McLaren’s mistake costs Hamilton too dearly


Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, Barcelona, 2012Cast your mind back ten races ago to qualifying for the Singapore Grand Prix.

In the dying minutes of the session, Lewis Hamilton sat in his garage, unable to return to the track as McLaren had not been able to get enough fuel in his car in time. It was a costly mistake which left him fourth on the grid instead of in contention for the front row.

In qualifying for this weekend’s race in Spain, McLaren not only repeated that mistake – but compounded it with another one. Having failed to put enough fuel in his car in time, McLaren then sent Hamilton onto the track.

It’s not clear whether the team member who failed to fill the car up properly alerted them before the car was released. But they certainly found out in time to tell Hamilton to stop the car while it still had enough fuel in it for the FIA to take the mandatory post-session sample.

In doing this McLaren failed to satisfy another part of the rule book: article 6.6.2 of the technical regulations, which states:

Competitors must ensure that a one litre sample of fuel may be taken from the car at any time during the event.

Except in cases of force majeure (accepted as such by the stewards of the meeting), if a sample of fuel is required after a practice session the car concerned must have first been driven back to the pits under its own power.

For avoidance of doubt, “a practice session” includes the qualifying session. Note also that drivers may stop their car immediately after the race to ensure they have enough fuel in – as Sebastian Vettel did in Bahrain three weeks ago – but cannot do so in qualifying.

McLaren have no excuse for not being familiar with this rule – the second paragraph was inserted in the June 23rd 2010 update to the technical regulations, just over a week after Hamilton had been reprimanded for stopping on his way back to the pits after taking pole position for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Again, this was because he did not have enough fuel in the car – a mistake McLaren have now made at least once every season in the last three years.

When Hamilton came to a stop at Campsa, McLaren initially blamed an unspecified technical problem. But the radio message to him at the time – saying he was on pole position “for now” – was a clear sign they were concerned about their compliance with the rules and had worked out what the likely penalty would be.

A disproportionate punishment

Hamilton’s all-too-frequent encounters with the stewards were documented here last year. On this occasion he was not the one to blame.

According to the stewards, McLaren sporting director Sam Michael “stated that the car stopped on the circuit for reasons of force majeure”. They ruled that: “As the amount of fuel put into the car is under the complete control of the competitor the stewards cannot accept this as a case of force majeure.”

The stewards therefore found McLaren in breach of the technical regulations. The standard penalty for this is to be sent to the back of the grid, as happened to Sebastien Buemi at the Nurburgring last year.

McLaren made a mistake, their attempt to explain it away as “force majeure” was flimsy, and the stewards applied the rules as they are framed. But put in perspective it’s hard to view this penalty as anything other than completely disproportionate to the offence.

Hamilton was given the same penalty Michael Schumacher received at Monaco in 2006, when he deliberately parked his car on the track to prevent other drivers from beating his pole position time.

A calculated act of cheating such as that clearly deserved a harsh penalty to deter repeat offenders. Unlike that offence, McLaren’s error today was a careless oversight, as the stewards’ report makes clear.

The rules should allow for a distinction between a driver consciously deciding to break the rules in an unsporting way, and someone neglecting to put enough fuel in a car – the two infractions are a completely different order of magnitude.

There is no reason to expect that Hamilton’s car did not conform with the rules when he set his earlier lap times. The option to delete his final time, which was set after the botched refuelling attempt, would have been a proportional punishment for McLaren’s mistake.

Hamilton’s penalty has already provoked a strong reaction from readers. The root cause is two phenomenon we have become used to seeing: yet another blunder by McLaren in the pits, and a disproportionate response from the stewards.


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163 comments on McLaren’s mistake costs Hamilton too dearly

  1. katederby (@katederby) said on 13th May 2012, 9:39

    I don’t feel this penalty is too harsh compared to Schumacher’s in Monaco 2006. For me, that was too lenient and he should have been excluded from the race.
    McLaren’s punishment is fair if Toro Rosso’s was acceptable in Germany 2011.

