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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