Is Formula 1 bringing itself into disrepute?

The Safety Car - Valencia 2010 © http://www.sutton-images.com

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday morning we were all expecting a fairly dull race on a weekend in which F1 had finally seemed to find some stability. A feeling of calm had washed over the paddock with the teams all fairly happy and united under FOTA, the driver market pretty much sorted and the rules and regulations for the future cemented by the FIA.

But Fernando Alonso’s claims of a fixed race have well and truly rocked the fragile peace in the sport. Indeed there have even been suggestions that the FIA is acting with severe bias towards Lewis Hamilton and McLaren.

Now if you’re finding those comments odd, you’re not the only one. The FIA favouring McLaren against Ferrari? Really? Have we switched into a parallel dimension? Fair is foul and foul is fair and all that? There was a time, not too long ago, when the FIA was nicknamed “Ferrari International Assistance” after so many of the body’s decisions seemed to favour the scarlet cars over any others, particularly those from Woking.

Instead, after the European Grand Prix, there was something of a feeling that Ferrari and Alonso’s petulance and comments in themselves were the most damaging thing for the sport, and they could yet land them in hot water for bringing Formula 1 into disrepute.

But then again, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. Hamilton passed the safety car and finished second. Alonso didn’t and came eighth. So in essence, Hamilton cheated and yet wasn’t really punished harshly enough in Ferrari’s eyes as he pulled a better result out of the bag than the man who didn’t cheat. I like Lewis, I’m a big fan, but by overtaking the safety car he broke the rules. Simple.

Alonso said he’d never seen anything like it before. But I have, and I’m afraid that it won’t help Lewis’ cause, because he was the guilty party once again. It was 2006, in the GP2 race in Imola, and Lewis overtook the safety car after falsely thinking he was being waved through when in fact it was waving through the Campos cars ahead of him. Lewis was leading the race at that time and should have stayed behind the safety car. His penalty? A black flag and disqualification from the race. So I can see why Ferrari would be upset that a similar penalty was not applied to Lewis for this transgression.

Lewis Hamilton shortly before his black flag - GP2 Imola 2006. © www.sutton-images.com

I’m also failing to fully understand the brace of 5 second penalties handed out to the nine drivers who ran too quickly in comparison to the delta times when entering the pits under the safety car. Because if this is the precedent, then why on earth should drivers pay any attention to the delta times in the future? If a 5 second penalty is now considered the norm for such a transgression, sticking to race pace on an inlap under the safety car could very easily buy a driver far more than the 5 second penalty he’d incur for sticking to his delta time.

The result of the stewarding decisions in Valencia, therefore, have completely made a mockery of the safety car regulations. And if anything, is not the role of the FIA to ensure that the rules and their application are consistent, transparent and precise enough to instil confidence in the sport? What about the fans who watch the race, be they those who pay for their tickets or are simply watching it at home? If 9 drivers had been kicked further down the field hours after the race had finished, for their safety car transgressions, what sort of message does that hand out to the fans?

It says, don’t bother to tune in to the race. Just watch the news tomorrow morning when hopefully we will have had a cup of tea and figured out who should have won. It is little wonder Ferrari is kicking off. But their gripe shouldn’t be with McLaren or Hamilton because they simply made the best out of the situation they were placed in. They were handed a penalty and they rose above it beautifully, just as Mark Webber did in taking his first F1 victory at the Nurburgring last season. The issue here lies in the regulations, and more importantly in their application during the race.

There was another example of stewarding inefficiency in Valencia and it was for a moment in the first GP2 race when Alberto Valerio’s Coloni was released from the pits with the rear jack still attached. The team appeared not to tell Valerio to pull over, and for 5 corners the Brazilian ran at race speed with the rear jack lurching from side to side as a clearly edgy Sergio Perez tried to keep his distance. In the end the jack released itself at Turn 5 and crashed heavily into an FOM camera point, scaring the living crap out of Nicolo the cameraman on site. It smashed the crap out of the camera too.

