Carlos Sainz Jnr, Renault, Circuit of the Americas, 2018

How Hulkenberg set a new precedent for tougher penalties – and Sainz dodged it

2018 United States Grand Prix

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The FIA set new guidelines recommending more severe penalties in response to an incident involving Nico Hulkenberg at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

However the stewards did not take advantage of the new powers yet despite two teams claiming Carlos Sainz Jnr had committed a similar violation last weekend.

On lap one at Yas Marina last year Hulkenberg cut a corner on the circuit and overtook Sergio Perez by doing so. The stewards responded by handing him a five-second time penalty, the standard sanction for this kind of incident.

But even after serving the penalty Hulkenberg remained ahead of Perez and there he stayed until the end of the race. This prompted claims the penalty had been ineffective.

There was every possibility Hulkenberg had assumed he would get a five-second penalty and decided not to hand his position back to Perez expecting that he could pull out the necessary gap to keep the Force India behind. Therefore the FIA resolved to punish this kind of incident more hardly in future, as race director Charlie Whiting explained.

“Nico Hulkenberg overtook knowing that a five-second penalty would be the likely penalty and easily gained more than five seconds so it was worthwhile doing,” said Whiting. “That’s why we’ve issued a new set of guidelines to the stewards and the teams are aware of it where we think that if it’s been done deliberately they’ll take a wholly different view.”

Last Sunday two teams were of the view that Sainz had done exactly that to overtake their drivers on the first lap of the race. But the stewards did not take advantage of the new guidelines: Sainz was given a five-second time penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage over Romain Grosjean.

Force India team principal Otmar Szafnauer, whose driver Esteban Ocon was passed by Sainz after the first corner, said the penalty was “too lenient” on Sainz. He pointed out that in a race where overtaking is difficult and track position is valuable, gaining a position on the first lap can easily be worth more than five seconds.

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Esteban Ocon, Force India, Circuit of the Americas, 2018
Grosjean’s race ended soon afterwards
“Had [Sainz] not overtaken us at the start in a track position race then he never would have overtaken us. Even if you’re, say, two tenths or three tenths [per lap] quicker, you never gain those two tenths or three tenths if you’re behind that car.”

Szafnauer suggested a fairer penalty, one not currently available to the stewards, would be to order the driver to hand back a position to a certain car.

Grosjean’s team principal Guenther Steiner agreed Sainz had been dealt with too leniently. The Haas boss noted the time it takes to determine a penalty can stop them having the desired effect.

“You cut the corner, take an advantage then it takes five laps before they realise that somebody’s done something, then it takes another five laps and nobody can catch him because everybody’s stuck. Then they give you five seconds which means nothing anymore because they’re gone.

“If they catch you after five or 10 laps you need to go back to your original position and lose the positions or give a bigger penalty.”

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So why did the stewards apparently not share the view Sainz had committed the same infraction as Hulkenberg did last year? The interpretation offered by Whiting – who is not one of the stewards and does not decide what gets penalised – is that although Sainz gained an advantage it wasn’t clear that he’d done so as blatantly as Hulkenberg.

(Another significant difference was that at Yas Marina, Hulkenberg cut across the inside of a corner to gain a place over Perez, whereas Sainz ran onto the outside of the track.)

“It was difficult because you couldn’t really see what happened,” explained Whiting. “You knew that he’d passed Leclerc, that was quite clear. Did he gain anything on Grosjean? Not sure.

“I think on the first corner of the first lap it’s a bit of a muddle up there and it was quite clear that he went on the outside of Leclerc and wasn’t very wide. It looks as if he sort of followed Sebastian really a little bit and then came back and was in front. You’d have to say that he gained an advantage by doing that.

“But as far as the penalty is concerned I think it’s the standard penalty. It wasn’t something that I think he did deliberately with the idea of thinking ‘I’ll do this deliberately on purpose in order to be able to open up a gap’, it just didn’t happen that way.”

Force India and Haas may disagree. But there are plenty of other venues where overtaking is difficult and the run-offs are generous enough for drivers to gain an advantage by going off-track, so it may be only a matter of time before the new guidelines are put into action.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...
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  • 30 comments on “How Hulkenberg set a new precedent for tougher penalties – and Sainz dodged it”

    1. Lot of subjectivity involved with the quantum penalty being dished out.
      Instead of time penalties, may be they can deduct points (or a percentage of them which gets accrued over the year).
      For eg.:
      You cut a corner and gain time–x points deducted
      you cut a corner, gain time and also a position–x+y points deducted.
      As long as ‘x’ is significant enough, no one will even think of x+y.

      Unless the rules are well defined, i dont see a universally acceptable solution to this mess.

