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F1: inconsistent penalties reduce the sport to the equivalent of figure skating

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

Recently, the FIA told Formula One Teams that "the honeymoon is over" with regard to radio messages. On Saturday, the FIA announced a "zero tolerance" approach to track limits - but then provided for discretion. Are Stewards decisions now more suited to judging ice dancing where views on artistic merit trump the certainty of black and white boundaries?

Silverstone celebrated the 50th running of the British Grand Prix yesterday and in celebration painted its kerbs black and white. It was nice : across the British Commonwealth, black and white kerbs were a wonderful feature of roads and have been a sad loss as modernisation has crept in and grey concrete fails to adequately mark the edges.

But the kerbs were the only thing about the 2016 British Grand Prix that was black and white.

On Saturday, prior to qualifying, the FIA issued a circular to teams and copied it to the media. It said that, during qualifying, the FIA stewards would adopt a "zero tolerance" approach to the breaching of track limits at three corners: Copse, Stowe and Club. It did not mention other parts of the track but it did qualify that penalties would not be applied if the car left the track through, in effect, no fault of the driver. It also said that, during the race, penalties would be applied if the driver gained and/or maintained an advantage.

It follows, therefore, that the approach is absolutely not zero tolerance: in cases of zero tolerance, there is no discretion - the actions constitute the completed offence in the absence of a supportable defence. Accordingly, while the "no fault" clause would qualify as a defence, the question of any benefit is a discretion in the hands of the stewards. Worse, the fact that different standards apply throughout free practice (when going off is a fact of life as drivers explore the limits of their cars, the track and their own capability), during qualifying and during the race does not help provide certainty in a sport where winning and losing is calculated in - literally, thousandths of a second.

Even worse is when those penalties are applied inconsistently: the FIA was clear in saying that infringements during qualifying would result in the cancellation (curiously, it used the word "deletion") of qualifying time obtained where a car left the track (in the FIA's mangled English, this is expressed as "exceeded the track limits"). It's not hard to phrase this simply.

A simpler way to rule:

"Track" is defined as that part of the circuit between the white lines that mark the outer edges of the area approved for racing.

The marked pit lane entrance and exit are part of the track but are excluded from the area approved for racing.

a) where a car is entering or leaving the pits, entering the marked area it is not regarded as leaving the track.

b) a car crossing or partially crossing into the marked pit lane entrance and exit other than for the purpose of entering or leaving the pits is regarded as leaving the track.

c) a car which is entering or leaving the pits and crosses the line marking the approach to or exit from the pit lane is regarded as leaving the track

c) a car that entirely crosses the white lines marking the outer edges of the area approved for racing is regarded as leaving the track.

The penalty for leaving the track is five seconds to be added to the time recorded for that lap.

If the driver can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the stewards that he left the track for reasons of safety or for a reason outside his control the stewards may deduct the time added.

Where the stewards take the view that the reasons for the driver leaving the track were so obviously due to reasons of safety or for a reason outside his control, they may remove the penalty without application from the driver.

The penalties should be applied equally: at Silverstone, Joleyn Palmer had a qualifying lap disallowed because he went off at a corner that was not listed in the FIA's statement. Magnussen went off, was not penalised and as a result, Button did not take part in the second session of qualifying. Alonso and Hülkenberg had times disallowed - after the final session was completed, re-writing the grid. Palmer says that he has no argument with the rule but finds inconsistent application is an example of how it was "not policed properly." That's a sensible view.

Conditions for the early part of the race were difficult due to sudden, heavy, rain while the cars were already on the grid. The run-off area at Abbey (more prosaically known as Turn One) is very wide, then there is a large gravel area. During the race, car after car ran onto the run off area: this was not for reasons of safety: it was due to driver error in approaching the corner faster than was appropriate for the conditions and failing to get around between the lines. Not one driver was penalised for going wide at that corner despite the clear fact that, in doing so, a higher speed of approach was possible: sure, they lost time as a result but that is not the point of rules. Rules are not supposed to be "don't do that but if you do it and shoot yourself in the foot, we will regard that as sufficient penalty."

