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. ~A~ said on 13th May 2012, 11:33

    I think the article points out correctly the team has absolutely no excuse to not have been on top of this. I don’t have a habit of saying “I told you so,” but I absoutely expected this to become an problem when I watched qualifying yesterday.

    The penalty can be seen as harsh, in my opinion, too, however, the obvious intent behind Article 6.6.2 is to not have teams put in fuel for, say, two laps instead of three and then stopping the car on the track just after having scored a time. As it’s common knowledge that less fuel in the car, causing less weight, can make the car go quicker, one could, thus, achieve an advantage over the competition.

    In my opinion, they do have to clamp down hard on this kind of behaviour, because not doing it would encourage the teams to pursue this tactic. It’s obvious that the current qualifying rules provide an incentive to run as small amounts of fuel as you can manage, but as the rules obviously state running little enough to have to stop on the in-lap is considered “not enough”.

    I feel I can understand the seriousness of the penalty when I consider that the “alternative” to stopping the car on the track could well have meant not being able to provide the one liter fuel sample after the session. That would mean the car’s fuel used during the qualifying session could not be examined directly, which would mean the competitor was in violation of the Technical Regulations (which would make fecal matter hit ventilators).

    What I find specifically interesting here is that the Stewards’ decision does not state that this was the case. The infraction they acted upon was that the team had the car stop on the track for a cause that was not deemed “force majeure” (which would be correct, unless an unforseeable technical error would have caused fuel loss, or unnaturally high fuel consumption). So I do think it sends a good message to the teams, in that stopping on track in order to ensure a fuel sample can still be given cannot be considered an option. They all have to make sure they got their numbers right the next time.

  2. MahavirShah (@mahavirshah) said on 13th May 2012, 11:35

    I think that the penalty was fair if it was construed as an attempt to cheat or subvert the rules regarding minimum fuel in the tank. Yet, I also feel that a 10 or 15 place penalty would have sufficed in this case with a warning against any future repeat by any of the teams drivers.

    There have been arguments against the penalty on the grounds that in light of some recent offenses and subsequent penalties that there is an imbalance between offence and penalty. I agree with that. Some incidents that did not deserve a penalty, were heavily penalized while some incidents were not. The penalties really need to be looked at and standardized.

  3. Aditya (@) said on 13th May 2012, 11:40

    You talk about harsh penalties? What about the penalty given to Christijan Albers at Shanghat six years ago for missing a weight check during quali? He was sent to the back as well. And anyway Hamilton has not always been on the wrong end of the stick. Many of his demeanours in 2010(my mind goes back to Hamilton’s pass on Maylander at Valencia) which were dealt utterly unprofessionally by the stewards.

  4. ahhh does this mean they can give a penalty to drivers that stop ther car on the track for the same reasons after the race????? They broke the rules so the penalty is right but it has to be right all over the board, rule should be after qualy and the race.

  5. paul_E80 said on 13th May 2012, 11:46

    Martin Brundle just said that Charlie Whiting told him this morning that the reason the penalty was been sent to the back is because any technical infringement means disqualification from the entire session.

  6. maxthecat said on 13th May 2012, 11:52

    It’s such a shame F1 keeps shooting itself in the foot due to jobs-worth stewards especially after a great Quali. Highly unlikely if it was Alonso he would have got the same punishment.

  7. sato113 (@sato113) said on 13th May 2012, 11:56

    BBCs tech guy Gary Anderson wrote that he saw a mcalren guy with the fuel hose on ‘drain’ not fill. then he realised but didn’t put enough fuel in!

  8. also they just had to take away the low fuel lap time where the advantage was gained! what happened to a penalty of leaving the track? at least 5 cars did this (put all four wheels off) during there lap,

    Can i just ad very pleased for frank williams.

  9. pSynrg (@psynrg) said on 13th May 2012, 12:04

    Get rid of Martin Whitless. A seemingly endless series of blunders and gaffs are the hallmarks of his tenure at the top of McLaren. Not even the drivers make this many mistakes. If I were Lewis I’d be in the market right now…

  10. Bart said on 13th May 2012, 12:08

    I feel the punishment was the correct one. McLaren broke the rules, very clearly. A mistake is no excuse to cheat. They should have aborted his flying lap. Tough on Hamilton, but F1 is a team sport. Any mistake by a team is unfair on the driver, which is a good reason for teams not to make mistakes, as in any sport really.

    I do agree that what Schumacher did in 2006 at Monaco is worse, and perhaps he should’ve been excluded from the race for that.

    Aside from the cheating aspect, cars stopping after their hot laps due to shortage of fuel is not the same as cars stopping after the race ended if you look at safety. When cars have completed their hot laps other cars may still be at speed even after the clock has stopped. Any cars stationary on the track are unsafe. When a race has ended all cars slow down at the same time right after the finish line, which makes stopped cars much less unsafe.

    For the spectators this penalty is potentially more exciting. A fast car at the back making its way through the field is a recipe for good television.

    • SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 12:10

      “For the spectators this penalty is potentially more exciting. A fast car at the back making its way through the field is a recipe for good television.”

      or disaster…

  11. Switchbacker (@switchbacker) said on 13th May 2012, 12:39

    As always our esteemed host Keith Collantine hits the nail on the head.

    Seems to me the rules are remarkably, I would suggest intentionally, vague, so that interpretation is flexible, allowing for manipulation.

    Its pretty clear that Alonso, for example, recieves preferential treatment. Even speaking on camera about the infamous SC in Malaysia (?) wasnt enough for him to be punished.

    McLaren, especially HAM always get hammered. F1 has a long history of manipulation, eg Senna / Prost.

    McLaren’s astounding litany of errors over last 3 years is unparralelled. How can 2 year old teams perform more reliably in strategy and operations than such an established team?

    Another remarkable race (Lotus, Sauber, Williams, wow!) tarnished by nonsense.

  12. BBT (@bbt) said on 13th May 2012, 12:40

    BBC are reporting that the fuel was being extracted instead of filled by mistake before the tech realised and put the fuel in. The resulted in too little fuel (as some had been extracted and should not have been). The would of had another 20 seconds to get the correct fuel in.
    No sure this is true but read it on the BBC website.

  13. BBT (@bbt) said on 13th May 2012, 12:42

    10th or 11th would of been a fair verdict but life is not fair and nor is F1.

    I agree with the article.

  14. DT (@dt) said on 13th May 2012, 12:42

    Great article Keith and indeed a harsh punishment. I however think FIA wants to send a clear message to the teams hence that punishment. Having said that, i think the whole Mclaren team and leadership needs a critical review. The number of avoidable mistakes is unbelievable for such an established team.

    Personally i think there should be a change in leadership starting with Martin Whitmarsh. He doesn’t seem to have a hold of the team properly and they seem to be making the same mistakes far too often.

    The team is currently not leading the constructors purely because of these jaw-dropping mistakes.

    Time to go Whitmarsh!!

  15. SPIDERman (@spiderman) said on 13th May 2012, 12:43

    where do i get the live driver position tracker thingy? on sky or bbc(which is also live today)

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