      1. @webtel there is an obvious solution: make it so that going beyond the track limits is slower i.e. with a gravel trap or grass. even the sleeping policeman they have at monza are a better deterrent than an open piece of tarmac.

        obviously there are some safety concerns about cars digging in to gravel, or skipping over the top of grass, but this is only really a problem at the outside of the entry part of the corner – people are gaining places by cutting the inside (could safely be grass/gravel) or running beyond the outside of the corner exit (could easily be grass/gravel). I think the reason this is not the case is because (a) the sport is terrible at adaptive thinking and (b) many circuits make money from track days, where regular car owners don’t want to ruin their cars in gravel.

        1. @frood19

          I agree that gravel or grass will put this to rest once and for all. But having those sleeping policemen, sausage kerbs, trampolines etc will result in drivers being more cautious and may even result in less aggressive racing. That is especially not what the fans want. Add to that there are other problems which you have mentioned–safety especially on the first lap and when in rain.

          I think the reason this is not the case is because (a) the sport is terrible at adaptive thinking and (b) many circuits make money from track days, where regular car owners don’t want to ruin their cars in gravel.

          Very true. I remember, at the drivers briefing at Austin last year, there were questions being raised on the track limits (i dont remember the specifics) and Charlie mentioned that changes have/have not been made because of MotoGP. So yes, in the end, track limits , tarmac, gravel, grass–most of it is up to the circuit owners and it varies from one circuit to another.

          1. @webtel I think drivers will try and overtake even if the track is surrounded by walls! look at baku, monaco or singapore – people try and pass if they can. if they don’t, they can’t call themselves real racing drivers. if the only way to incentivise overtaking if by making the circuit limits more lenient, then that is a sport I do not want to watch.

            the problem is that it is too easy to go off track now, in fact advantageous in some cases. it’s obviously a problem with the circuits – I believe every driver on the grid (probably every decent driver from karts up) is a real racing driver and as such they will overtake wherever they can get away with it. the existing penalties never fit the crime, so why not just make the circuit limits representative of the circuit?!?!??!

            1. @frood19

              people try and pass if they can.

              Why should we even take it that extreme ? Yes we do have some scintillating tracks like Baku and Singapore that all of us enjoy. But i am not pro-leniency–at least not in terms of circuit limits. I want them to race hard and fair but they should also get enough chances to go for the overtake–we cant have races on 20 street circuits–at least not with the current regs but that is an issue for a different forum.
              They have to be strict with track limits which are already representative of (some of) the circuits. I am just suggesting a standardized penalty system for all of them.

          2. @webtel It was actually the drivers’ briefing for the Mexican GP where this specific topic was brought up. https://youtu.be/kpZ8q8l0HV4

            1. Thanks @jerejj
              I stand corrected.

    2. The FIA should give drivers 5s time penalty + go back to your original position for these kinds of violations – IMO

      1. I kind of agree.. although sometimes, cutting the a corner might be the only way to avoid contact or carnage that is currently going on the circuit. If the driver does gain a position though, he should return the position over he gained within one lap. If not, then I think they need a harsher penalty than just 5 seconds. Maybe a drive through or a stop go penalty.

    3. Sainz didn’t overtake Ocon in the first corner, he let him pass through and then he overtook him again in the third or fourth corner.

      1. Jonathan Parkin
        25th October 2018, 8:18

        Plus gravel

      2. Getting drivers high might not be the safest approach, nor would it send a good message to the youth, would it?

        Ohhhh… that grass.

    4. Why does F1 always make it so complicated ? Punishing the intention instead of the act of gaining an advantage opens a whole new can of worms, a bit like at the time when team orders were banned. I know that the racing world is complex and simple solutions will not always do the job, but in that case :

      – Inform the team ASAP that the offending driver has to give back the position within n laps. n would probably be 2 or 3, in case the radio is broken and the team has to use the board. If the driver he gained advantage of is further back, then obviously he will have to give several positions in order to do so.
      – If the offending driver hasn’t complied within n laps, give him a stop-and-go penalty.
      – If the offending driver doesn’t observe the stop-and-go, black flag him.

      The only problem I see is that the victim could try to take advantage by pitting immediately. I would rule that the offending driver has then the right to pit himself, and only then give the position back. In some cases this would be harsh on the offending driver, but well, he committed the offense in the first place and he had the possibility of giving the place back by himself.

      Now if the penalty is made harsher, one would also have to ensure that it is really deserved. If driver A pushes driver B out of the track, driver B shortcuts and seems to gain an advantage, I think he should be allowed to keep that advantage. After all, he didn’t choose to go off-track, probably picked up dirt on his tires, and, depending on the layout, could have been at risk to break something on the car. In the current rules, I think it is too easy to push someone off track while defending, which usually doesn’t attract a penalty unless there is contact.

