McLaren’s mistake costs Hamilton too dearly

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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. JoMcL said on 13th May 2012, 10:50

    I am starting to wonder about the management inside McLaren. Sam Michael was recruited for operations after the position being vacant for some time. What changed in the team? There are way too many mistakes for a team like McLaren. Things are getting worse all over the place. The drivers should feel gutted!!
    Not sure it is Whitmarsh fault, he was there before, but please Ron Dennis come back and have a word with the team!

  2. matt72 said on 13th May 2012, 10:53

    Although in this instance the fault lies completely with Mclaren and the stewards hands are tied regarding the rules and application of penalties, as a Hamilton fan, I must say that last year especially but also say at Spa in 2008 I really have wondered if there isn’t some great global conspiracy to hobble Lewis, especially in the incidents with Massa whom I personally think still resents Hamilton for 2008 and in general seems to have a defend or crash mentality when racing anyone particularly Hamilton.

    I don’t believe it is racism behind this as Lewis being young, black and dare I say it handsome / cool (how old do I sound?) is probably the best thing to happen to F1 inc. and Mclaren in particular since colour TV. The problem I believe is the post Senna / Schumacher backlash of F1 being determined to prevent a driver becoming bigger than the sport due to their talent and success, coupled with anachronistic stewarding procedures and also resentment from some fellow drivers towards Lewis’ ability willingness to pull off overtakes and performances that many drivers literally don’t have the talent to achieve.

    The good thing is I think perhaps due to Didier Coton’s influence, Lewis seems to be building a wiser more considered response to some of the setbacks that he is encountering, I think this race will be a true test of his new found composure, good luck to him.

    • SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 11:13

      while i partly agree with some of your points here..
      i think the problem with Hamilton is somewhat compounded by the seemingly inevitable fact that most of the grid drivers are either resentful of Hamilton or they behave as if they are under orders to stop Hamilton at costs.
      good example is you will often here on team radio..messages coming from pit wall telling drivers where Hamilton is positioned on track etc..like the coded message to massa by smedly which resulted in massa moving heaven and earth to stop Hamilton overtaking him.. .recently cant remember which year but maybe 2009 or 2010..
      and even when he makes a move..a collision results in him being judged the aggressor.
      so it becomes a catch 22 situation forcing this talented man to make daring moves just to achieve a reasonable result.

  3. Jen Campbell (@12popsicles) said on 13th May 2012, 10:55

    I agree completely with the ruling, they broke the rules and thus have to suffer the penalty!
    The only query I have is, they were saying that an extra liter or two a lap costs a few tenths of a second, if Hamilton had had the extra fuel on board to be able to get back to the pits with the 1 liter required, would he have still beaten Maldonado’s time or not? It would have been very very close I think! I know it doesn’t really matter because Pastor is on pole now and Lewis is at the back! But still, makes you wonder doesn’t it? Or just me? :)

  4. scratt (@scratt) said on 13th May 2012, 10:57

    I think another issue this brings up is the way that penalties adversely affect the race for us the spectators, and for the drivers themselves.

    I agree with the general consensus that this is an unreasonably harsh use of the rules from Hamilton’s perspective; despite also agreeing that the team did deserve to be punished.

    Putting Hamilton in 10th, or rolling back his last time would have been solved the problem and kept the race order much closer to where it should be to keep the race on track, not to mention the championship.

    Similarly we’ve had gearbox penalties applied this year where it seems the driver is the only one penalised. Giving a driver a 5 place grid penalty because his gearbox needs replacing is akin to spanking a child for the parents’ misdemeanours. Surely it would be smarter in these cases to allow the driver to do his job, and have the team be penalised in the constructors championship.

    Obviously, if a driver does something wrong then by all means punish them.
    But if the team is at fault, why ruin all the drivers hard work?

  5. mark (@markp) said on 13th May 2012, 10:58

    100% agree with the article. If anyone fails to complete an inlap in future due to fuel then they must be put to the back if not it would be a disgrace.

