Last word belongs to penalties

Long gone are the times in sport when simply passing the finish line made one a winner. Over the years Formula One, like any other discipline, developed an extensive set of rules and regulations to get as close as possible to the ideal a fair and secure competition. These regulations are updated on a regular basis, between seasons and even between races; and although they meet their goal of minimising unjust racing tactics during and outside a Grand Prix, they also raise a lot of controversies, due to sometimes wide interpretation, which teams tend to use to buy them some Championship points.

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The German Grand Prix is a good example to show how penalties affect drivers standings. Prior to the race itself three drivers had been dropped on their grid position due to gearbox changes: Romain Grosjean identified an issue with his Lotus’ box in the last laps of the British Grand Prix a fortnight ago; Nico Rosberg was in the same situation with his Mercedes; and the Red Bull team discovered an issue with Mark Webber’s car after German Grand Prix practice sessions. In all cases the parts had to go, and according to the FIA regulations a gearbox is meant to last a driver for five consecutive races – a move introduced in 2008 to cut down spending costs in F1  (on similar basis, drivers are limited to eight engines per season without a penalty).

Sergio Perez also received a five-place penalty – after impeding other drivers in qualifying; yet, he still finished the race in 6. having started from 17.
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Out of the three, it is maybe Webber who received the biggest blow; having initially qualified in 3. place, he was dropped to 8. position on the Hockenheim grid, from where he did not manage to recover, finishing the race where he started, not really certain why he couldn’t find the pace to charge: “We have to be quick in all conditions and today we weren’t for whatever reason,” he was quoted by the Formula One website.

This particular gearbox change could have been followed by more penalties if the Red Bull team had broken the curfew before – curfew in this case being: the “no-go” period of six hours between 2-6am when the cars cannot be approached by any member of the team – with four exemptions to every team’s disposal each season. In Silverstone McLaren, Caterham and Marussia also broke the curfew and in all cases, this was their first time this year.

Another potential trouble for the Bulls was the questioning of the FIA F1 technical delegate, Jo Bauer, regarding their engine mapping – or in other words tuning for better performance – claiming that “the engines are able to deliver more torque at a given engine speed in the mid rpm range … Furthermore this new torque map will artificially alter the aerodynamic characteristics of both cars”, as quoted by AUTOSPORT. After reviewing the case the stewards decided not to take action against Red Bull but did not “accept all the arguments of the team”, which suggests some changes or clarification of the current regulations might be under way, after the scheduled  F1 technical working group meeting on Monday.

And if all this wasn’t enough to make the Milton Keynes team a prime example of Formula 1 penalty system, based on one race only, there is one more incident to be added to the lot. It was in the final stages of the German Grand Prix when Sebastian Vettel in third, having chased Jenson Button since the second round of pit-stops, managed to overtake the Brit to jump on the second podium slot. However, this was not done without an error: “I tried to give enough room and then went wide and obviously we’re all struggling with our tyres, Jenson in particular, and that’s how I was able to get close and pass him,” was Vettel’s explanation for why he overtook the Brit with all four wheels off-track.

Sebastian Vettel will have to try harder – and smarter – to work up a title record of his idol, Michael Schumacher; his desperate move in Hockenheim cost him some Championship points
Photo: Getty Images for Red Bull Racing

The F1 regulations state that: “A driver will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with the track. Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any advantage.” Since Vettel’s move clearly breached this protocol, but took place on the penultimate lap of the race, stewards were forced to impose a post-race drive-through penalty, which added 20sec to the German’s time, eventually dropping him off the podium onto 5. In cases like this, stewards have an array of penalties to impose, from a reprimand to excluding the driver from the standings for the race or even from participation in the next race – rather unlikely in this particular case, but sure enough any penalty would have felt pretty harsh to a home-race driver who had hopes for his first July win.

But whilst this weekend was definitely not the luckiest for the Bulls, their penalties were also met with a smile – from their competitors. With his third win of the season – a real achievement in 2012 it seems – Fernando Alonso has now moved away to a safer point advantage from Mark Webber in second, who in Hockenheim only gained four points, whilst Kimi Raikkonen, who finished the race in 4. in his Lotus, can thank Vettel for his fourth podium finish this season – even if it was only post-factum.

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