Rules are rules . . . unless they aren’t. Rarely does a grand prix weekend go by these days without at least one drive-through, stop-and-go, or grid place penalty. And more often, likely in an overzealous pursuit of safety, it seems that ‘racing incidents’ (two or more drivers racing hard and accidentally coming together) are being punished. I was going to use Pastor Maldonado’s penalty in this weekend’s race as an example, but the more I watch it, the more it seems like he did cause an avoidable collision by trying to cut in front of the Force Indias and into the pit lane.
Anyway, that is not really the point of this post. Rather, there is another rules-related issue that caught my attention during the Belgian GP – namely, the inconsistent application of them. Since the race, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh has (rightly) complained about the same thing. Whitmarsh’s blood is boiling because his driver, Sergio Perez, was punished with a drive-through penalty for doing exactly the same thing (in exactly the same spot) as other drivers would do later in the race, without receiving penalties.
On lap eight, Perez was approaching the Les Combes right-left-right turn complex at the end of the Kemmel Straight. Romain Grosjean was attempting to overtake him, but Perez gradually angled his car to the left, forcing the Lotus onto the kerb as they reached the braking point. Grosjean, in part due to reduced traction off the circuit, was unable to make the first right-hand turn and had to cut the chicane, across a few speed bumps. While Perez pulled away, Felipe Massa also passed Grosjean. A few laps later, the stewards announced Perez’s penalty.
Ironically, in discussing Perez’s penalty, commentator David Coulthard said that all the drivers wanted was for the rules to be applied consistently. Later in the race, that was anything but the case. On lap 36, Nico Hülkenberg and Jean-Éric Vergne approached the same turn, duelling for position. First, Hülkenberg pushed JEV wide, the same way Perez had to Grosjean. This time, though, both drivers were able to take the corner side-by-side. Vergne had the inside line on the exit, and he returned the favour by pushing the Sauber wide, onto the kerb, before pulling away in his Toro Rosso.
Maybe the stewards saw this incident differently because each driver had taken an opportunity to push his rival wide, but the purpose of the rules is not only to ensure a fair race; the rules are also in place to ensure a safe race. Saying neither driver should receive a penalty because they both did it is like telling two children they won’t be punished because they hit each other.
There is some space around the circuit at Les Combes, so these maneuvers were not nearly as dangerous as Michael Schumacher’s attempt to make Rubens Barrichello a permanent feature on the Hungaroring’s pit wall in 2010 (for which he was rightly punished). Frankly, I would have preferred no penalties for any of the moves we just looked at from Belgium, but the rules do call for penalties for forcing another car off the circuit and so, as Coulthard said, they must be applied consistently.
One other driver who wrongly escaped without a penalty on Sunday was Felipe Massa. Coming out of the pits on lap ten, he was pushing hard to stay ahead of Hülkenberg, who had stopped at the same time. As they re-entered the circuit just past La Source, Massa clearly crossed the pit line, which should have resulted in a drive-through penalty. He never received one.
I know there are often complaints about what the stewards are, or are not, handing out penalties for. This was one of the worst weekends I can remember, though, in terms of inconsistently applying the rules and missing blatant infractions. With cameras covering the entire track and mounted on every car, there is no excuse for these issues.
Belgian Grand Prix notes
- With Kimi Räikkönen’s retirement on the 26th lap, his record streak of 27 straight finishes in the points has come to an end. Of course, the record comes with an asterisk, as the top ten finishers scored points during his streak, whereas when Michael Schumacher set the previous record of 24, from 2001 to 2003, only the top six (in 2001 and 2002) or eight (in 2003) drivers scored.
- Sebastian Vettel’s win was the 31st of his career, tying him with British world champion Nigel Mansell for fifth on the all-time list. Next up is Fernando Alonso, with 32 victories (and counting). Both drivers are now chasing Ayrton Senna and his 41 career wins.
- Only two pairs of cars on the lead lap finished within two seconds of each other (Felipe Massa & Romain Grosjean and Jean-Éric Vergne & Nico Hülkenberg), which pretty accurately reflects the entire race – not much passing or close racing, Vettel running away with the win – despite Spa-Francorchamps being one of the best tracks on the calendar.
- On the podium, David Coulthard pointed out that Vettel’s current 46-point lead is the largest of his career, and he is now only four points away from having two victories in-hand over second-place Fernando Alonso.
- Jenson Button’s sixth-place finish moved McLaren past Force India for the first time this season, and into fifth place in the Constructors’ standings. McLaren has outscored Force India 28-2 over the last three grands prix.
Note: All race images are from TSN’s broadcast of the BBC race feed.