The team was brought before the stewards after the race. And their penalty? A €1500 fine. Seriously. €1500 Euros.

Let’s go back 12 months to the Hungarian Grand Prix when Fernando Alonso was released from a pitstop with a loose wheel, which detached itself and bounced down the track. It didn’t hit anyone or anything, but the Renault F1 team was slapped with a ban for the next race. The ban was subsequently overturned, but the message was clear – you do not knowingly, under any circumstances, endanger your driver, the other drivers, the track workers or fans.

How on earth the stewards deemed that €1500 was a sufficient penalty is beyond me. A ban from the next race, or at least a fine that would have paid the tens of thousands of Euros that a new trackside camera will cost FOM, seemed a fairer decision.

They had a nightmare in Valencia, plain and simple.

Lewis Hamilton passes the safety car - Valencia 2010 © www.sutton-images.com

Their indecision and delay in the F1 race meant that the handing down of Hamilton’s drive through had nowhere near the level of effect which the application of a penalty should have. The precedent was a black flag but they applied a drive through. A simple look on a pocket calculator would have told them a drive-through wouldn’t change much in terms of race order, so if they had really wanted to penalise Hamilton why not give him a stop-go, or the black flag the precedent had already set down?

Given the level of data at their disposal, why did it take the stewards over half the race to figure out that 9 drivers might have gone too fast on their safety car in laps, and with all of that data on hand why therefore could they not have applied drive through penalties during the race rather than creating a potential “false” result, to use Ferrari’s words, after the event had been concluded.

For one of very few occasions in my life, I find myself agreeing with the sentiments of Luca di Montezemolo, who today has claimed that the events of the weekend have set “dangerous precedents, throwing a shadow over the credibility of Formula 1.”

The stewards decisions seemed to be too little too late and set a dangerously ineffectual precedent on the position of the stewards and their power or strength of character to make the correct call at the correct time.

Nobody wants to see a race decided in the stewards office after the chequered flag has fallen. As Lewis proved in Valencia, and as we have seen many times in the past, a driver can often pull out the most incredible races when he has an obstacle, or a penalty, to overcome. What is most galling for the fans of this sport and for the drivers themselves, is when they are penalised off the track for something they have done on it.

We need decisions to be made faster by the stewards during the races to allow the drivers an opportunity to fight back on track. We need the penalties, when applied, to be comparable to the offence, be that in their harshness or in their leniency. And above all we need consistency in the penalties and their application from case to case, weekend to weekend, driver to driver and team to team.

If we don’t get it the only thing that will bring the sport into disrepute, is the sport itself.

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47 thoughts on “Is Formula 1 bringing itself into disrepute?

  1. Ferrari complaining about another team benefiting and even possibly cheating? Surely not.

    They seem to be throwing their toys out of the pram forgetting about the massive favourtism they have been given over the years.

    POT KETTLE BLACK.

  2. fantastic post.

    question though… is the plan to use an ex-driver in the stewards office working? we’ve seen more and more lenient penalties applied this year, and i guess f1 has lost its “permanent steward”, offering consistency throughout the year.

    • Ultimately the driver’s role should be to advise on the driver’s eye view on events. He shouldn’t be called to decide on the application of regulation. But as Damon Hill admitted post Monaco, he felt rather awkward at having to take a far greater role in the interpretation of regulation than he’d been expecting.

      I say bring back Tony Scott Andrews as a permanent steward and stick a former driver alongside him to advise on racing standards and racing standards alone.

  3. One thing I think I saw – only watched the replay once – It looked like the Safety Car started to cross the white line and Lewis backed off a bit an gave it some room. It did not cross the line and Lewis then raced it to the line. Maybe the stewards gave him this??

  4. A drive through was the appropriate penalty for Lewis. The problem was the delay. I wonder if they were looking at the deltas instead of the clear cut Lewis penalty. Plus the advantage gained was from kobayashi’s poor early speed after the SC.

