FIA must learn from Valencia shambles

Start, Valencia, 2010

There’s no reason to believe Ferrari’s claim that the European Grand Prix was somehow “manipulated”.

But considering the penalties that were handed out, particularly the nine drivers who were penalised after the race was finished, it’s clear there’s still room for improvement in how F1 races are refereed.

The FIA should start by bringing back the ‘pit lane closure’ rule and changing how drive-through penalties are applied.

The delay in handing out penalties

Inevitably, much attention has been paid to why Lewis Hamilton’s penalty came so late, as it had a crucial bearing on the race.

As well dealing with the aftermath of a potentially very serious crash in which the medical car was sent out, Hamilton’s infringement was just one of 12 incidents the stewards had to deal with, all of which occurred within a very short space of time.

Hamilton’s infringement was among the first to occur and he was the first to be handed a penalty. He was the only driver who received his penalty soon enough to serve it during the race:

Lap Incident Time decision was published
10 Hamilton overtakes safety car 15:07
9 Incident in pits involving H???lkenberg and Buemi 17:40
9 Incident in pits involving Petrov and Liuzzi 17:41
? Glock disobeys blue flags 17:43
9 Kubica exceeds safety car target lap time 18:09
9 Button exceeds safety car target lap time 18:10
9 Barrichello exceeds safety car target lap time 18:11
9 H???lkenberg exceeds safety car target lap time 18:12
9 Buemi exceeds safety car target lap time 18:12
9 Sutil exceeds safety car target lap time 18:13
9 Liuzzi exceeds safety car target lap time 18:14
9 Petrov exceeds safety car target lap time 18:15
9 de la Rosa exceeds safety car target lap time 18:16

The clearest proof of Hamilton’s infraction was the helicopter shot of him crossing the second safety car line. That video was apparently not available to the stewards immediately.

In the meantime they had to rely on timing information which was also sketchy, as Tony Dodgins points out in Autosport (sub. req.):

Depending on where the timing transponders are placed on a car ?ǣ for instance if one was at the back and the other at the front, you can have a situation where one car that appears to be ahead of another one actually records the same time. So, when it’s that tight, installation positions have to be checked, times and distances noted and calculations made.

This explains why the stewards took so long but does not excuse it.

In the build-up to the race BBC viewers were shown details of the Global Positioning System-based control centre the stewards have access to, allowing them to see where every car is on the track at any given time.

With access to that kind of computing power, it should not take 48 30 minutes (see comment) to decide which of two cars crossed a line first.

This is far from the first time the stewards have been criticised for taking too long to reach a decision. At Indianapolis in 2004 it took them until lap 59 to disqualify Juan Pablo Montoya for an infraction that took place before the race even started.

Unnecessarily complicated rules

The five second penalties given to nine drivers for “failing to stay above the minimum time set by the FIA ECU when the Safety Car was deployed” stem from regulations which are outdated and should be replaced.

Drivers are required to stick to minimum times to prevent them rushing to the pits too quickly after a safety car deployment, as they may be passing the scene of an accident.

This rule was introduced to replace a rule which closed the pits during safety car deployments. This pit lane closure rule was removed because some drivers had to make pit stops during a closure to avoid running out of fuel.

That is no longer a concern as refuelling has been banned. Therefore the FIA should drop the unnecessarily complicated rules requiring drivers to stick to minimum lap times, and go back to closing the pits until after the safety car period, perhaps with an exception for damaged cars that need to come in.

Read more: Ten drivers get penalties, Alonso and Rosberg gain extra points

Consistent penalties

The five-second penalties

The FIA has published little to no information about the five-second penalties.

We don’t know what target times the drivers were set – they may have been completely unrealistic. And we don’t know how much each driver failed to meet them by.

Therefore, we have no way of knowing if the penalties were fair, or too harsh, or too lenient.

What we do know is that a five-second penalty is not one of those defined under the Sporting Regulations:

The stewards may impose any one of three penalties on any driver involved in an Incident:

a) A drive-through penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane and re-join the race without stopping;
b) A ten second time penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane, stop at his pit for at least ten seconds and then re-join the race.
c) a drop of any number of grid positions at the driver?s next Event.

However, should either of the penalties under a) and b) above be imposed during the last five laps, or after the end of a race, Article 16.4b) below will not apply and 20 seconds will be added to the elapsed race time of the driver concerned in the case of a) above and 30 seconds in the case of b).
2010 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations

Lewis Hamilton and Timo Glock both got penalties under these rules. So where does the five second penalty the other drivers got come from?

It’s possible the stewards were using the powers given to them by articles 152 and 153 of the International Sporting Code, although they did not refer to it:

152: Any breach of this Code or the Appendices thereto, of the national rules or their appendices, or of any Supplementary Regulations committed by any organiser, official, competitor, driver, or other person or organisation may be penalised or fined.