    I had a feeling the stewards would jump on Hamilton last weekend for overtaking last time out off track. Many times in football a ref refuses a clear penalty only to give a soft one later after feeling he got the 1st one wrong.

    I am shocked they did not just disqualify his lap on that run. As a Ferrari fan I am happy of course but can appreciate the punishment is ott.

  6. smudgersmith1 (@smudgersmith1) said on 13th May 2012, 10:59

    5 grid places, lets keep this in proportion

  7. ledzep4pm (@ledzep4pm) said on 13th May 2012, 10:59

    I’m just comparing this to the Ferrari Team Orders in Hockenhiem 2010.

    Ferrari deliberately broke the rules to give an unfair advantage to Alonso, and Alonso kept the win and received no penalty. and the rules were then changed to make it legal.

    McLaren made a mistake with the refuelling rig and Hamliton was then a couple of litres short of making it back (and by all accounts it wouldn’t have changed the position where he qualified) he was been excluded from qualifying and has effectively been docked 23 places for the race.

    To in informed fan (and I’m sure many uninformed fans) this seems completely disproportionate.

    • Jen Campbell (@12popsicles) said on 13th May 2012, 11:05

      They are two completely different issues, for one, the Ferrari issue was in a race and this one is in a qualifying. So hard to compare really.
      McLaren knew the rules, hell them stopping in Canada 2010 made F1 bring in the rule in the first place.

      • ledzep4pm (@ledzep4pm) said on 13th May 2012, 11:30

        Yes they are different issues.

        My comparison was that Alonso gained one place by Ferrari breaking the rules while Hamilton lost 23 places for McLaren breaking the rules. I was highlighting the disparage between the two punishments.

        May I add Ferrari knew the rules, they did the same thing (deliberately) in Austria 2002, which brought the rule into being. At the end of the day all the teams should know the rules so that is a null point

  8. OOliver said on 13th May 2012, 11:01

    comparing this to Schumacher deliberately stopping on track and obstructing other competitors, is criminal. Lewis was asked to stop by his team after everyone had set a time. Schumacher blocked the track so no one could set a time.
    There can be no way to relate the two in coming out wirh a penalty.

    • ledzep4pm (@ledzep4pm) said on 13th May 2012, 11:06

      I know they are two very different incidents, but the comparison Keith made was based on the fact they carried the same penalty, and therefore are seen as having the same severity.

  9. Gaston (@golarrazabal) said on 13th May 2012, 11:03

    Initially, I thought that the penalty was too harsh, but after giving it some thought, I actually think it’s fair. Here’s my two cents:

    1) As @adrianmorse mentioned, McLaren must have quickly realized that they had sent out an underfueled car. However, they still allowed Hamilton to do a flying lap and then instructed him to stop, knowing in advance that this resulted in a breach of the rules. And then, Sam Michael’s claims that the car stopped due to a ‘force majeure’, while not outright cheating, are definitely misleading.

    2) Had the infringement not been punished severely, I believe it would have opened an exploitable loophole in the rules. Let’s imagine, for example, than instead of being sent to the back of the grid, Hamilton would have been sent back only to P10. This sets a precedent. Now, say that in the future, you are in P7 towards the end of Q3. You send out an underfueled car, improve your position, and then stop the car in such a way that it doesn’t look like deliberate cheating. You claim this ‘force majeure’ thing. If the stewards believe you, you keep your unfairly improved position. If they don’t buy it, you are only demoted to P10, which isn’t bad at all considering you were originally at P7. In Hamilton’s case, the penalty seems too harsh because it was an [apparently] honest mistake, but where do you draw the line between an honest mistake and outright cheating?

    I feel that, in a way, this punishment was handed out as to show other teams that no fooling around with the fuel rule will be tolerated. Unfortunate for McLaren? Yes. But rules are rules, and if we know something about F1 it’s that teams are always looking for ways to exploit them for their own benefit.