    I do find the 5s penalty bit strange. Anyone know by how much each driver missed their delta?

  5. I applaud your article Will, well said! For those who want to see this as a McLaren Vs. Ferrari issue I think you are missing the point. I would be equally outraged if it was Force India-Mercedes that passed the safety car and Virgin-Cosworth was the team to get the short end of the stick. The problem is inconsistent penalties, and the idea that it is okay to hand out decisions AFTER the race. F1 continues to make a mockery out of itself, which is just so sad for someone who has followed the sport for decades.

    “Is Formula 1 bringing itself into disrepute?”
    You bet it is!!!

  6. the valencia result just highlights how woeful a job f1 stewards do in meting out punishment after an infraction. we already knew this. we also already knew FIFA should have instituted some sort of goal line technology for instant reply to prevent the gaffes that’ve occurred (most recently with lampard’s nullfied goal vs. germany). but be it the FIA, FIFA or whatnot hemming & hawing is an art form and memories are short.

    what will it take for the FIA to radically improve the turnaround time of stewards’ decisions?

  7. Very well said! I agree with the essence of Ferrari’s comments, however, I don’t think they have conveyed them well.

    Now that refuelling is banned, I think the pit-lane should be closed again during safety cars. This didn’t work in the past because cars had to decide between running out of fuel or pitting, but that problem is obviously gone now. It was a very unsatisfying race yesterday to have the results based on luck rather than speed.

      • One wonders whether the FIA has the capacity to spot these obvious solutions. I personally believe that they do not, as they appear to be totally and utterly bereft of any intelligence. There can be not other explanation for the continued state of affairs. The F1 fans are the true victims here, not Ferrari.

  8. Imola 2006 isn’t the only case of cars overtaking the safety car though – In the GP2 race at Portugal last year, a whole raft of drivers got drive through penalties for overtaking the safety car, again due to lack of judgement over where the safety car line was.

    • Ahh, but the difference is that in Portimao the cars overtook the safety car on the restart, which is kind of understandable as it was a timing issue for the leader who’d simply made the jump too early. Lewis in both Imola and Valencia was a case of a new safety car picking up cars, but being passed by said car. And because of the potential for either further disruption to the race or potential advantage for that driver, the penalty should be bigger.

      • What about the advantage for Vettel? He was the one who gained the most by the ill-timed safetycar. Should he be punished too?

        I think the penalty for Hamilton losing the race to the safetycar line by a fraction of a second was just. The only problem was that it took so long, but that was because the margin was so small.

        “Bear in mind that there was probably less than a car’s length in it between Lewis and the safety car. Also, there was no back-up timing loop at that point, so Whiting wanted to see footage of the incident. This, initially, was from an angle that was not conclusive and so there was a delay while aerial footage was sought. This confirmed that Hamilton appeared to be guilty but that it was indeed a close call. There was more to check. Depending on where the timing transponders are placed on a car – for instance if one was at the back and the other at the front, you can have a situation where one car that appears to be ahead of another one actually records the same time. So, when it’s that tight, installation positions have to be checked, times and distances noted and calculations made.”

  9. Mate what kind of race did you see? Hamilton was clearly favored by Charlie, taking more than 12 laps to punish him with a drive through no wonder Ferrari was furious, anyone in their position would have claim against Mr. Whiting, if fact I believe they have been very conservative in their complaints. I guess the referee at England-Germany game was trying to balance the karma.

    Best

    J

  10. I like your article a lot, very well said!

    I agree that the penalties handed to Lewis during the race and to the others after the race were all necessary but way too lenient for the circumstances.

