From Russia with Misery - Is the 5 second penalty working?
Hamilton's double penalty in Russia highlighted the shortcomings in a rule intended to fix F1.
The VTB Russian Grand Prix 2020 will not live long in the memory, but it's impact on the sport's penalty system should mean it is never forgotten.
Lewis Hamilton was penalised for performing 2 practice starts on the lap to the grid outwith the permitted area at the end of the pit lane. Whilst, technically this is correct, I disagree with both the application and the severity of the penalty and fear we are returning to the overly officious penalty system of the early 2010s. The penalty itself is being widely discussed by numerous publications, but I'd like to look at the wider impact to the sport's image.
A new precedent was set by issuing an in race time penalty for an infraction which took place before the formation lap. Usually, any penalty which takes place before then is served as a grid drop. Considering that it is a discretionary penalty - it is difficult to avoid the political angle here. Had Hamilton retired at Turn 2, would the penalty have been investigated post race and applied as a grid drop at another round? Had the stewards decided this with 5 laps to go it was 10 seconds to be added to his race time, would that be fair? This was such a hand knitted, amateur application that the penalty itself can almost be disregarded - I do not think the stewards should have the ability to make off-the-cuff rulings during a race. My hard and fast rule is, "Would I like to see this applied in a Championship decider?"
The 5 second penalty has been the target of my ire for a while now; I feel it is a no man's land punishment thrown around far too liberally. It was brought in primarily to cover track limit overtake violations where a drive through penalty was deemed harsh and no punishment too lenient. But now it appears to be the home for unsafe pit releases, contact following restarts, track limit overtakes and now designated practice start infringements. It's a get out of jail free card for indecisive stewards. The sport has to have a serious look at penalty severity again - does any neutral, casual fan tuning in to the Russian Grand Prix really understand or care about this penalty? There was no conceivable advantage and the danger element was purely hypothetical. Is failure to perform an action within a designated zone really punishable by a ten second penalty, which if taken at an early pit stop extrapolates to possibly up to twenty seconds over the race distance? This seems grossly excessive to me.
A broader look at the 5 second penalty
2001 European GP - Ralf Schumacher, Williams BMW, crosses the white line on the pit exit
As the sport has evolved, becoming more professional and competitive, it became clear the penalties of the 1990s were much too severe. A 10 second stop go penalty was replaced in the early 2000s following criticism when applied to Ralf Schumacher in the European GP in 2001 at the Nurburgring. Crossing the white line on the exit of the pits was an obvious error but the penalty from fighting from the lead to finishing 30 seconds behind his brother did not sit well with the F1 community. The pit lane drive through penalty which replaced it began to feel disproportionate in the late 2000s when track limit offences were in their infancy. Hamilton's penalty in France 2008 for overtaking Sebastian Vettel through the fast Nurburgring chicane should have served as an example for his 25 second penalty issued 4 months later in Belgium. Still hotly contested to this day, Hamilton left the track, allowed Raikkonen back past him and completed an overtake into La Source. Once again, questions we raised about the severity and officious nature of the stewards.
Fernando Alonso, Italian GP 2017
When the 5 second penalty was introduced in 2017 it was widely acclaimed as a positive for the sport. Since then there have been a couple of noticeable instances which suggest the rule may not have been as all encompassing as the fans had hoped for. Fernando Alonso's famous "Karma" team radio message at the Italian GP that season was the result of a 5 second penalty issued to Jolyon Palmer for his overtake which was completed off the track. Whilst the radio clip is often referred to for it's comic value it highlighted the obvious flaw that if the penalty time could be recovered then it was worth taking. It's fairly fundamental to any regulation system to be rigid enough to withstand competitors trying to "play the game" with the stewards - it compromises their integrity.
In 2019, both the Monaco and Canadian Grand Prix had race lead impacting 5 second violations. In Monaco Max Verstappen was running second in the closing stages, with the penalty for unsafe pit release dropping him to fourth at the flag. Whilst I believe the penalty was justified and proportionate in this instance, I sympathise with Red Bull as the pit complex in Monaco is so tight these accidents are inevitable. It was a catch 22 for the team but I'm not sure casual fans were treated to the ultimate finale in the jewel in the crown race knowing that second place overtaking on the last lap would have finished second at best. The Canadian GP affair is well trodden ground - Vettel's Ferrari left the track and when it returned Hamilton's Mercedes was marginally impeded. I think that by the letter of the law, Vettel was out of line - either he was out of control when re-joining which is punishable, or he was calculated in moving Hamilton towards the wall, also punishable. But once again, I return to proportionality. Had the 5 second penalty not been available I don't think the fans would have called for, nor the stewards been brave enough, to apply a 10 second or drive through penalty. If I had the option of 10 seconds or no penalty, I would have let Vettel off on that occasion. Which would have led to a much better end to the race for the fans, it should be noted.
The underlying question here is: what infringements are punishable and what impact should they have on the event as a whole? I feel F1 embroils itself in too many hypothetical issues. Hamilton was given a grid drop in Austria for ignoring a yellow flag in qualifying, as was Verstappen in Mexico last year - but was there any real danger in either scenario? It is important not to belittle safety, and perhaps this is the only way drivers will learn, but I don't think it reflects well on the sport to be punishing minor infractions constantly. If there is contact, as with Albon and Hamilton in Brazil and Austria and on driver drops to the back from fighting for a podium, then that should be a more substantive penalty that cutting a chicane or a late pit release. The 5 second penalty has it's merits but it needs to be applied in a much more focused manner and the stewards need to have a way to punish drivers without ruining the Grand Prix spectacle on the whole - too often this season the punishment hasn't fit the crime.
I want to point out that I do not think the stewards should be in any way political. Indeed, I feel Hamilton's penalty in Russia could be construed as that. But I think there are too many instances of them applying penalties for the sake of it in an attempt to appear consistent. The fans need to accept that there will be ambiguity in some regulations and that fundamentally it is a discretionary process. I'd like to see fewer penalties issued in general, and stricter penalties applied to serious incidents that have had a real world impact. In that sense, the 5 second penalty in it's current guise is no longer fit for purpose and the rule book should be revisited before the big change in 2022.