  2. William Brierty said on 13th May 2012, 9:40

    McLaren have made so many mistakes based on human error since Ron Dennis stepped down. For me Martin Whitmarsh is the issue and I doubt he will survive the winter if McLaren don’t win both the WDC and the WCC, because it is clear to me that the excellent McLaren technical team has delivered a truly stunning car, but between Hamilton’s clutch software glinch in Australia, dropping their cars into traffic, engineer errors, strategy errors and of course the four pitstop errors. Lewis is undeniably the favourite for the title, but is Lewis going to win if the mistakes continue? OK, we’re are early in the season and yes, McLaren has cost Lewis a chance at victory, but there’s always Monaco I here you say. Remember what happened last year? Lewis had the pace for pole position, and pole at Monaco generally leads to a win, but they didn’t put a banker lap in the bag and he qualified 9th – utterly criminal. Red Bull do not make mistakes like that, so if Lewis does not become champion this season, he will go to Red Bull alongside Vettel.

    • Zecks (@zecks) said on 13th May 2012, 11:41

      and what about Sam Michael, last season at williams: their worst for years. This year at Mclaren: a litter of uncharacteristic mistakes hamstringing the team.

  3. Ken (@myxomatosis) said on 13th May 2012, 9:41

    Is the penalty for breaking the “drive back under own power” rule specified anywhere in the regulations? Going through the hundreds of comments yesterday there seemed to be a consensus that the penalty is disqualification from the session.

    Now, and this is the main issue to me, how do the regulations define the word “session”? Is it the entire qualifying or the individual qualifying sessions Q1/Q2/Q3. The natural (at least to me) interpretation of the word session there in Hamilton’s case would be Q3. So they would have scrapped his Q3 times since the infraction was committed in the Q3 session. But it appears that the interpretation of the rules here is up to the steward’s discretion since there is no delineation. Very shaky ground here, very shaky.

    Yes I agree that a penalty should have been incurred, no question but I also feel that it was grossly disproportionate. Hamilton himself did not know about the fuel levels. The team did not set out to cheat (the man at the fuel pump had set it to drain the tank and realised belatedly and as a consequence did not put in the appropriate amount.)

    Also, for those arguing that the stewards were this severe because the team lied are assuming here that they lied to the stewards. Whitmarsh lied to a reporter (if I’m correct) but there is no regulation that states that teams have to tell the press the truth. Their defence was flimsy (the force majeure angle) and thus they were penalised.

    I’d like to see Hamilton throw off the shackles and carve through the field but with these tires I don’t think it is possible sadly. Still, congratulations to Maldonado, a pleasant surprise.

    • Picasso 1.9D FTW (@picasso-19d-ftw) said on 13th May 2012, 11:00

      Agree with a lot of this. I would say that McLaren’s argument of “force majeure” was not a lie, it was an argument, such as one would make in court. It can be accepted or not without prejudice. Had McLaren claimed something other than that the car was low on fuel it would have been an attempt at deception, which would indeed merit harsh punishment (of the team at least – witness 2007 where the fine and loss of points applied to the constructor). But to say that it was fuel, but that it should be considered force majeure, is merely a weak argument.
      It may all be a problem with the rules allowing insufficient flexibility on the part of the stewards with regard to punishment, as opposed to inflexibility with regard to interpretation. What’s important is to be able to differentiate between offences, and also for a punishment to be equal for everyone. If you are sent to the back of the grid then the punishment differs depending upon where you were to start with. A drop of five places or exclusion from that qualifying session would mean the punishment was more similar for different drivers, but it sounds as though that flexibility is not there for the stewards.
      Some people have remarked that repeat offences should be punished more harshly, and I’m inclined to agree, but only where there is a lesson that can be learned. I think that applies to more conscious offences – attempts to cheat or to drive recklessly, for instance. For honest mistakes, however stupid, it doesn’t seem so right. But having said all that, if this is how the rule was applied to Buemi (I forget the details of that) then there is at least consistency.
      When all’s said and done I feel for Lewis but I am happy for Pastor. He is one of those drivers who seems to have made his share of mistakes early on through trying to find the limits, which earned him criticism but actually spoke of his determination and focus, and who is now coming good. Still making some mistakes, and he’s not yet wiped the slate clean for Spa as far as I’m concerned, but I’m just hoping he has a clean race and doesn’t get swamped heading off the line

  4. Atticus (@atticus-2) said on 13th May 2012, 9:41

    I totally agree.

