In years to come Pastor Maldonado may be remembered firstly as the driver who ended the Williams team’s eight-year grand prix drought in 2012.
But it was clear from the reaction to Monday’s news of his departure from F1 that he is best known at the moment for his poor disciplinary record and tendency to provoke incidents.
Is this a fair reflection on him? At the time of writing there are three drivers in the current field who have picked up penalties more frequently than F1’s most notorious ‘bad boy’.
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The new ‘bad boys’?
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Carlos Sainz Jnr has the unfortunate distinction of being the driver in F1 today who has incurred the most penalties per race, taking into account every grand prix over the past five years. Sainz, who made his debut last year, was penalised ten time last year and only three of those were due to his team (e.g. due to component changes).
His team mate also accrued penalties at a higher rate than Maldonado. Max Verstappen not only collected six penalties during his first season (and a further six due to his team), he also picked up eight penalty points. That means he will receive a one-race ban if he collects another four before May 24th.
The final driver who has collected penalties at a faster rate than Maldonado is returning to F1 following a one-year absence. Esteban Gutierrez incurred 11 penalties during his previous two seasons driving for Sauber.
Is one of these drivers on course to become the ‘new Maldonado’? It’s worth bearing two things in mind. First, they are all near their beginning of their F1 careers: only one of them has started more than one season, and you would expect them to quickly learn how to stay out of trouble. Second, the total number of penalties being issued has risen in recent seasons, so it’s not just these three who are visiting the stewards more often.
Data based on penalties for which the driver was considerably principally responsible, excluding power unit changes, gearbox changes and similar penalties.
Out of the 48 drivers who have started an F1 race over the past five seasons, Nico Rosberg stands out as the only one to have been present for every race without receiving a penalty for a driving infraction. The worst he’s had is a reprimand, and any penalties he did receive were for incidents caused by his team, such as an unsafe release from the pits at Suzuka in 2013.
In the last five years Rosberg has been involved in seven incidents all of which led to the stewards taking no action. These included some very vigorous defending from Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso and Bahrain in 2012, and passing a car after red flags came out at Silverstone last year. In these incidents the stewards were satisfied with Rosberg’s driving after considering mitigating factors.
The value of being seen as a clean driver in the eyes of the stewards can be seen from another of Rosberg’s brushes with authority during the 2011 Korean Grand Prix weekend. He was absolved of blame for a collision with Jean-Eric Vergne after the stewards took into account “Mr Rosberg’s good record during his years in Formula One”.
The reputation came under greatest scrutiny in 2014 following two incidents involving Rosberg’s team mate Lewis Hamilton. In Monaco Rosberg was accused of deliberately stopping his car in order to bring out the yellow flags, forcing Hamilton to back off an guaranteeing Rosberg pole position. The stewards “examined video and telemetry data from the team and FIA and could find no evidence of any offence“. The pair later tangled at Spa but this incident was not investigated.
The 2011 season was a tough time for Lewis Hamilton: he incurred seven penalties over the course of the season, over than three times more than any other driver, leading some to question whether he was being treated more harshly than other drivers. But this debate has receded as Hamilton has made far fewer visits to the stewards in more recent seasons.
Similarly Romain Grosjean has largely shaken off his reputation for being a loose cannon on the track. His nadir came at Spa in 2012 where he became the first driver to be banned from a race in almost two decades.
Controversially, the stewards noted his severe punishment was in part because he had “eliminated leading championship contenders from the race“. But the sanction may have had its desired effect: Grosjean is a maturer and considerably less incident-prone driver these days.
Who’s to blame?
While the data above refers only to penalties drivers incurred through their own actions, last year almost as many penalties were handed down because of mistakes made by their teams.
This chart shows how many penalties each driver picked up themselves – and how many were down to their team:
2016 F1 season
- Rosberg keeps pole as no action taken by stewards
- Rosberg under investigation for yellow flag rules breach
- Button pleased but not content with fourth-row McLaren lockout
- Rosberg insists he did not infringe yellow flag rules
- Yellow flag misfortune frustrates Ricciardo