Penalties or fines may be inflicted by the stewards of the meeting and ASNs as indicated in the following articles. [...]

153: Penalties may be inflicted as follows in order of increasing severity:

?? reprimand (blame);
?? fines;
?? time penalty;
?? exclusion;
?? suspension;
?? disqualification.

Time penalty means a penalty expressed in minutes and/or seconds.
FIA International Sporting Code

It seems likely the stewards decided to give the drivers a lenient penalty because their infractions were only minor. Jenson Button, one of the drivers penalised, said after the race that he had no opportunity to slow down any more and avoid a penalty:

There was no room to lift off or hit the brakes, so to be honest I can?t really see why I was called to the stewards.
Jenson Button

However if stewards are able to give post-race time penalties of less than 20 seconds, it’s a pity they didn’t use that to give Michael Schumacher a less severe penalty for breaking a rule the FIA admitted was unclear.

Hamilton’s penalty

The highly unusual circumstances surrounding Hamilton’s penalty have been explained in detail in these earlier articles:

Comparing Hamilton’s drive-through penalty on Sunday with Alonso’s at Shanghai for jumping the start highlights the inconsistencies in using drive-through penalties. Because of the varying lengths of the pit lanes Hamilton’s penalty cost him 12.7s at Valencia, Alonso’s in Shanghai cost him 21s.

Add in the difference in the delay in handing out the penalties – Alonso got his much earlier because he happened to commit his infraction before the eyes of the race director – and the reasons for the perceived difference in severity of the penalties become clear.

None of this justifies Ferrari’s claim the race was “manipulated”. But it’s clear the rules could be improved.

There is a simple and fair solution to the drive-through penalties problem: Replace them with stop-go penalties, and vary the duration a driver is stopped from race to race to even out the differences in pit lane length.

Should Hamilton have received a more severe penalty? As Will Buxton points out when he overtook the safety car in a GP2 race four years ago (albeit in rather different circumstances) he was disqualified.

But GP2 rarely sets a precedent for F1. In 2008 Bruno Senna was handed a penalty for an unsafe release in the pits two weeks after Ferrari’s Felipe Massa escaped a penalty for exactly the same thing.

According to Mark Hughes, “the precedent for [overtaking the safety car] is a drive-through.” I’ve been racking my brains trying to recall when that precedent was set but with no joy. If anyone knows, please post it in the comments.

It could be argued that, by the time race control came to give Hamilton his penalty they should have realised how limited the effect of a drive-through would be and given him a harsher penalty accordingly – such as a stop-go penalty.

But I fear that altering penalties to suit the circumstances would only leave the stewards open to even more damaging claims of inconsistency – and increase the burden on them even further. What is needed is clear and consistent penalties delivered in a timely fashion.

A shambles, not a scandal

This is the latest in a series of F1 races spoiled by a controversy over penalties. While some people have been quick to claim that certain rulings always favour one driver or team, it’s clear this isn’t the case.

To Valencia ’10 we can add Alonso’s penalty at Monza in ’06, Hamilton’s a Spa in ’08, Schumacher’s at Monaco earlier this year and others.

FIA president Jean Todt has shown a commitment to improving the standards of stewarding in F1. Bringing in former drivers as advisers appears to have helped tone down some of the excessively severe penalties we saw in previous years.

And only last week the Sporting Regulations were clarified to remove the grey areas highlighted by Schumacher at Monaco and Hamilton in Canada. But further progress needs to be made.

The connection between what infringement gets what penalty is too often unclear. And far too little information explaining penalties is published, despite earlier promises to supply more detailed explanations.

Although the stewards show a commendable commitment to using all the information at their disposal to get decisions right, little heed is paid to delivering decisions in a timely fashion.

If the FIA fails to learn from these lessons we will continue to see race results being altered after the chequered flag – something the governing body should take every reasonable step to avoid.

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203 comments on FIA must learn from Valencia shambles

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  1. element533 said on 29th June 2010, 21:18

    I think too much focus is being put on the timeliness of the decision and on the length of the pitlane. What matters is that the penalty was too lenient for the advantage that Hamilton got from passing the SC.

    Consider this: if the stewards had not delayed and instantly penalized him, it would have made no difference, as he would have raced to the pit and still come out ahead of the SC.

    Passing the SC needs to be a stop-and-go penalty. If you gain effectively a minute or minute and a half by passing the SC, a drive through will do nothing, regardless of when it is issued and regardless of whether it’s 12s or 20s.

    • RFB said on 29th June 2010, 23:21

      Actually, it would have made a massive difference, because a driver can’t serve his penalty after the SC has been deployed. Therefore, he would have had 3 laps after the SC would come back in before serving his penalty, and would probably have found himself at the very end of the pack.