    I believe that Ferrari are being a little too dramatic in believing that there is some sort of conspiracy against them or in favor of McLaren, though. This just shows the growing incompetence of the F1 stewards in general, as well as the increasing recognition of this incompetence by the teams. It all goes back to the Michelin incident a couple of years back, and has been shown lately in uncountable occasions like the indecision regarding double diffusers for several races last year, the gaffe with the safety car and the green lights at the end of Monaco this year, and the lack of action against aggressive pit-lane moves that we’ve seen repeatedly from Ferrari and McLaren, just to name a few.

    Is there a chance that FIA and the stewards have no ill intentions but rather are just getting VERY bad at what they do? Could Charlie Whiting be losing control of his team?

    • I think the stewards are in a difficult position. I’d never say Charlie does a bad job, because on the whole he calls it right. He’ll never please everyone all the time, because a penalty will negatively affect one party and positively affect another. Its an occupational hazard. I do however question some of the stewards chosen, as quite a few have absolutely no racing background and that sometimes seems to be reflected in the conclusions of their deliberations.

      • Charlie Whiting may not be doing a bad job himself, but this kind of mistakes are ultimately his responsibility. I don’t think simply identifying rule breaches is a good job, especially when penalties are so inadequate as in this case. I mean, if I were Alonso, next time I saw the safety car in front I’d simply pass it, wait 40+ minutes for a review, floor it (or go to “yellow G1″, is it?) and lose no positions in the process. Then, in the interviews just say “yes, we breached the rules and got penalized accordingly”. I believe this goes a bit beyond pleasing everyone, it’s a question of *doing their job* as stewards of guaranteeing that all racers abide by the rules or justly lose the advantage they gain by doing otherwise.

        PS: I agree with you about the wrong stewards being chosen. Is this not Whiting’s responsibility as well?

  11. Interesting post, i did wonder whether, like jumping a red light, the penalty for passing the safety car was disqualification.

    The reason it took a while to give Lewis his penalty was because they had inconclusive footage and the timing data didn’t tell them for definite whether he had passed after the SC line so they had to get the footage from the chopper to prove it

  12. About 5 second penalties:
    I think that some of the drivers shouldn’t be penalised at all. How could Kubica and Button comply to the rules when they were informed about the SC deployment just before the last corner of their (full speed) laps? Brake on the corner, causing an accident? Stop on the track? How would this be safe? Be reasonable.
    Their lap times included driving through the pitlane, and I think even their pitstops. Still they were below the lap target.
    The penalty (in their case, and possibly other drivers like Sutil, Barrichello) was reasonable.

    And there’s no precedent. Following this logic they should only get a warning, like Rosberg did when he was speeding during the SC period because he had some warning displayed on his steering wheel, instead of the laptime target.
    If someone will be caught deliberately speeding to gain an advantage, the penalty will be adequate. And no one reasonable and well informed will protest.

    • lol you are right. I didn’t mean to imply that I though the 5 second penalties were lenient… merely to point out that by issuing a 5 secodn penalty there was now no reason for drivers to respect the delta times if the precedent for a penalty for breaking that regulation is only a post race 5 second penalty. Frankly I think the entire delta safety car time regulation is stupid anyway and needs reworking. As Ed posted earlier – the only reason the rule was brought in was to keep the pitlane open and safe to stop people running out of fuel under safety cars. But with refuelling no longer an issue, we can close the pitlane under safety car and chuck these stupid delta times in the bin.

      • You’re right. There’s no need to pit now, when refuelling was banned. It is entertaining, though on other hand it can ruin someone’s race (like Ferrari). The rules should be rewritten. At least they shouldn’t demand impossible things from drivers.

        I don’t think there is a precedent. Concerns are valid, but as I pointed out F1 stewards aren’t know for their consistency. Rosberg’s warning for the same offence changed nothing and in this case there was no real harm done.
        I like the 5 second penalty in this case, because it would be a shame if the drivers were penalised any harder in such circumstances.

        Regards,
        M.

  13. Nice article just a comment on the safety car situation (I am sure you had a few), to stop drivers trying to beat the Safety car out of the pits (every team will try to if presented with the same situation as McLaren).

