Comment – Alonso’s British Grand Prix Penalty

No, you aren’t experiencing a severe case of deja vu. Another grand prix weekend has come and gone and in its wake we have yet another rules-related controversy involving Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso.  Three weeks ago the focus at the European Grand Prix was on Formula 1’s safety car rules following a series of events which involved effectively the entire field; the most notable of which was an incident involving McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, Alonso, and his Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa. At last week’s British Grand Prix, the topic du jour was a pass for position between Alonso and Renault’s Robert Kubica on Lap 18, which you can see below:

Thereafter, Alonso stayed ahead of Kubica and did not cede the position back; Ferrari’s obvious interpretation of the events being that Alonso went off-track to avoid a near-certain collision. Alonso quickly opened up a gap after having passed Kubica, who retired shortly thereafter with a mechanical failure. Some 7 laps later, Alonso was handed a drive-through penalty for gaining position off the track. Compounding Alonso’s woes was the fact that the timing of the penalty’s issuance required Alonso to serve the penalty immediately following a safety car period, which saw the Spaniard drop from 4th to 16th position. From there, Alonso only managed to finish well out of the points in 14th place.

As with any significant racing event that involves one of the Scuderia’s cars, especially when that event includes rules interpretations, the story wasn’t over at the checkered flag. Following the race, Alonso issued his stance on the Kubica pass and the subsequent penalty:

“There will be a lot of opinions from people watching on TV while having a beer, saying we should have let Kubica by in a moment when, first, there was nothing to do – if there’d had been a wall instead of grass I would have crashed against it and they would have penalised Kubica most likely. So it depends on how you look at it. We thought it was fine. A few laps passed and there were no news and then if we had wanted to let him by, Kubica had retired already so there was nothing to change.”

Alonso referenced the obvious decision those on the Ferrari pit wall were left with after their driver passed Kubica: either let Kubica re-take the position, or let Alonso continue-on and hope that Ferrari’s interpretation of the pass coincided with the race stewards’ interpretation. Ferrari chose the latter course of action, and the stewards didn’t agree. Case closed? Of course not.

Two days after the race came the news that FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting quickly advised Ferrari that in his opinion, Alonso should give back the position:

“We told Ferrari three times that in my opinion they should give the position back to Kubica. And we told them that immediately, right after the overtaking manoeuvre. On the radio, I suggested to them that if they exchange position again, there would be no need for the stewards to intervene.”

Days after Whiting’s comments became public, Ferrari issued a chronological detail of Sunday’s events:

13:31:05 The overtaking move takes place at Club and after one second [Massimo] Rivola (Ferrari team manager) calls Whiting, who replies after 11 seconds. Rivola asks: ‘Have you seen the pass? In our opinion there was no room to overtake.’

26 secs after the pass, Whiting asks to be given time to watch the TV footage.

13:33 Ferrari makes a second radio call – 1m55s after the pass. Alonso has completed another lap plus one sector, and is behind Nico Rosberg and Jaime Alguersuari, while Kubica drops further back.

Whiting tells Ferrari that the stewards think Alonso could give the position back. Rivola asks: ‘Is this the decision?’

Whiting replies: ‘No, but that’s how we see it.’

Rivola informs the team while Rosberg overtakes Alguersuari. On the GPS screen that shows the position of the cars, Ferrari sees Kubica dropping further back. Meanwhile, Alonso overtakes Alguersuari at Turn 2.

13:33:22 Ferrari makes a third radio call.

Rivola tells Whiting: ‘Alonso doesn’t have only Kubica behind. He would have to concede two positions now.’

While they discuss the matter Kubica is overtaken by Barrichello so Alonso would have to now give up three positions.

Whiting replies: ‘We have given you the chance to do it or not. Things being this way, the stewards will hear the drivers at the end of the race, but I understand your position.’

13:35:30 Kubica stops so Alonso can no longer give the position back.