  2. kbdavies said on 29th June 2010, 21:20

    Keith, the FIA say it took 7 minutes to implement the punishment and not the 48 mins you quote(http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2010/jun/28/ferrari-face-fia-action).

    What is your 48 mins made up of? Is it from the Safety Car incident to McLaren getting notification of the drive through? Please let us know. It would also be nice to know what the FIA’s 7 mins consist of.

    What is clear is that there seems to be a lot of inconsistent info on this issue. Alonso claims it took 20lap? Some fans say it took 50laps? Others say it took 14 laps? What is the truth?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 29th June 2010, 22:00

      Stewards’ document number 38 records the time of the infraction as 14:19 and the time of the penalty being handed down as 15:07.

      The “seven minutes to implement” may refer to the delay between the penalty being given to McLaren and the time when he came in for his penalty, as drivers are allowed to complete a certain number of laps (three, I think) before serving a penalty.

      • Patrickl said on 30th June 2010, 11:17

        Hamilton took his penalty at 14:53:47. Well before the document was handed out to the media (at apparently 15:07).

        • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 30th June 2010, 22:44

          Thanks for that Patrickl. I’ve managed to get my hands on the full timings now and I understand where the seven minutes claim has come from:

          14:42 INCIDENT INVOLVING CAR 2 UNDER INVESTIGATION BY THE STEWARDS
          14:49 DRIVE THROUGH PENALTY FOR CAR 2 – OVERTAKING THE SAFETY CAR

          After which, of course, McLaren were able to keep Hamilton out for a few laps which explains why he took his penalty at 14:53.

          So the actual difference between the time of the infraction and the penalty being declared is 30 minutes, not 48.

          That’s still a lot when we’re talking about measuring the difference between two cars crossing a line, something which is measured instantaneously to within one thousandth of a second at the start/finish line on every lap.

          • Patrickl said on 1st July 2010, 12:08

            Which brings up the quastion why it took them till 14:42 to start investigating the incident?

            Charlie Whiting must have know about this when the cars were still behind the safety car (Ferrari radio traffic). Did he think there wasn’t an issue at first?

        • DaveW said on 1st July 2010, 21:25

          It might be because, in the intervening time, the stewards had to deal with approximately 11 other violations of a highly technical nature as well as the clean up of a massive wreck

  3. Eric said on 30th June 2010, 0:47

    if Alonso had been able to dive into the pits as all the cars behind Massa were then we would not be hearing any of this nonsense. in fact he would not have seen Hamilton then pass the SC and all would be ok.
    they got caught in no mans land, sorry it just happened that way, no amount of yelling and screaming is going to change what happened.
    lets hope from now on the pits are closed till the front running cars have caught up to the SC and then they do there thing, in this case Kamui Kobayashi would have been in front as he was not going to pit and what a race we would have had on our hands then.

    • Eric said on 30th June 2010, 2:20

      after reading other reports, even closing the pits is a problem.
      there is only room for one car per pit box so it also would be a shambles, with cars waiting in line blocking others from getting out.
      that means the only way to sort it out would be entry into the pits is the formation behind the Safety Car after exist, so anyone not pitting go’s to the front and those pitting line up behind in the order they entered the pits regardless of how long the spend in the pits.
      its the only fair way i can see it working.

  4. Here is a thought … the car that Hamilton was alongside at SC2 was the nedical car not the safety car.
    Indeed, Alonso was between the medical car and the safety car and passed the safety car (not medical car) before SC2.
    From a quick scan through the sporting regulations (looking for “medical”) it does not look like they declare that the medical car is to be deemed a safety car and therefore do not say that it should or should not be passed.

  5. wasiF1 said on 30th June 2010, 10:30

    I do agree that it shouldn’t be taking that much time to give Hamilton the penalty, I thin given the equipment that the Steward have they should give the command within 10-15 minutes. Jean Todt needs to improve the stranded of steward first then anything else in F1.

  6. DGR-F1 said on 30th June 2010, 12:01

    The F1 Stewards are not alone in taking a long time to reach decisions. In a recent BTCC race, one of the cars qualified on Pole, won the race, and was then disqualified for being under the correct ride height – something that was discovered during scrutineering before qualifying!
    Aren’t the BTCC Stewards from the FIA too? :-)

  7. length of time to make decision has to be an issue

  8. ray said on 30th June 2010, 21:29

    Alonso was overtaken by KK. Enough said?

  9. Chris Snell said on 1st July 2010, 4:20

    If a safety car has to be deployed with immediate effect to allow medic car extraction vehicles etc to proceed then maybe the restart order should be taken back to the previous lap, the same as a red flag and re-start would.

  10. i liked her hair… :))

  11. hey man! just about through your article, holy crap – GREAT INFO! Keep up the good work!

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