    What’s more, I know a drivers forms part of a team as much as a team principal or a mechanic, but as we have distinctive drivers’ and constructors’ championship I think it would be useful to distinguish between a driver error and a constructor error. I always found it harsh anyhow to penalise the driver for a constructor error, such as this, or Kimi having been repeatedly sent back to the wrong end of the grid for engine failures in 2005. I think McLaren not getting any constructor points for the driver’s result would be a more appropriate penalty.

    On a side note, out of context and just out of curiousity, @keithcollantine, I always thought the Schumacher-gate in Monaco was an assumption. Did anything, e. g. telemetrics, ever prove he parked his car deliberately?

    • Ken (@myxomatosis) said on 13th May 2012, 10:02

      but as we have distinctive drivers’ and constructors’ championship I think it would be useful to distinguish between a driver error and a constructor error

      This is a very good point and something you rarely see discussed.

  5. Rob8k said on 13th May 2012, 9:44

    Perfect article Keith and nicely summed up in the last sentence. Formula 1 is being ruined by penalty decisions. We got to witness a driver that set a phenomenal lap time and entertained the audience while two others just trundled round doing sectors.

    I’m not saying HAM shouldn’t get punished and have posted my opinion in the previous article but the response from the stewards is not ruining just races, but could ultimately ruin the championship.

    • sozavele (@formula-1) said on 13th May 2012, 9:48

      How can you say that!
      Ruining races because of the stewards, NO NO NO NO! It is McLaren doing that themselves, they are asking for penalities, if they are breaching rules they should be punished, if it is ruining their championship, tough, they should think before they act.

  6. Eric Morman (@lethalnz) said on 13th May 2012, 9:50

    yep they knew the rules because they happened to be the ones that had done it all before.
    i cant stand it when people blame the driver when he had nothing to do with the amount of fuel put in.
    shame as it has just blown my score clean out the window, bugger.
    well we might get to see another winner this race, go Maldonado.
    that cagey old fox Alonso has a spring in his step now.

  7. BasCB (@bascb) said on 13th May 2012, 9:58

    Now I know that yesterday I wrote that I wouldnt even really mind a penalty for Hamilton giving Maldonado pole, but this …

    Why not just take away Hamiltons’ laptime that was affected, leaving him with the time set at the start of Q3. Or giving a few places grid penalty. Instead he starts at the back with hardly any fresh tyres left.

    What a mess up by McLaren and another unfathomably unjust application of the rules. F1 badly needs stewarding that not only look at the rules and the pictures/footage and telemetry but also applies reason, like a judge would.

    Now I would really fancy a pole to flag victory from Maldonado though, and Hamilon making it on the podium anyhow!

  8. James Robertson (@mclarenboy0310) said on 13th May 2012, 10:01

    FIA is one big old joke.

  9. Neel Jani (@neelv27) said on 13th May 2012, 10:08

    I do not understand one thing (kindly explain me).

    When Lewis stopped on his in-lap in Canada 2010, the technical regulations were made:

    Competitors must ensure that a one litre sample of fuel may be taken from the car at any time during the event.

    Except in cases of force majeure (accepted as such by the stewards of the meeting), if a sample of fuel is required after a practice session the car concerned must have first been driven back to the pits under its own power.

    So then why similar rules were not written for races as well when we have seen many such incidents in races as well? (probably because Hamilton was not one of them?).

    For my short memory, it was

    Felipe Massa – Spain 2009
    Mark Webber – Australia 2011
    Fernando Alonso – Germany 2011
    Jenson Button – Japan 2011
    Sebastian Vettel, Felipe Massa and others – Bahrain 2012

    Is this a coincidence that Lewis Hamilton is always at the receiving end and rules are only made after he infringes one?

