2019 Canadian GP: Was Vettel’s penalty correctly awarded?

Sebastian Vettel was given a penalty that ended up costing him the race. Was the penalty rightly awarded? Well, unlike most of the other articles, this will be more of an opinion and less of a fact, but I will try to answer the question as objectively as possible.

Arguments

I will start by listing some arguments that I have read or heard. Then, I will try to comment on each of them, and whether or not I consider them as valid for the determination of the penalty.

  1. “The FIA is against Ferrari and Vettel, Merc has them in their pocket!” : Mercedes has great influence on the FIA, that is true, but the truth is that at the moment both Ferrari and Mercedes have a lot of influence on the decisions made by the motorsport leaders. I do not believe that this had any influence on the decision to give Vettel a 5 second penalty.
  2. The stewards robbed us, the fans, of a great race finish!”: This is partially correct. The battle between Hamilton and Vettel was as close as it gets. Without the penalty, I am quite sure that Hamilton would have tried to overtake Seb at the end of the race. However, saying that the stewards “robbed” us the fans from that, is incorrect. The stewards have to make their decisions based on the rules and their criteria. Their job is not to satisfy us, the fans, while they make their decisions.
  3. “Vettel could have done nothing, he was a passenger when he lost control of the car, that means no penalty!”: This is partially true and partially not true. Once Sebastian lost the car, I believe that he did all he could to avoid spinning out. Driving an F1 car over the grass is extremely difficult. Traction goes down pretty much to nothing, and managing the steering wheel and the pedals becomes a titanic task. Having said that, this does not mean automatically that he does not deserved a penalty.
  4. “That was not unsafe, Vettel avoided a crash!”: I do not agree with this. Vettel did manage the car as best as he could, but at the end of the day, he did rejoin the track in an unsafe matter. As soon as the tires touched the tarmac, Vettel got a snap of oversteer, and while trying to correct, ended up right on the racing line. An accident did not occur not because Vettel did something right, but because Lewis managed to break at the right moment.
  5. “Well, Vettel did not make a mistake, the car snapped and he did all he could”: Again, a similar argument to the previous ones. The key element, at least for me, is that Vettel did make a mistake. Racing at the highest level is extremely hard, and the drivers push the car to the limit. This, however, does not mean that Vettel losing control of the car, was not a mistake. Seb was racing a perfect drive until lap 48, but the truth is, that he ended up making a mistake by losing the car at corner #3.
  6. “Sebastian left a car’s width of space, surely Hamilton could have taken that route”: I do not believe that he did, but even if he did, we will talk a little bit more about that in the next couple of sections.

Telemetry

I took the telemetry from the F1 live timings. It is not 100% accurate. For example, braking is displayed as either 0% or 100%. Basically, it is accurate when the pedal is not pressed, but not entirely accurate when the pedal is pressed. While this is not a perfect display of what happened in real life, we do get an insight of what happened during the incident. You can click right or left on the image to see the telemetry of the incident for both Hamilton and Vettel.

Vettel

If we compare the telemetry of both drivers, we will instantly see that the biggest difference is that Vettel pushed the brake pedal for much longer during that corner, which makes a lot of sense given that he was on the grass. An interesting take from here, is that there is a moment (around time 4.5), when Vettel fully released the brake pedal, and then had to press it again after getting some oversteer.

Some people have argued that Vettel “pressed” the pedal too hard as soon as he got onto the track. The telemetry, however, shows us that Vettel’s throttle was pushed only around 25%. Unfortunately for Seb, that 25% was enough to cause the car to snap, and sent him right onto the racing line.

Hamilton

From Hamilton’s data, we see exactly what we expect. Hamilton braked hard, managed to get the car turning, and accelerated smoothly after corner #4. He managed to push the throttle up to 75%, before having to release and brake the car.

