The 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ended with a happy Sergio Perez atop the podium, Max Verstappen in a somewhat unfamiliar runner-up position and Fernando Alonso happily occupying the 100th podium of his Formula 1 career.
Alas, there was something rotten in the city of Jeddah.
Alonso made a dream start by taking the lead from Perez entering Turn 1 on the first lap, and lit a fire in the hearts of many fans in the process. Later that lap, the Spaniard was nailed for taking an incorrect position on the starting grid.
For clarity, Alonso was, in fact, in the proper grid position. However, he was improperly aligned in said position. A five-second time penalty followed; meaning Alonso’s next pit stop would see his car sit stationary for no less than five seconds before being served by the Aston Martin crew.
All is well here. Esteban Ocon was assessed a similar penalty in Bahrain.
We’ll ignore the hammer of officiating that came down on the Alpine driver after that…
Whatever the case, Alonso was able to serve his penalty at a rather opportune moment as his teammate Lance Stroll was made to stop on track due to a mechanical concern. The resulting safety car period left Alonso time to serve his penalty and complete his pit stop without losing track position.
Alonso rounded up his pit stop and penalty at 8:33 p.m. local time. Perez crossed the finish line to take the win at 9:25 p.m. local time. Word that Alonso may not have served his penalty correctly reached the stewards at 9:24 p.m., one minute before the finish of the race.
It must be noted that the Remote Operations Center (an off-site center that works as an advisory body for race control) initially determined that Alonso correctly served his penalty at 8:33 p.m.
A 51 minute gap between penalty served (and confirmed) and penalty questioned is unacceptable. A further 20 minutes followed before Alonso was handed a retrospective 10-second penalty, dropping him to fourth place and promoting George Russell to the podium.
Penalties happen in motorsport. We are all observing and partaking under a universal understanding that every team is pushing the rules and their respective as far as they possibly can to gain any possible advantage. The case of pushing the rules in question here?
The rear jack was engaged with Alonso’s machine before the five-second penalty had been served in full.
Yes, that appears the be the case from the video footage that is available. And yes, in a close call situation, that may have saved the crew a quarter of a second or so in their service of Alonso’s car. Rules are rules and that’s perfectly fair.
But I beg you to riddle me this: what, exactly, about this situation warranted not only an hour wait for the penalty to come under question, but a further 20 minutes for a second penalty to be issued, and then another two-and-a-half hours for the latter penalty to be rescinded and the race results to be made official.
All in all, over three hours!
Matt Kew for Motorsport has detailed the timeline of the penalty unfolding, and he explains, in regards to the understanding between the stewards and Aston Martin, that the stewards “stated that what was agreed at the [Sporting Advisory Committee] meetings with the teams was that no part of the car could be touched while a penalty was being served as this would constitute working on the car. In this case, it was clear that the car was touched by the rear jack.”
Later, according to the FIA, again per Motorsport: “The clear submission by the team was that the alleged representation of an agreement between the FIA and the teams that touching the car in any way, including with a jack, would constitute “working” on the car was incorrect and therefore the basis of the steward’s decision was wrong.”
Layman’s terms? Alonso and Aston Martin were penalized for violating rules that were never properly conveyed. This was all made right at 1:02 a.m. local time, by the way.
Certified “No Michael, no, no, Michael! That was so not right!” moment.
For all the marketing that we are subjected to which depicts F1 as the pinnacle of motorsport and zenith of technological innovation in the realm of auto racing – that’s not to mention the pinky-out, faux-sophisticated elitism of much of the community – this sort of miscommunication is an awful look.
Ever since the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix where Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton broke the FIA’s officiating bone, I’ve been burying my head in the sand any time race control is mentioned. I simply don’t have the emotional fortitude to go through that again.
Nobody mention Abu Dhabi 2021 either – I can’t do it.
What happens next? I honestly don’t know. Buxton’s point isn’t without merit. Perhaps teams aren’t free to leave their garage until five seconds have passed. But then what are we to do with the mechanic who gets a half a step toward the door before the timer is up? We can’t have crew members abusing the system by taking preemptive steps to circumvent the time penalty, of course not. Where do we draw the line here?
What this seems to come down to is an unnecessarily poor chain of communication. Perhaps we bring back Michael Masi and return to the glory days of team principals communicating directly with race control? A script of how each penalty is to be communicated which is distributed to all teams at the start of the race weekend? Better yet, maybe time penalties are served after the car has been serviced.
More damning than the disappointment that penalizing Alonso brought to the fan base is the message of internal confusion which officiating situations like those of Ocon in Bahrain and Alonso in Saudi Arabia present to new and seasoned observers of the sport. Whatever the solution may be, it seems clear that F1 has a communications dynamic to revise. It’s certainly not the case that the crews at Alpine and Aston Martin were suddenly too muddleheaded to properly interpret the rules once 2023 came around.
One way or another, the FIA needs to make it make sense.
About the author
Alex is the IndyCar Editor at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also leads the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy at the BIED Society, an international think tank in Washington, D.C. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.
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Looks like F1 has imported some of the NA$CAR “Control” Tower clowns to make their decisions.