΌΤΗ£ that sole responsibility cannot lie with the team manager who misled the stewards and who procured Hamilton to do likewise. Rather, the course of conduct occurred over such a period of time that the WMSC finds that McLaren?σΤιΌΤδσs management either were aware or should have been aware that the stewards had been misled.”

How they were punished: A three-race suspension, suspended for 12 months. Lewis Hamilton disqualified from Australian Grand Prix.

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2009: Red Bull and Vettel’s crash

Vettel tried to keep going after a crash in Melbourne
Vettel tried to keep going after a crash in Melbourne

What the team did: Sebastian Vettel crashes late in the race, sustaining heavy damage. He tries to continue driving despite various components having come loose.

What the FIA said: The incident was not taken to an appeal. The stewards of the meeting claim Red Bull committed an infraction by telling Vettel to keep driving even though he had lost a wheel.

How they were punished: $50,000 fine.

2009: Renault and Alonso’s wheel

Fernando Alonso has been un-banned from the European Grand Prix
Fernando Alonso has been un-banned from the European Grand Prix

What the team did: During the Hungarian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso’s car lost a wheel following a pit stop.

What the FIA said: “Renault knowingly released car number seven (driver Fernando Alonso) from the pit stop position without one of the retaining devices for the wheel-nuts being securely in position”

How they were punished: $50,000 fine. The original punishment handed down by the stewards of a one-race ban was rescinded.

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Fair and consistent?

Renault’s reduced penalty for the Hungaroring incident now matches the one handed down to Red Bull at Melbourne. But is it enough of a deterrent to prevent teams from taking risks with driver safety?

The scale of some of the punishments is hard to fathom – after McLaren’s huge penalty following the spygate affair, the complete lack of any penalty for Renault – even a proportionally smaller one – led to suggestions that personal differences between FIA president Max Mosley and then McLaren team principal Ron Dennis was what made the difference.

It’s also interesting to consider McLaren’s spygate penalty in the light of BAR’s two years previously. Why was a fine not imposed on BAR, and why were McLaren not given a multi-race ban? Again, it’s easy to jump to the cynical conclusion that banning McLaren from races in 2007 would have ruined an engrossing championship battle.

There is not much that rivals McLaren’s 2007 penalty for sheer size. Tyrrell’s exclusion from the 1984 season is perhaps the best example, and 25 years later that is viewed by many as a trumped-up charge, much of which was ultimately disproven, and a punishment that was levied for political reasons.

How well do these punishments fit the crimes? Which penalties were too harsh – or too soft? Have your say in the comments.

*”Any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally.”