We can see that at second number 4, Lewis released the throttle, even before pressing the brake pedal. This was only for a fraction of a second though. In less than half a second, the Briton pushed the brake pedal, and the throttle went down to 0%. In total, between the moment he had to brake to avoid crashing into Vettel, and accelerating after the corner, Lewis pressed the brake pedal for around 1.5-1.75 seconds. These are 1.5 to 1.75 seconds that Lewis would have been pushing the throttle to at least 75% to 100% if it were not for the incident.

The rules

Unless it is clear to the stewards that a driver was wholly or predominantly to blame for an incident no penalty will be imposed.

Article 38.2a of the 2018 FIA Sporting Regulations

This is where things get tricky. The Formula 1 rules are quite ambiguous, and getting a definitive answer is pretty much impossible. The F1 website states that “Offenses include jumping the start of the race, causing an avoidable accident, unfairly blocking another driver, impeding another driver while being lapped, and speeding in the pit lane.”, but does not go more in depth about what happens in every circumstance.

The rules leave all the responsibility to the stewards, and gives them a lot of flexibility. This is good in some cases, but bad in some others. The main issue with that much flexibility, is that depending on the stewards, the race, and the circumstances, we may get different verdicts on incidents that we may consider as comparable. This is the reason why we sometimes may see a reprimand awarded to a driver for a certain action, while another driver gets a 10 second penalty for a similar action in a different race.

Getting back to Vettel’s particular incident, it becomes hard to argue with the stewards from the point of view of the regulations, the telemetry, and their criteria.

Vettel did unfairly blocked Hamilton after losing the car. This is something clearly seen in the video and in the telemetry chart. The rule here do not say anything about leaving a car’s width on the outside or anything related. Hamilton lost over 1 second by having to brake in order to avoid Vettel.

The fact that Vettel’s action was caused by losing control of the car, does not make a difference here. The fact that Vettel could have done nothing else after losing the car also makes no difference. Article 38.2 basically says that in order to not impose a penalty, it must be clear to the stewards that the driver was not predominantly to blame.

“Wait a minute, did not you just said that Vettel could have done nothing else?”. Well yes, but then you have to ask yourself, who was to blame for the incident then? Did Vettel had a mechanical failure that caused him to lose control of the car? Not really. Were the track conditions particularly dangerous or unpredictable? It was quite hot, but manageable. Did some other driver crashed into Seb, causing him to lose control of the car and impede Lewis? Not at all.

The unfortunate reality for the German driver, is that losing control of the car was a mistake, one that he is responsible for. Slightly pressing the throttle after getting back onto the track also contributed to him going right onto the racing track. These actions, done by Sebastian Vettel, ended up with Hamilton having to brake in order to avoid a crash.

Final remarks

I feel it for Sebastian Vettel. He was doing a fantastic job. He qualified first and was leading the race until the incident. It seems, at least to me, that he had very high chances of taking the win in Canada.

Unfortunately, I do believe that the penalty was rightly awarded here. This is not because I fully agree with how penalties are awarded right now, or because I do not like hard racing (I do!), but mostly because the rules at the moment are very ambiguous, and leave all the responsibility to the stewards.

The stewards have to be impartial, and should not think about what the fans may think while they are making the decision. The rules say that if it is clear that a driver is not predominantly at fault, then a penalty should not be awarded. This is another ambiguous regulation that allows the stewards to make a decision based on their criteria.

Since no mechanical failure, environmental conditions, or actions by other drivers, caused Seb to lose control of the car, then the stewards considered Seb himself to be responsible for the incident. It is because of this, that he was awarded a 5 second penalty.

I do not agree with the way the FIA makes inconsistent decisions. Sometimes it is a reprimand, sometimes it is a drive through penalty (I see you Kvyat, the FIA should give you an apology). This is wrong, and it should not happen. However, for this particular incident, I believe that the decision is well within what the regulations say.

Hopefully, in the future, we may see a more detailed rule book from the FIA, one that allows the drivers to fight a little bit harder for position, and that prevents us from seeing so many unnecessary penalties. But for now, this is what we got.

This was a pretty long article. I hope you have enjoyed it, and please let me know what you think in the comments below.

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