    5. I suggest we go the opposite direction: let them overtake outside the line/track as much as they want. Overtaking (without DRS) should become easier rather than more restricted!
      Drivers can extend the track (or even cut a corner like Verstappen last year) in every corner where that line is slower than the racing line.
      If the outside (the track) line is faster then there should be an automatic penalty to discourage this (e.g. a slalom before re-entering or an immediate drive through).

    6. 3 or 4 drivers ran wide at the start… You wonder why there’s run off there in the first place. If you look at a satellite picture of the track, the tarmac run off follows the track up until the bridge at turn 2. Why? instead of rewritting the guidelines for overtaking they should work something out to avoid people going to the run off.

      Maybe a bollard down the road that they have to go around would’ve been better… it’s a neat way to avoid this sort of thing.

    7. Didn’t we used to have a drive through penalty that had to be served within 5 laps or so and couldn’t include a pitstop?
      I seem to recall that from past seasons, if so why was that stopped?
      Or am I dreaming again?

      1. @nullapax – IIRC, that applies to only the 10s/20s penalties. The 5s penalty doesn’t mandate a pitstop (not pitting means 5s is added to the driver’s time), and the penalty can also be served at the start of a regular pitstop (i.e. the stopped time would be 5 seconds + 2.x seconds).

        1. Ahh I see. Still, I would suggest making the 5 second penalty also adhere to this rule as it would make it a very genuine penalty instead of the “open to abuse (being laughed at) joke” that is is at the moment

          1. @nullapax – I agree, there’s definitely a need to prevent drivers from exploiting the 5s penalty by building up a larger gap. But mandating a pit stop might not be the best idea. The reason is, this 5s penalty was written into the rules specifically to give a gentle rap on the knuckles of an offending driver, without totally ruining his race (the way a 10s/20s stop-and-go penalty would).

            By mandating that the 5s penalty be taken in – say – 5 laps, it can still wreck a race if that is not the optimal/preferred pit window.

            I have suggested an alternative, to avoid such exploitation, right below. The one thing is that what we (including me) think are obvious solutions tend to have some flaw which is why the FIA has probably rejected that option initially. I am sure my suggestion below will meet the same fate :-)

    8. Maybe the penalty should take into account the number of elapsed laps between the ‘illegal’ overtake and the decision being made by the stewards? Say, 1.2 seconds for each elapsed lap? Or, in a similar vein, maybe instead take the number of elapsed laps between the ‘illegal’ overtake and the penalty being taken in the pits? Or, to put it fully in the driver’s hands – the number of elapsed laps between the decision being made, and the penalty being taken.

      That would make the offending driver (and his team) have to balance their attempt to build a large enough gap by staying out, against the fact that the penalty keeps growing the longer they delay it.

      1. I’m not sure I fully understand what you’r suggesting but I like the idea of the penalty automatically increasing the longer the team take to effect their compliance…

        1. You’ve got the gist of it, BlackJackFan, I probably muddled up the explanation giving different options. So, let me take another stab at it.

          Assume a driver overtakes another by cutting a part of the track on lap 2. The stewards issue a penalty on lap 5. If the driver takes the penalty on lap 5, he’d have to take a 5 second penalty (5 seconds + 0 laps x 1.2 seconds). If the penalty is taken only on lap 10, he’d have to take a 11 second penalty (5 seconds + 5 laps x 1.2 seconds), since 5 laps have elapsed since the penalty was awarded.

          By doing so, it does not force the driver to serve the penalty quickly (unlike a 10 second penalty), but it definitely incentivizes them to do so. On the other hand, if they are able to stay out longer and still come out ahead of the affected driver, then the offending driver will have anyway had an inherent pace advantage that means the offending driver would have most likely overtaken the affected driver even without cutting the track.

          1. OK… overall I’m in agreement but would make the extra factor ‘2’… and to prevent further confusion I’d write it as: [5 seconds + (x laps x 2 seconds)] ;)
            Q. Which is worse: pedantry or cynicism…? (I can do either… :)

    9. I agree with Charlie in principle.

    10. Just go with a drive through instead of 5s penalty. We won’t see many DTs though, because 99.9% of the time they will make sure they return the position or don’t overtake going off the track at all. We see lots of 5s penalties because teams and drivers are think it’s worth to have them over giving the position back. It’s that simple to fix it.

      1. This I totally agree with.

    11. Funny… don’t remember Gunther being as vocal last year in Mexico when Grosjean did the same thing to Alonso…

    12. If you overtake unfairly it should be up to the driver to hand back the position without prompting. If he does not, after the race take a good look at the offending incident and if guilty penalise him one place. Make the drivers responsible for their own actions and if they do not accept it penalise them. There’s too much complaining and not enough humility and the current system seems to reward that. Also consider not investigating an incident if a driver whines about it over the radio.

    Comments are closed.