​The Penalty Guessing Game

By Michael Cords

The 2016 Mexican Grand Prix contained enough controversy to keep us all occupied until the cars roll out at Interlagos later this month. All of the top 5 finishers were involved in incidents to some degree resulting in penalties being handed out and penalties being avoided. Each incident is worthy of its own analysis, but taken collectively it shines a light on a persistent problem within Formula One: consistency. Or rather, the lack thereof.

It didn’t take long for the first incident to occur. For the second race running, Lewis Hamilton nailed his start and led the long run down to turn one. He was safely cleared to enter the first corner when his front brake locked and he slid through the escape road. Accelerating across the tarmac he rejoined at the entrance to turn three and resumed his lead. An error from the reigning champ? Hamilton explains, “The right front brake disc had glazed on the formation lap and I couldn’t un-glaze it. I thought it might be okay – but when I hit the brakes it just locked up…” As Hamilton continued on he had a substantial lead over his Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg. But this was amplified by Rosberg having an issue of his own, as he also took to the escape road at turn one. His problem was not brakes but rather the charging Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Rosberg was on course to make the corner but the Dutch driver moved inside and continued straight leaving little option for the championship leader. “Verstappen hit me heavily after he had a lock up… and forced me off the track,” Rosberg said after the race.

As the laps ticked away, controversy abated until the closing stages. Hamilton serenely led at the front over teammate Rosberg. Verstappen was charging hard to take second place from the Mercedes driver. Behind was a fast closing Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari and the even faster closing Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo. Both drivers had pitted to replace the long-lasting medium tyres for the faster softs and the strategy was proving wise. After Verstappen made a failed attempt to wrest second from Rosberg, his pace dropped slightly putting him in the clutches of Vettel and Ricciardo. Succumbing to the pressure the teenager failed to negotiate the first turn and, like the Mercedes duo before him, took to the escape road to rejoin still in front of the Ferrari.

Vettel was not amused when the Red Bull driver failed to relinquish his position. His ire was further provoked as, trapped behind Verstappen, he found Ricciardo moving into DRS range. Approaching a tight left-hander Daniel made his move. Vettel reacted and tightened his line as both drivers were on the brakes. It was a close moment but some great threshold breaking from the Australian and just the slightest space given from the German saw both cars survive. They continued in their respective positions but neither driver was happy. Ricciardo: “I committed to the move and [Vettel] squeezed me. Racing should be tough and I don’t expect being waved through but we talked about the moving under braking and that’s on paper now.” Vettel responded, “I was fighting hard, and trying to give him some space, which I think I did.” But the 4-time champ’s mind was still occupied with being put in this position in the first place. “He [Verstappen] did a mistake, cut the track and didn’t give the position back even if he was told to do so.”

They ultimately crossed the line in the order Hamilton, Rosberg, Verstappen, Vettel, and Ricciardo. The latter three would each see themselves hold 3rd, 4th, and 5th place at some point after the race with the final verdict being the order Ricciardo, Verstappen, and Vettel. The fans got to see one driver cross the line in third, another driver step on the podium, and a third driver actually get the points. This is not a fair situation for the drivers or the fans. All too often incidents are declared “to be investigated after the race.” Verstappen was frustrated. “I didn’t even gain an advantage, I was ahead going into braking and when I came back on the track I was the same distance in front so I don’t understand the penalty.”

So what can be done? Ideally, penalties should be served during the race. The first corner incidents highlight this. Hamilton and Rosberg escaped sanction, but Verstappen didn’t. The lack of immediate action by the stewards allowed Verstappen to continue in front of Vettel which contributed to the following incident between Vettel and Ricciardo. The race stewards certainly prefer to have some time to review various replays and often wish to speak directly with the drivers involved. This is why so often we see the dreaded “to be investigated after the race” graphic on screen. A penalty once applied during a race is a bell that cannot be un-rung. This is why I prefer off-track incidents like occurred at turn one to be ‘natural’ penalties inherent in the circuit itself. A grass berm or gravel run-off won’t allow a driver to escape an off-track excursion without some time lost. These have been abandoned in recent years over safety concerns but surely a compromise to a full paved run-off is feasible. What ever happened to the large Styrofoam blocks that forced a driver to zig-zag his way back to track?

A natural track penalty would have punished both Hamilton and Verstappen for their errors. And Rosberg too, even though he was more innocent in my eyes. But the track layout is unbiased and consistent; a couple traits missing in too many steward decisions of late. When it comes to the race stewards, one of the better actions in recent years has been the inclusion of a former racing driver. This provides some level of sanity to identify normal racing incidents, though it is still left to the opinion of a small group of people. Here is where I think an improvement can be made. The race stewards, and the driver representative, change from race to race. Even acting with the best intentions, it opens up too much variation from one race to another. Formula One needs an appointed group of stewards that preside over every race to avoid the inconsistency and confusion over what is allowed and what isn’t. This, more than any other, is what frustrates the drivers most. Max Verstappen summed it best saying, “as long as we can stick to the rules every week then we won’t have the frustration we felt after the race.”

As we look forward to Brazil, one can be forgiven for wondering just what awaits. Unfortunately, the drivers themselves don’t know should they fall afoul of the stewards. They will have to hope for the best and wait until after the race to know their fate. At least that part is consistent.