So, last weekend brought with it the news that the FIA had indeed ruled that Red Bull Racing’s floor design, with fully enclosed holes in front of the rear wheels, is illegal. The team will now need to make changes to the design for next weekend’s Canadian grand prix. As is usually the case in Formula One, there are various different interpretations of the rules and what is, and what is not, allowed. This is all part of the sport and, as fans, part of the show. Which team will come up with the best ideas? Which cars will develop the fastest? Which design will be ruled illegal? I’ve got no problem with any of this, but this latest ruling from the FIA has highlighted to me, again, the huge inconsistency with which the sport’s governing body applies its own rules and the strangeness of some of those rules and some of the penalties that are applied.
Let’s start off with the Red Bull floor design that’s now been ruled illegal by the FIA, despite being previously deemed legal. The Milton Keynes based team has reportedly used this design since the Bahrain grand prix some three races ago, but it only really attracted attention at the last race of the season in Monaco. F1 followers will recall the discussions before the race about the floor design, with Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes unhappy with Red Bull’s design and looking set to protest the race result. In the end this did not happen, apparently because the FIA had asked the teams not to protest formally, promising instead to look at the design and produce a definitive ruling about its legality before the Canadian grand prix. This, of course, means that the results in the three races, during which Red Bull used a design which has now been ruled illegal, stand. In my opinion it is absolutely right that the results of the Spanish and Bahraini grand prix should remain unchanged. There was no debate about the legality of the Red Bull at these races, and to retrospectively amend those results so long after those races would, even if the rules allowed it, risk making a mockery of the sport. Monaco, I believe, is a totally different matter, however.
As I’ve already mentioned, there were questions about the Red Bull floor design even before the race in Monaco, a race that Red Bull’s Mark Webber won, with his team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, finishing fourth. While the Red Bull design will not deliver a huge performance advantage over the designs of rival teams, the fact that there was a question mark over the cars legality at Monaco should, in my opinion, have resulted in a protest of the result, which would have forced the FIA to rule there and then whether the Red Bull design was legal. If it was not legal, as has since been proved to be the case, then both Webber and Vettel would have been excluded from the results of the race, dramatically changing the championship standings (McLaren would lead the constructors’ championship, and Fernando Alonso would have a bigger lead in the drivers’ championship, with Webber falling from joint second to sixth). This being the case, the other teams may well regret their decision not to protest the result come the end of the season. If it is true that the FIA discouraged the teams from protesting the race result in Monaco because, as is rumoured, they did not want to retrospectively alter the result of the grand prix then, in my view, this makes more of a mockery of the sport than any post-race change to the results. Don’t forget, the race results are provisional until the cars have been through scrutineering. If cars are found to be illegal as part of the scrutineering process they can be excluded from the race result (although it is important to point out that the Monaco scrutineers did pass the Red Bull cars as legal). This has happened in the past, but perhaps the most recent parallel we can draw is Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion from the results of qualifying in Spain because his McLaren team had under-fuelled his car.
In Hamilton’s case, his car had only been in breach of the regulations because it would not have been able to provide the mandatory one litre sample of fuel had he returned to the pits instead of stopping out on track. This means that Hamilton’s car was perfectly legal in Q1, Q2 and the first part of Q3 during which he set a time which would have seen him qualify sixth. However, as a result of the fuelling infraction, which I would argue is minor, Hamilton was excluded from qualifying completely, meaning that he started the race last, rather than first. Now, if it was perfectly acceptable for the stewards to adjust the results of qualifying after the fact, why was it not equally acceptable for there to have been the potential for the Monaco race results to be altered after the fact, as they could have been if there had been a formal protest of the result (or, indeed, had any of the cars failed scrutineering)? It’s important, I think, to highlight that Hamilton’s car was only ‘illegal’ at the end of Q3, while both Red Bulls were ‘illegal’ throughout the Monaco race weekend (and, as it turns out, for the whole of the preceding two race weekends). Red Bull avoid any penalty and win the race in Monaco, while Hamilton is excluded from qualifying and robbed of the chance to challenge for victory in Spain. Not really fair, is it?
Let’s now move on to compare the Red Bull floor situation with the Mercedes DRS protest from earlier in the season. You may well remember that, following lengthy discussions about the legality of Mercedes AMG’s innovative ‘double’ DRS system, the Lotus team decided to protest the results of the Chinese grand prix, which was won by Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg. As we all know, the FIA ruled the Mercedes system to be completely legal, totally rightly in my view, both before and after the protest. However, if the stewards had ruled the Mercedes design illegal following the Lotus protest, Rosberg would have been excluded from the results in China (his team-mate, Michael Schumacher retired early on in that race), and Jenson Button would have inherited the race win. So, if it was OK for Lotus to protest the China result, albeit unsuccessfully, why was a similar protest apparently discouraged in Monaco? It’s precisely this sort of inconsistent approach to the application of the rules that annoys fans in all sports, not just F1.
Inconsistency in the application of the rules is one thing, but in my view the powers that be in F1 need to take a serious look at some of the rules and, more specifically, the penalties associated with infractions. How, for example, can it be right that Lewis Hamilton is totally excluded from qualifying in Spain due to under-fuelling, yet Williams driver Pastor Maldonado receives only a 10 place grid penalty for appearing to deliberately drive into Sauber’s Sergio Perez in Monaco free practice (his second such penalty in two years). Which of these infractions is more serious or dangerous? I think that you can probably guess what my answer would be.
I think that the FIA also need to have a rethink about the pit lane drive through penalty punishment. I can see that it’s appropriate where a driver has caused an avoidable collision and, perhaps, taken another driver out of the race, but what about other cases where this punishment is applied? Gaining a position by cutting a chicane is often penalised with a drive through penalty, as was Sergio Perez for a late pit lane entry in Monaco. In cases like this, which I would judge to be more minor infringements of the rules, is a drive through penalty – which can completely destroy a driver’s race – really appropriate? In my view, there must be other punishments that the rule makers could devise to better make the punishment fit the ‘crime’.
In my view, the inconsistency in the approach of the F1 powers that be in similar cases (dissuading a protest in Monaco, but allowing one in China, for example), is really frustrating, as is the lack of a sliding scale of punishments to fit the severity of the ‘offence’. The FIA need to take a long hard look at the rule book, and the way in which stewards apply the rules, to come up with a system that is both more consistent and more flexible. How they might do this, I’m not so sure; that might be why I’m just a fan, and not the head of the FIA.