    • scratt (@scratt) said on 13th May 2012, 10:30

      I think it is accepted that to judge the fuel over race distance is considerably more challenging than over a qualifying stint. Many factors can come into play during a race which may increase or decrease fuel consumption. If you get it very wrong you are basically not going to finish the race, or have to slow to an uncompetitive pace.

      Therefore I think it is unlikely that a rule like this for races would be enforced.

      It is interesting to consider though… What happens to a driver if they finish the race and stop immediately, and only have 1/2 litre of fuel on board?

      • Neel Jani (@neelv27) said on 13th May 2012, 10:37

        Thanks for that, that’s a good point

        • SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 10:55

          perhaps some clever engineer will come up with a design of a fuel cell that will at all times never be empty completely eg always have a reserve of lets say 2 to four litres in the fuel cell regardless of all activities during a typical race weekend..only emptied during transportation to next races for fire safety protection.

  10. OOliver said on 13th May 2012, 10:09

    I keep seeing that Mclaren and Hamilton did this or that.
    This was purely Mclaren, they had only one car to attend to, how can you excuse this kind of error.
    Mclaren also goes unpunished while the driver who played no part is the one to get punished.

    In my opinion, the only reason Hamilton is singled out for the harshest of punishment for the very minor infractions, is simply because he is black.
    This is thier way of aying he isn’t needed in the sport.

    Regarding Withmarsh, Latham and Micheal, lets see what creative self distructive actions they can contort.
    Perhaps next race we will see Mclaren practise fuelling the car at every opportunity before the race only for the FIA to discover aviation fuel in Lewis’ car or a V12 engine.

    I await Withmarsh’s long rambling speech about the fact that Mclaren is made up highly focused and dedicated individuals who make the sacrifice to see the team make a wonderful leap in performance.

    • SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 10:34

      I DISAGREE with your assertions about Hamiltons problems being due to “driving an F1car while black”
      even though the convergence and frequency of harsh penalties leaves a bad taste in the mouth …the shear number of responses on this issue is good retrospect if FIA was a government it would have been voted out many times before.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 13th May 2012, 10:42

      Hamilton is singled out for the harshest of punishment for the very minor infractions

      Complete rubbish, as this article last year proved:

      Five years, over 35 incidents: Has Hamilton been treated fairly?

      because he is black.

      That’s a disgraceful claim to make with no good reason. You don’t even specify who you think is culpable of this alleged racism, which is downright cowardly.

    • Shimks (@shimks) said on 13th May 2012, 11:05

      Your racism allegations are extremely strong and, I believe, completely unfounded. To my knowledge, the only racism problems the public are aware of regarding Hamilton are from a small group of people in Barcelona in 2008.
      Your comments smack of reverse discrimination; i.e. it is you that is pointing out that there must be more to this story because of Hamilton’s ethnicity.
      You should go away and have a long hard think about this.

      • OOliver said on 13th May 2012, 11:16

        I arrived at that conclusion after eliminating every other possibility why a single driver generates so much comments repeatedly. Hamilton is a novelty in F1 purely because he is back. That is why all his actions are in the spotlight.
        If you want to bury your head in the sad feel free, but I will stand by my opinion if it is only your opinion you use as a conter argument.

        • Shimks (@shimks) said on 13th May 2012, 11:39

          You are presuming that the FIA behaves as you do: that when dealing with Lewis, foremost in their considerations is his ethnicity.
          I challenge that you don’t see an F1 driver, you see a black F1 driver. This is something you should have at least gotten over after his first season in the sport.

    • Rhys Lloyd (@justrhysism) said on 13th May 2012, 11:52

      I can’t believe you just said that. Seriously? That’s disgusting.

      The only time I’ve ever heard anything to do with Hamilton’s race was when he brought it up himself.

  11. a4p (@a4p) said on 13th May 2012, 10:20

    Do you really believe that McLaren were unable to put enough fuel in the car due to major force problems?

    Wake up, guys! They’re Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and they are capable of everything. Countless episodes in the last six seasons and they still cheat whenever they want. I am glad they were fairly punished this time.