    • mark (@markp) said on 13th May 2012, 11:20

      Do you feel the penalty would have been less harsh if Mclaren had come out straight away and said what happened. MW going straight to the stewards before being asked?

      As it is the impression is it took hours for them to admit this when they would have known straight away. This may have angered the stewards into throwing the book at them.

  10. dkpioe said on 13th May 2012, 11:07

    i think it was a definite penalty situation, but he should have been dropped to the back of the top 10, not the back of the grid.
    i dont think hamilton should leave mclaren for this mistake, and his fans are starting to hate his team, but dont forget how many points he has cost the team in the past because of his errors, errors that led to him losing a world championship in 2010, and arguably not playing a team game lost them the 2007 world drivers championship.
    its funny he knew he was going to get penalised (see the mclaren crew man whisper in his ear after setting pole), so he put on a extra charmful talk in post qualifying press conference, even congratulating in an over the top manner Alonso.

    • Kodongo (@kodongo) said on 13th May 2012, 12:10

      By not playing a team game, you mean being subserviant to Alonso despite being in the lead? I would ask you to compare how many points he has earned them proportional to how many he has cost them (e.g. Turkey 2010, China 2011 where they lost him positions in the pits and he came back to win the race).

  11. stuartmasson (@stuartmasson) said on 13th May 2012, 11:08

    No point blaming the stewards for enforcing the rules. This was McLaren’s fault, even if it was an error rather than deliberately underfuelling the car. However, trying to claim force majeure rather than admitting they screwed up was stupid, and wouldn’t have helped their cause.

    F1 is full of technical rules which are created to solve one problem but which create another; it goes with the territory for such a technical sport. Yes, it is harsh for Hamilton, but it was a basic and easily avoidable mistake from McLaren so they have no-one to blame but themselves.

    • SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 11:26

      how come there is no appeal mechanism in this instance.? why cant the driver himself appeal the penalty so that team is punished but he keeps his position?

      • stuartmasson (@stuartmasson) said on 13th May 2012, 12:24

        What’s to appeal? It’s completely open-and-shut. Car was underfuelled. The driver is part of the team, so he suffers the consequences of a team mistake. Just as the team suffers whenever Hamilton is penalised for crashing into Massa.

  12. Jim Jones4 said on 13th May 2012, 11:22

    It’s pathetic and typical of the FIA. They could have simply moved him back to last in the session, which would have been 10th, or even more logically, they could have just deleted his final time, which would have put him 5th after the first run.

    It’s baffling why they are always so harsh on Hamilton, you can fully understand now why Lewis always feels the stewards have it in for him. Wouldn’t surprise me if Lewis leaves F1 before long.

    • Aditya (@) said on 13th May 2012, 11:44

      You have to stick to protocol. The FIA can’t just give a decision for the heck of it. It is stated in the rules that the only punishment that can be given is “all times deleted.”

  13. SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 11:23

    my brilliant idea…
    next FOTA meeting..let them suggest rules such that FIA takes charge of fueling and also all cars must have a fuel gauge sensor mechanism to help the driver apportion the blame all round if fuel falls short.
    ..just my three cents please

  14. Colossal Squid (@colossal-squid) said on 13th May 2012, 11:23

    It will be very interesting to see Hamilton’s body language and the way he interacts with the team today. Things may be a bit frosty between them.

    • SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 11:33

      Hamilton should stop always trying to praise the team every time he speaks..he should be like Alonzo who never stops to criticize when his team makes a mistake… i usually hate it when i hear Hamilton usual line ..blah blah blah team this team did that…and yet we all know they are somewhat screwing him by making disastrous mistakes.

  15. Max Jacobson (@vettel1) said on 13th May 2012, 11:26

    Even though I don’t like Mclaren & Escpecially Hamilton, I think this is a bit harsh – after all it was his teams fault and not his.
    Gives a good opportunity to Maldonado though..

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