    Why doesn’t the FIA make the Delta times that the drivers have to achieve during safety car laps slower than the speed that the safety car can achieve and therefore negating the advantage of trying to bet the Safety car.

    The solution seems too simple so I am sure there is a problem to my reasoning, but of course if this is a solution let the FIA know my charge for rule modifications is VIP passes to a GP.

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  15. Don’t ascribe too much thought to Hamilton in the fraction of a second in which this occurred. He was probably wanting to catch Vettel who’d been missed by the safety car. That’s a racer’s instinct.

  16. Great article, only one disagreement: Not very few ago FIA was clearly favouring Ferrari, that’s a fact.

    And that was unfair. Many people complained about it.

    The FIA is no longer favouring Ferrari, but it seems to be doing so with others. Are you saying that, if this is the case, Ferrari cannot complain? Are you saying that it is acceptable for the FIA to be partial because they have always been partial?

    I hope not, I want the same and you: objective, consistent, impartial and credible stewards.

    Anyway, thanks for the article. You don’t mention the greatest error, which was the moment at which they decide to trigger SC, cutting the leader of the race. More than 2 minutes had already passed from the crash. 5 seconds before, or 30 seconds after, and noone would be talking about all this mess.

    • Hi natsnoC.

      I don’t know where you get the impression that I don’t think Ferrari have the right to complain – as I point out, for once in my life I am actually partially in agreement with Luca on this one. All any of us want is clear regulation and their accurate, consistent application.

    • I do not agree with you. The FIA is not favouring anyone. If any they where (not deliberately) favouring Vettel, because of the ill-timed safetycar, but that was understandable as the doc wanted to go as fast as possible to Webber, in case there was something wrong.

      It took so long for the stewards to call the drive-through because the marging was so small, that they needed a lot of checking to confirm. The penalty was just, but maybe the outcome (in case of Ferrari) wasn’t.

  17. The safety car had not been completely deployed on track before it was passed.
    If we assumed both cars were going underneath a falling object, Lewis would have made it past successfully, but the safety car would have got hit.

    Calling for a black flag!! Well the FIA has since changed many regulations regarding infringements since 2006. And this situation was marginal. If Lewis had been behind the safety car for like a lap or 2 and then he overtook it, surely that would be madness.

    But in the situation, the Safety car made as if it would swerve into Lewis, then corrected itself, given Lewis an opportunity to race it to the line.

    Why not just leave only the start finish lines, and remove all these safety car lines and ambiguous nonsense from the regulations.

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  19. This is a very well written, and fair, article on the Valencia debacle. To all those McLaren fans out there pointing their anger at Ferrari, please re-read the facts in this article. It’s not a Ferrari v’s McLaren or Lewis v’s Alonso issue, it’s an issue of unsurprisingly bad stewarding at yet another F1 weekend. How do the stewards and the FIA get it wrong so often? There are so many of them, they have alot of experience and lets be honest… they have a relatively simple job to do. Thank god the track side marshals are much better!

  20. What I do find more incredible about the whole situation is that, first, both the SC driver and the observer with failed to notify race direction about being overtaken by a car without having given him the permission to do so. A journalist friend of mine has calculated the time between Lewis’ infraction and the penalty being handed out on about 48 minutes… Is this reasonable, or even decent, with the current technology?

    Another thing I find even more inexcusable, was that it wasn’t until Alonso had a good ranting about it, that the possible infraction was looked on, and that not even the FOM showed any replays of the incident until it was under investigation. To me, this sends a message that, hadn’t it been because Alonso’s continuous comments about it, which had TV comentators puzzled about the possible infraction (here we get two channels broadcasting F1, and both sets of comentators were equally surprised), FIA/FOM wouldn’t have done anything about it, and we perhaps would have never known about the infraction…

    I was in favour of having different stewards on each GP, to avoid seeing decisions from the past, who always favoured the same people, but I’m getting the impression that neither the stewards chosen nor the ex driver helping them actually know the content of the F1 Sporting Regulations and the International Sporting Code.