  12. James (@spirals) said on 13th May 2012, 10:26

    Another great article, Keith, thanks. Here’s my take:
    Let’s face it, McLaren did deserve a penalty. There were three mistakes they made, each of which would have prevented this from happening:
    1) Refueling properly in the first place – seemingly easier said than done in McLaren’s case.
    2) Once the mechanic realised he had drained fuel out instead of adding more fuel, the team should have taken the time to ensure he had the correct level of fuel before he was released from the garage for his final run.
    3) Once they had realised Hamilton had been realised with insufficient fuel to complete the three laps, the team should have told Hamilton to abort his fast lap and come into the pits immediately. He would then have started sixth (according to the BBC).
    The fact that McLaren did not take action on points 2 and 3 is an example of their slowness to respond to certain events, and perhaps shows that noone on the pitwall has a fine enough knowledge of the regulations. Certainly they do not have good enough contingency plans for such events. They simply couldn’t not be penalised, or the stewards would set a precedent for everyone to underfuel without penalty in the future.

    However, on the flip side, Hamilton had no obligation to go out again. He had already completed a run and returned to the pits under his own power, presumably with at least 1kg of fuel remaining, though it appears that noone ever checks this. To my interpretation (though there may be a wider view which is not conveyed by the single article, and I am no lawyer), article 6.6.2 does not state what penalty should be applied, nor does it convey the message that the car has, in essence, failed scrutineering if it fails to return to the pits under these circumstances. The penalty applied seems unnecessarily harsh, and Keith has covered this aspect better than I ever will. To casual fans, this penalty, amongst many others, seems illogical and unfair, and I think it’s a shame that F1 continues to push fans away with such decisions.

    It’s a good thing Bernie believes that “all publicity is good publicity”, else he’d have had some sleepless nights recently!

    • JoMcL said on 13th May 2012, 10:53

      I agree! I wonder though if this should not be the kind of penalty to the team rather than the driver. It should have been something like dq from Q3 and reprimend/fine to the team. I think the team share more responsability in this than the driver, be he is the only one one the receiving end.

      • James (@spirals) said on 13th May 2012, 11:02

        It would be good for the fans, of course, if the penalty was only applied to the team and not Lewis. However, I think it’s only fair that the penalty is applied to everyone on that side of the garage, as F1 is very much a team sport. Otherwise you would be able to argue the other way, that any time Lewis has crashed, the team should be able to keep the constructors points they would have gained had he continued racing until the finish line, and think about how many arguments that would cause!

      • Trish said on 13th May 2012, 12:55

        I am an “old girl” and an avid fan of Formula 1 but the penalty dished out to Lewis is an absolute miscarriage of Justice. Of course this is all to the benefit of Ferrari and Alonso what a surprise and of course if it had been Vettel there would have been no punishment. He will gain an advantage from this as well. Lewis actually did nothing wrong and the penalty is far too severe. Ther are many fans who will be no longer watching this if certain drivers are always favoured. Trish

  13. dcjohnson (@dcjohnson) said on 13th May 2012, 10:31

    F1 is governed, watched and reported on by predominately white men, as long everyone looks the other way, as faceless steward hide behind their interpretations of rules, then this will continue . I’ve been watching the espn 30-30 series, that has highlighted issues of race in sport, and there are always people who regret that they let it happen and didn’t speak out . There is a big elephant in the room and attempting to justify whats happening by interpretations of rules is allowing this to continue. F1 today is aligned to bunch of spanish F1 fans that dressed up as “Hamiltion family”, I hope its proud. Sadly I think its not bothered. Oh shoot, did I play the race card, I suppose I’m not allowed to do that am I.

    • OOliver said on 13th May 2012, 12:05

      Don’t make any reference to race, some people will tell you to go and think abut your life.

  14. SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 10:40

    its time F1 televised those stewards making those very decisions that impact on the sport so that we can see the rationale behind each penalty.
    perhaps that we can all then ..then what? jeez am just too upset.

  15. SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 10:49

    which was the worst mistake,
    1)under fuelling itself?
    2)failling to drive back to pits?
    3) or ensuring that there was enough fuel for sampling in car as per needless rules?

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