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 Hülkenberg 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||Hülkenberg 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 – 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.
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);
− time penalty;
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.
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.
The highly unusual circumstances surrounding Hamilton’s penalty have been explained in detail in these earlier articles:
- Safety car plays into McLaren’s hands in Valencia
- Valencia’s short pit lane helps Hamilton hold onto second
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.
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.
2010 European Grand Prix
- The physics of Webber’s Valencia crash
- Technical review: European Grand Prix
- Sauber “thrilled” by Kobayashi’s passes
- 2010 European Grand Prix – the complete F1 Fanatic race weekend review
- Alonso retracts Valencia criticism
- FIA must learn from Valencia shambles
- Best finish of 2010 (Williams race review)
- Di Grassi shines (Virgin race review)
- Double finish at home (HRT race review)
- Buemi slips to ninth (STR race review)