    And the problem goes back to Charlie Whiting. Article 16 of the F1 Sporting Regulations states clearly how all the reportings of an incident, investigations and ulterior penaly, go always through the race director. Being somebody with so much power in his hands, he should do a far better job.

    Lewis could have been penalised with an stop and go of 10 seconds, as it’s provisioned on article 16.3 of the Sporting Regulations. But, with “a pocket calculator”, the result for Lewis could have been a different one…

    Last, but not least: the Regulations state that, for incidents investigated after the race, the penalty will be 25 or 30 seconds added to the total race time. Where did the 5 seconds come from?

    Why do we have a stewarding body in F1 which clearly doesn’t know the content of the Regulations?

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  23. YouTube video fom the helicopter cam clearly showing Lewis intentionally cheating.I hope Jensen picks up his game because there is a driver of character.

  24. And to think just last week you posted on Speed that:

    “Paddock seems strangely quiet – driver market has gone cold, World Motorsport Council has answered all the questions we had about tyres and reg changes for 2011… bizarrely, F1 actually seems pretty stable right now.”

    Especially that last bit……..stable…..ha!

    Do NOT tempt the racing gods, Will Buxton!

    Cheers! :-)

  25. Excellent write up Will. I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Are you aware of any WRITTEN regulations by the FIA which clearly spells out, “If you do X, the consequence will be Y”? If there is no set regulation, each group of stewards for their respective races will set out penalties that they deem sufficient. It’s my understanding that each race has its own group of stewards.

  26. I’d like to question the need for safety cars at al1.

    Having followed F1 since Phil Hill’s year in 1961, and spent a good few weekends marshalling at Grand Prix and other international events in the 60s and 70s it seems ludicrous that a band of so called elite drivers/sportsmen cannot self regulate when the need arises. To compress the field during a safety car period because of an incident at a single corner is unjustified in my view.

    It was always deemed the responsibiloity of drivers to reduce speed when passing the scene of an accident or any other event forcing marshals to be on the circuit. Surely, in these days of telemetry and pit to driver radio contact, we can come up with a system whereby speed on the affected section of track can be monitored closely. If the regs called for a 50% cut in speed on that section, it might allow a driver who has gained a 20 second lead to keep the advantage. When the track is deemed to be clear following an incident the official timing would very quickly show which drivers had ignored the rule and reduced their deficit by 50, 80 or 100 per cent and then they should be penalised accordingly.

    Maybe I have not expressed myself well, but I do feel there is a need to come up with a system whereby an advantage earned on the track cannot be whittled away by the administration of unecessary safety car intervention. Any result influenced by a safety car period cannot be seen as a just result, no matter who wins.

    Keep up the great Blog,

    Roger

  27. There is a piece of this story that has not been discussed anywhere. The Safety Car has 2 people inside it. What did they see? Did Charlie ask? Did they report to CW instantly that a car had passed them? If they did the penalty should have been much quicker.

  28. Good write up Will.
    The FIA has never been a “poster child” for fairness, but they really need to clean up their rules, and the enforcement of them.
    Charlie Whiting’s rep is beyond reproach. But the Stewards need consistency in enforcement of rules. Racing will always have protests of results. SCCA racing here in the States is a great example. But on a World level The races need to be determined at the track, not the day after. Delta times while the concept is good. It is not practical for the real world. Always a work in progress.

  29. Actually, race control took only 3 minutes to hand out Hamilton’s drive through once they managed to obtain the F1 management owned helicopter footage.
    According to the second safety car line transponder Hamilton passed the line only .006 second behind the SC. Race control needed back up evidence. The SC driver, on board footage, fixed camera positions and the TV feed did NOT provide it. Kudos to Charlie for being so methodical rather than allowing himself to be pressured by team red.

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