One of the most important aspects of F1 is pit-lane safety: the pit lane is full of people who, except for a helmet, have no effective protection against impact damage. Unsafe release, as it's called, is one of the aspects of pit-lane activity that is most closely controlled. But not at Silverstone yesterday as cars poured into the pits after the safety car pulled off, there were several examples of cars being released into the path of cars entering the pits. That there were no collisions was remarkable. And the stewards took no action in any of the cases, even the most glaring examples. However, when Joleyn Palmer's crew waved him off into an empty pit lane with a wheel missing, stopped him within a very short distance and pushed him back to safety causing no risk to anyone, the stewards took a dim view. They penalised him for potential harm: a stop-go penalty of 5 seconds which translates to around 30 seconds lost track time.

And yet, when Vettel, in a near copy of Rosberg's collision with Hamilton, went straight on. In order to avoid a collision, Massa had to leave the track and in doing so sustained damage that put him into the pits, costing him about 30 seconds. For this aggressive or negligent driving, with the risk of injury to another driver, Vettel was penalised five seconds to be added to his race time. Vettel said he did not do it on purpose but that he had repeatedly "lost the car." Then surely his solution was to slow down, not to continue with the same action knowing the likely consequences. More importantly, his actions cost another driver some 30 seconds and world championship points while Vettel and his team scored points as a result. Had Vettel been ordered to serve a stop-go, as Palmer had been, the result would have been to maintain the status quo with Massa i.e. no nett penalty vis a vis the car he had wronged. It follows, then, that the correct penalty for Vettel, to be fair, would have been a stop-go of at least ten seconds. Worse, the five second penalty did not have to be served if Vettel did not come into the pits. Therefore the drivers close behind him did not know, due to radio restrictions, that they were, effectively, either in front of him or, in the case of Button, alongside him. Button drove the last three laps to conserve his car and dropped away from Vettel's true position whereas pushing on those last laps might have brought him to a position where he was legally ahead of Vettel while being behind him on track.

It was radio messages that finally brought the stewards' decisions into question and, arguably, the sport into disrepute.

Rosberg's mechanic told him that his gearbox was showing signs of trouble. What he did not do was to tell Rosberg to retire: therefore it is clear that the failure was not "imminent." Had he said "Nico - gearbox problem: box" (or park) there would have been no issue. But he didn't do that: Rosberg was given a series of instructions: "Driver default 1-0-1, chassis default 0-1, chassis default 0-1. Avoid seventh gear, Nico, avoid seventh gear." Rosberg asked what to do and got the response"shift through." That, most people would agree, was advice and advice is banned. What was even more noticeable is that, after the message, on-screen data provided to TV companies clearly showed that Rosberg held the car in 7th gear going both up and down the box. Clearly, then, it was advice not an instruction to conserve the car.

There should have been no argument: the message was a) not urgent as the display showed b) contained advice on how to drive the car. Accordingly, a penalty should be applied.

But the stewards announced an investigation and then did not post their decision for approximately three hours after the race ended. By then, Andy Murray had won his second Wimbledon title and many people had lost interest in Rosberg anyway. But it becomes even more ludicrous when the penalty applied is known: ten seconds was added to his race time, resulting in his demotion to third behind Max Verstaapen.

First, the delay is an open invitation to Mercedes to appeal, demonstrating that the decision was not clear cut. It should have been. The information was outside the scope of the rule. Whether the rule is appropriate or not is irrelevant: it is what it is. Secondly, the penalty, when viewed against that applied to Vettel for what is, at least by implication, dangerous driving is disproportionate and third, the effect of the penalty, when viewed against that applied to Vettel, is disproportionate.

The biggest question overhanging the result, then, turns out to be why, relative to other penalties applied on the day, Vettel was treated so leniently.

A close second is why there is so much discretion in a rules that are supposed to be absolute.