Meet the New Boss; Same As the Old Boss

I’m finally getting around to posting my thoughts on the last-lap debacle involving Michael Schumacher at Monaco last Sunday. I had intended to write about it earlier, but I’ve been busy over at Joe Saward’s excellent grand prix blog (see the Blogroll at the right of this page), posting my comments among those from hundreds of other Formula 1 fans. Needless to say, the last-lap incident involving Michael, Fernando Alonso, the stewards, race control, and the 2010 F1 sporting regulations has generated a lot of interest.

Apparent ambiguity in the regulations and the capriciousness of steward decisions in seasons past, coupled with former FIA president Max Mosley’s seeming unwillingness to address these issues, has caused a lot of consternation among participating teams and fans of the sport. Enough consternation, in fact, to lead to the resignation of Mosley and his replacement by Jean Todt, as well as a major overhaul of both the technical and sporting regulations that govern the series. Add the inclusion of a former F1 driver, who can provide an informed perspective to the rest of the panel, in the body of stewards at each race, and hopes were high that this season’s rulings on incidents that occur on-track during the races would be more consistent, fair, and, dare I say it, just.

While it does appear that this season’s stewards have been generally more forgiving, at least until last Sunday, the decision they rendered in Monaco calls into question whether anything much has really changed as regards consistency and justice.

On lap 75 of the 78-lap Monaco Grand Prix, Jarno Trulli and Karun Chandhok collided at Rascasse and caused the fourth safety car period of the race. This safety car period extended into the final lap, which brought into effect for the first time a new rule in the sporting regulations. Article 40.13 of those regulations states “If the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.” Seems pretty clear, right? Perhaps when seen in isolation, but not necessarily when seen in conjunction with some of the other new rules regarding safety car lines, restarts, and so forth.

During the last lap, the teams were advised by race control that the safety car was coming in and that the track was clear. When the safety car entered the pit lane (just after the first safety car line, but well before the finish line), course lights went green and green flags were waved. Thinking that the safety car was no longer “deployed,” Mercedes GP advised its drivers to race to the finish line, which they did, and Michael Schumacher overtook Fernando Alonso for 6th place. The stewards then went into action and pronounced that Schumacher had violated article 40.13 and, under article 16.3, he was assessed a 20-second penalty, dropping him back to 12th place and out of the points. Once again, ambiguity ruled and created massive confusion. Mercedes GP immediately appealed the stewards’ decision to the FIA Court of Appeal, and the commentary began on the world’s racing Web sites and blogs.

In recent days Mercedes has withdrawn its appeal after the FIA announced that “The problems identified during the final lap of the Monaco Grand Prix showed a lack of clarity in the application of the rule prohibiting overtaking behind the safety car…” and agreed to formulate and present amendments to the sporting regulations to the FIA World Council on June 23. “Great,” you say. “That fixes that, right?” Well, not quite. The penalty against Schumacher was not lifted and as of now he still loses five places and the six points he should have scored for finishing in seventh place (assuming the pass on Alonso should not be allowed despite the ambiguity and confusion of the incident). Some say that this is unavoidable, since article 16.3 of the sporting regulations strictly defines what punishments must be assessed by the stewards when there are violations. What, specifically, does 16.3 say? Well, here it is…

16.3 The stewards may impose any one of three penalties on any driver involved in an Incident :

a) A drive-through penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane and re-join the race without stopping ;

b) A ten second time penalty. The driver must enter the pit lane, stop at his pit for at least ten seconds and then re-join the race.

c) a drop of any number of  grid positions at the driver’s next Event.

However, should either of the penalties under a) and b) above be imposed during the last five laps, or after the end of a race, Article 16.4b) below will not apply and 20 seconds will be added to the elapsed race time of the driver concerned in the case of a) above and 30 seconds in the case of b).

The proper punishment for Michael was adjudged to be a drive-through penalty, but since the incident occurred on the last lap of the race, it could not be served and 20 seconds was added to his race time. Since the cars had been under the safety car until almost the last corner, they were closely spaced and a 20-second addition to his time dropped him to 12th place and out of the points.

Many have said that the stewards had no flexibility under 16.3 and that, therefore, the punishment cannot be changed. I’m sorry, but I disagree. Why? Well, let’s take a look at incidents that have occurred this season during the races prior to Monaco:

In Australia, Mark Webber punted Lewis Hamilton and was judged to have driven over-aggressively. The penalty? – a reprimand

In Malaysia, Lewis Hamilton blocked Vitaly Petrov by dramatically changing his line four times while on the main straight. How many directional changes are allowed? One. Penalty? – a warning

In China, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel fought for position in the pit lane, endangering not only themselves, but also the pit crews of other teams. Penalty? – reprimands for both drivers

In Monaco, Rubens Barrichello spun and crashed at Massenet and dropped his steering wheel onto the track, where it was promptly picked up and carried off by the chassis of Karun Chandhok’s HRT. Rubens has since explained that he felt he was in danger and was more concerned with getting out of the car quickly than replacing the steering wheel as required by article 30.5 of the sporting regulations. OK, I’ll buy that, but technically it’s still a violation. Penalty? – none

My point? While it may be true that article 16.3 severely limits what penalties can be assessed for an incident, it doesn’t demand that one of the specified choices in the article be applied to every incident. It apparently leaves open to the stewards whether a formal penalty will be assessed at all. Do you see warnings or reprimands in there? Yeah, neither do I, and yet those were the only “penalties” assessed for infractions until Monaco. Clearly, the stewards have the latitude to be lenient, and yet despite the ambiguity and confusion surrounding Michael’s transgression, his penalty was not only given, but also has yet to be reduced or rescinded. Perhaps while the World Council is reviewing article 40.13 it could take a look at 16.3 and its application as well.

The bottom line for me is that, while I commend Jean Todt and the FIA for relaxing the rigidity of the Mosley years by being willing to take another look at themselves and their regulations, as well as for innovations such as adding former drivers to the pool of stewards, the adjudication of the incident at Monaco is not complete in my mind until Michael Schumacher gets some true justice by having his seventh-place finish and hard-earned six points restored. Until that happens, as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty much another year of “forward into the past” for Formula 1.

Voodoo Bob

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