Are there too many penalties in modern Formula One?

The racing culture of Formula One is changing. Grand Prix stewards are now dispensing more penalties than ever before and are having a greater influence over on-track proceedings. Whilst the number of mid-race penalties in Formula One has notably increased, the stewarding system has not been strengthened and there is a case for arguing there are currently too many penalties in Formula One.

In 2011 the FIA stewards handed out 35 penalties for incidents that occurred during a race. In 2004, seven years earlier, the stewards handed out just eight (nine if you include Juan Pablo Montoya’s exclusion from the United States Grand Prix). That is a significant fourfold increase.

Equally important is that all of those penalties in 2004 were for clearly defined offences such as jump starting or speeding in the pitlane. No drivers were subjectively penalised for “causing an avoidable collision”. In fact, during the five years after the introduction of the ‘drive-through’ penalty in 2002, only five drivers received any sort of penalty for a collision or racing misdemeanour. In 2011, Lewis Hamilton received five penalties alone.

The increased number of penalties

The sport is not necessarily any better for the significant increase in penalties and they often cause more controversy than the incidents they address. Mid-race penalties are no longer reserved for blatant unforgivable transgressions and are being used more subjectively to address a wider range of racing conflicts.

From a driver’s perspective, motor racing is full of ups and downs. That’s the nature of Formula One and is ultimately true of all sports. Grand Prix drivers fought closely with other for fifty years before stewards started intervening on a regular basis and minor incidents were an accepted, albeit unfortunate, consequence of racing.

In modern F1, most contact between drivers is subject to a formal investigation and this often results in action from the stewards. It’s an exaggeration to suggest the FIA is now treating the application of Grand Prix regulations like a nanny state, but small mistakes from drivers that were overlooked in the past are now subject to harsher punishments.

The changing nature of F1 penalties is well illustrated by last month’s Malaysian Grand Prix where Narain Karthikeyan was penalised for tagging Sebastian Vettel. The unfortunate accident is one that would not have received any stewarding attention in the recent past. The two drivers made very light contact, and if Vettel hadn’t received a puncture it might have gone completely unnoticed by TV directors and no penalty would have been forthcoming. Karthikeyan also believes, along with some pundits, that he was not actually to blame for the incident on the outside of a wet corner.

However, as per the direction of modern Formula One stewarding, Karthikeyan received a penalty for something minor that could have potentially gone unnoticed, and for something he was able to suggest (rightly or wrongly) wasn’t his fault. It was not a case of blatantly careless driving, or putting another driver in unforgivable danger, and was an incident with two sides to the story. Not that long ago, Karthikeyan would have received no penalty at all.

When two drivers come together on-track the stewards will determine if the contact was a “racing incident” or an “avoidable collision”. Given that everything is technically a “racing incident” and that every collision is “avoidable”, these are two very broad definitions that require subjective judgement. In the past, stewards did not provide that sort of detailed judgement and penalties were reserved for only the most blatantly careless manoeuvres and not for simple mistakes that accidentally impeded another driver.

The increased number of penalties has increased the level of controversy in the sport and is not doing anything to improve the quality of racing.

Encouraging close racing

It seems counter-intuitive than an increase in penalties has coincided with the FIA’s efforts to improve Formula One’s entertainment value. In recent years a number of changes have been introduced to improve the racing such as tarmac run off areas, the ban on refuelling, short life tyres, and especially DRS.

Despite these large and sometimes costly changes, the FIA stewards have become harsher on drivers who make simple honest mistakes in racing situations. More stewarding leniency would be an easy way to encourage closer racing.

There are other options available to stewards for dealing with racing incidents.

Reprimands instead of penalties

There is a strong argument that suggests penalties should be reserved for drivers who do something to impede a rival on purpose, do something that’s obviously dangerous, or race in a blatantly careless manner. Anything that is an honest mistake, like accidentally tagging another driver into a small spin, can be addressed using different procedures.

Reprimands could be considered a more suitable alternative to mid-race penalties. Any driver who receives three reprimands throughout a season earns a grid-place penalty at the next event which means they aren’t meaningless warnings. Using these for minor racing incidents wouldn’t severely punish drivers who make a rare mistake, but would still punish those who do it consistently.

Using reprimands would lessen the controversy inflicted by stewards and would remove the chance of inconsistent decisions impacting the result of a race.

Stewarding inconsistencies

The increase in the number of penalties has resulted in a greater number of inconsistent judgments. Despite the stewards now having more influence in the sport, the structure they operate within has not been sufficiently strengthened.

The Formula One stewards are different at every race and this is responsible for a number of inconsistencies. Using different stewards is a good idea because it removes any ongoing bias and similar arrangements are used by other motorsport categories around the world. However, in the current Formula One system there is no structural consistency at all. The MotoGP championship uses different stewards at every race as well but their structure is different and they work with a team of permanent officials. As detailed previously on this is quite possibly more effective.

The FIA addressed this with the appointment of a permanent steward in 2006, but this position was made redundant four years later. Any inconsistencies in the stewarding process are now highlighted by the increased number of decisions being made.

Irregularities also exist in the material used by stewards to reach their verdicts.

For example, not every Formula One car is fitted with an onboard camera, something that other motorsport categories (including the Australian V8 Supercar series) have had for a long time now. Relying on external TV cameras to provide a penalty is fine, but they don’t always provide the best view of what a driver was doing in the cockpit or how he reacted to events around him. An onboard camera can provide a much clearer viewpoint, so it doesn’t seem fair that some drivers will be judged by the stewards using their onboard camera whilst others are not.

Major stewarding inconsistencies have been addressed in detail on before, such as Monaco 2010 when stewards didn’t understand the International Sporting Code, the penalty given to Fernando Alonso when his rival wasn’t even aware they had made contact, and a range of inconsistencies highlighted by the penalty given to Pastor Maldonado during last year’s Belgian Grand Prix.

If the FIA wants to move the sport in a direction where all racing incidents are investigated or penalised, the stewarding system should be strengthened to accommodate this significant change in racing culture.

Too many penalties?

Are there too many penalties in Formula One? Stewards are giving out four times the number they used to, they are providing far more subjective penalties, and have increased the scope for inconsistency and controversy in the sport.

You could suggest the FIA should make greater use of reprimands that would remove a lot of contentious penalties, would remove the scope for unpredictable stewarding decisions to impact race results, and could potentially encourage closer racing. Failing that the FIA could at least look at adjusting the stewarding system to accommodate the greater influence it now has over our sport.

What do you think? Are there too many penalties in modern Formula One? Have your say below.


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