13:45:31 The stewards investigate the Alonso/Kubica incident. The monitors then display ‘car number 8 under investigation’, 14m26s after the pass.

13:46:26 Just 55 seconds later the stewards decide that Alonso should have a drive-through penalty.”

Whether Whiting took seconds or more than a minute to respond to Ferrari’s prompt for his opinion is ultimately irrelevant. Whiting isn’t a steward and any opinion issued by him was merely advisory in nature. Given the immediacy of Ferrari’s inquiry to the FIA following Alonso’s pass, Ferrari knew full well thedecision they had to make. It is important to highlight that if any team has first-hand knowledge and experience with the treatment of off-track passing maneuvers, its Ferrari. Back during the hotly-contested 2008 season, a similar controversy erupted after Lewis Hamilton gained an off-track advantage on then-Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of the Belgian Grand Prix.

That there has been debate over the Alonso/Kubica incident following the British Grand Prix comes as no surprise given the parties and stakes involved. However, what is surprising is the confusion of the issues that has occurred during this debate. Many pundits, fans, and even Ferrari have mixed the two distinct issues to come out of the Alonso/Kubica pass:

  1. Alonso exited the racing surface to avoid a near-certain collision with Kubica; and
  2. Alonso gained a position off the racing surface.

Alonso was not penalized for avoiding a collision with Kubica; he was penalized for gaining a position by going off-track.

In regards to the first issue, it is quite clear that Kubica intentionally swung wide to the natural racing line after the first left-hander to squeeze Alonso out of the right-hander that immediately followed. We’ve seen these kinds of aggressive defensive maneuvers before from certain drivers; Lewis Hamilton, Adrian Sutil, Mark Webber, and even David Coulthard immediately come to mind. Driving defensively in this manner is “dirty” in every sense of the word, and moves such as Kubica’s are one of the many reasons why we don’t see more overtaking during F1 races. There was more than enough room for Kubica to make the left-hander without swinging wide into Alonso; but as Kubica undoubtedly knew, that would have surely let Alonso get by in the next turn. But that’s racing isn’t it? Just as Alonso couldn’t rightfully move prematurely to the inside as he pulled alongside Kubica, the converse is true as well. The FIA should look closely at maneuvers like Kubica’s in the future as they are bad for the show and are becoming ever more prevalent in recent seasons.

All that said, Alonso wasn’t thereby allowed to take Kubica’s position in a manner that is clearly not allowed under the Sporting Regulations. While Kubica’s driving was subjectively reprehensible, passing for position off-track is simply not allowed. Period.

Hindsight or not, by keeping Alonso ahead of Kubica, Ferrari went for the long-shot that the stewards would not correctly apply a simple rules interpretation. By allowing Alonso to race off into the distance, Ferrari foreclosed any chance that the stewards could reprimand Kubica, placing the focus squarely on Alonso just as Charlie Whiting had warned. The obvious question then is why would Ferrari risk so much for a relatively modest gain?

The answer is that after the recent European Grand Prix debacle, on top of what has been a decidedly underwhelming first half of the 2010 season, Ferrari are feeling the pressure to perform, now. Despite Alonso’s claims to the contrary, Ferrari are acutely aware that the 2010 season is slowly slipping from their grasp. It’s not the points-spread from Ferrari’s drivers to their counterparts at McLaren or Red Bull that’s concerning, its the fact that regardless of luck, Ferrari aren’t performing at the same level of the aforementioned contenders. Red Bull have been quick but self-destructive, and McLaren haven’t been the quickest but they’ve nabbed the results. By comparison, Ferrari have done nothing well. Following a decades-long rivalry, Ferrari know that if there’s one thing McLaren are good at, it’s in-season development. It’s therefore quite ominous for the Prancing Horse that on top of trying to catch the ultra-quick Red Bull RB6, McLaren are also leading both championships with a car that by many accounts is the third quickest on the grid.

As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures…

posted by Trey Blincoe


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