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

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  1. frazbox (@frazbox) said on 13th May 2012, 16:27

    relegating him to 10th would have sufficed…. he already made it Q3…. and he stewards should realize by now that they are being really harse on mclaren and its drivers

  2. marcel (@mcphoton) said on 13th May 2012, 17:15

    Lewis should have started 10th, not 24th…!!!!!

  3. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 13th May 2012, 18:54

    I think this is a difficult one to call regarding the punishment, it all boils down to something you cannot prove.

    Do McLaren knowingly under-fuel the car with a view to being on the absolute brink and perhaps get away with it or is it just a case of a calculation mistake? The former makes this punishment seem appropriate whereas the latter makes it sound too harsh.

    Unfortunately the stewards cannot find that out.

    Considering McLaren are the reason the rule was introduced I can’t help but think that I’m siding more with the stewards decision, I do feel a little bad for it though.

  4. Miko said on 14th May 2012, 9:05

    Here we go again – Keith doing “fair and balanced” reporting on his all time fav-driver Hamilton. Can’t you do two versions of F1Fanatic? One with all your ardent McLaren/British/Hamilton/Button/anti-Ferrari bias, and another one without all that?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 14th May 2012, 9:33

      It’s a comment piece. It says at the top of the article it’s a comment piece, and I’m putting an opinion across.

      I’m always happy to debate people on the facts, but not silly mud-slinging. If you think Hamilton deserved such a harsh penalty, then explain why you think so. Who knows, I might end up agreeing with you. But not if you resort to cheap accusations of ‘bias’.

    • pSynrg (@psynrg) said on 14th May 2012, 11:57

      @Miko: Regardless of how the article is actually written (biased or unbiased, or whatever) Keith can write what the hell he likes, it’s his blog!

      If you don’t like it join into the spirit of a blog and provide your own stark, objective and dispassionate commentary and show us how you feel it should be done.

  5. Chris Goldsmith said on 14th May 2012, 13:19

    I don’t know if Hamilton personally deserved what happened to him, since it was something well outside of his control, and the first he knew of it was when he was told to park the car. However in general terms I think the decision to exclude his car from qualifying was the right one, especially in light of interviews with Whitmarsh where he says that they knew while Lewis was on his flying lap that a mistake had been made and that the car was short on fuel (though they didn’t know by how much). They then made a decision to let him finish his flying lap and then park it on track, hoping that enough fuel would be left to provide a sample, even though this would breach the rule about the car having to return to the pits under its own power. They had an option; they could have told Lewis to abort the lap and to return to the pits saving fuel, then explained to the stewards what had happened and how they had taken immediate action to rectify it. In this respect, they took a decision which involved them knowingly breaking the sporting regulations. If you deliberately break the rules, then I believe the punishment has to be a harsh one. It was an unnecessary bit of brinksmanship which, once again, has costed McLaren very dearly. It’s a shame for Hamilton, since he was totally blameless here, but the sporting regulations can’t be wilfully ignored by teams for the sake of trying to gain a competitive advantage.

    I can’t see Whitmarsh lasting an awful lot longer if he can’t get his act together. This used to be the sort of thing that McLaren played extremely well.

  6. Diogenes said on 14th May 2012, 16:48

    @keithcollantine

    The issue of the harshness of the penalty needs to reviewed in light of Whitmarsh’s post race comments:

    “With hindsight I could have called it a different way, and he could have just come in at the end of the out lap. But frankly I did not expect the penalty that he received.”

    This demonstrates that Whitmarsh had full knowledge of the short fueling and it’s consequences before Hamilton started his flying lap. If he had chosen to bring him in at the end of his outlap the car would have had more than enough fuel to satisfy the requirement of 6.6.2 and Hamilton had a banker lap of 1:22.560 to fall back on which would ultimately have left him 7th on the grid. In comparison to the Monaco penalty you state that

    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.

    but Whitmarsh’s statement that this was also a calculated act of cheating with full knowledge on his part that the team would be penalized for it, the magnitude of thepenalty reflects that it was not simply a careless oversight as the stewards would have been aware from information supplied by McLaren in their force majeure defense.The disqualification from the session was not “because he did not have enough fuel in the car” but rather because Whitmarsh took the conscious decision to allow allow Hamilton to complete his flying lap and then stop him on the track in violation of the rule that the “the car concerned must have first been driven back to the pits under its own power”.

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