For the last ten or so seasons, the outcome of Grand Prix have been heavily influenced by the decisions of stewards – seemingly more so than in previous years.
In the past, drivers would receive ten-second stop/go penalties for speeding in the pitlane, or jumping the start, or overtaking under yellow flag conditions. More serious misdemeanors were rewarded with disqualifications, notably Schumacher ignoring the call from the stewards to serve a stop/go for temporarily overtaking Hill on the warm-up lap of the 1994 British Grand Prix, or for technical infringements for having a car that doesn’t conform to the regulations.
However, in 2002, something changed. The FIA introduced drive-through penalties as a way of punishing less serious driver infractions. This penalty might mean a loss of only 20 or so seconds compared to the roughly 30-second loss incurred with a stop/go. Since then, drive-through penalties have replaced stop/go penalties and are used and abused in practically every race. When it’s too late to impose a drive-through during the race, “virtual” drive-throughs are imposed on the results, meaning 25 seconds added to a driver’s final result. Had this been employed back in 1998, the British GP might not have ended so farcically and Schumacher wouldn’t have been allowed to win. However, back then it seems as though the results would stand unless the cars themselves were found to be illegal in some way. Once the race was over, it was over. The End.
Of course, when you start imposing 25 second penalties, this gives stewards the right to impose other penalties of varying lengths, which has led to 5, 10, 15, 20 and 30 second penalties being issued. Time penalties are not a new concept – Mario Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve were given 60 second penalties for jumping the start at the restarted 1978 Italian GP, possibly in absence of stop/go or drive-through penalties, which would have been difficult to issue without pit-to-car radio anyway.
And then we come to grid penalties. The FIA decided to use these to penalise teams who couldn’t stick to the new regulations that limited the number of engines and gearboxes and tyres a driver can use a race, race weekend, or season. Now stewards can and do impose grid penalties on drivers for all manner of reasons, and time and grid penalties are dealt out freely like plates of slop in a homeless shelter.
In all honesty, it’s stifling the racing. Every incident is punished, unless a driver crashes all on his own and doesn’t collect anyone. As soon as someone else is involved, they’re hit with penalties as punishment. Take Sebastian Buemi at Korea last year – in adverse conditions, he lost grip under-braking and slid into the side of a Virgin. The next race, a 5-place grid penalty was imposed. According to the drivers, the conditions were the worst they’d ever driven in due to the dirt on the track mixing with rain water. Surely it’s bad enough that Buemi failed to finish, but to give him a penalty and compromise the following race too? It’s ludicrous.
To impose a penalty for a racing incident suggests the move was pre-meditated or intentional. How many times since Schumacher at Jerez in 1997 have you seen a driver intentionally run another driver off the road to gain or defend a position? Sometimes overtakes work, sometimes they don’t and the ones that don’t should be deemed racing incidents unless the move was genuinely ridiculous or dangerous. It’s as much up to the driver in front to pay attention to a driver who’s trying to get past as it is the driver behind to make the pass cleanly, which is why Hamilton should not have received his penalties in Malaysia. Racing is about pushing it to the limit and sometimes they push a little too far. It’s difficult enough to overtake as it is at the moment and the drivers are surely going to be afraid to take risks if it means compromising TWO races if it doesn’t pay off.
The other problem is the inconsistency with the stewards’ decisions. Occasionally, a minor incident will get punished severely and a much worse incident will go unpunished, or two separate, but almost identical incidents will receive entirely different penalties. On other occasions, the amount of time taken to ponder a penalty has seriously affected a result, such as at Valencia last year, where they took so long to give Hamilton a penalty for overtaking the safety car, he’d already made up enough time on track to render the penalty pointless. And then they went on to give nine other drivers five second penalties for going too fast during the safety car period and this hardly affected the race results. Sometimes it feels like they are fixing the races for entertainment or to be purposely controversial.
For discussion on this topic, click here:
On the following pages, we discuss the Top 10 poorest stewards’ decisions of the last ten years.