F1 stewards should listen to the drivers less, not more · RaceFans

The focus of Ferrari’s anger over Carlos Sainz Jnr’s Australian Grand Prix penalty wasn’t simply the fact that the call went against him, but that they didn’t get an opportunity to argue his case.

Sainz’s immediate reaction on being told of his penalty, while waiting for the race to restart, was to plead with his team to ensure he got a hearing. Ferrari therefore triggered the ‘right to review’ process not just in the hope of overturning Sainz’s penalty, but to get the hearing they felt they had been unfairly denied.

As the stewards had not heard Sainz’s explanation for his collision with Fernando Alonso, Ferrari submitted it as evidence which they claimed was sufficiently new, significant and relevant to trigger the reopening of the case. They failed because the stewards did not agree with them.

But Ferrari are not along in seizing on any opportunity they get to press their case to the powers-that-be in an effort to tilt the playing field in their favour.

The potentially damaging consequences of this have played out before. The infamous conclusion to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix featured both Red Bull and Mercedes ferociously lobbying race director Michael Masi, to the point that he made an error which influenced the outcome of the world championship and led to him losing his job.

In response to the that the FIA drew the correct conclusion that teams should not be allowed to pressure the race director to make calls which favour them. This was a sensible move, and the practice could be applied effectively elsewhere to speed up the often ponderous decision-making process.

Sainz’s clash with Alonso was one of three which occured following the lap 57 standing restart in the Australian Grand Prix. Bafflingly, despite their obvious similarities, all three were handled differently.

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Ferrari may not agree, but the stewards’ call on Sainz exemplified how such racing incidents should be handled. He clearly went too deep into the corner, crashed into a blameless driver and spoiled their race (notwithstanding the fact a separate decision by the race director later restored Alonso to the position Sainz cost him, an option which is rarely available).

Report: FIA stewards explain why they rejected Ferrari’s request to reconsider Sainz’s penalty

The stewards responded swiftly and issued a proportionate penalty. They did not speak to either driver, and had no reason to, as they pointed out in their decision yesterday.

“Had we thought that this required a statement from [Sainz] for us to analyse the event, we would have summoned him after the race,” they noted. “We did not consider it necessary then to hear from him to decide that fact.”

Sainz’s penalty only seemed harsh in the light of how the other drivers involved in incidents were treated. That particularly goes for Logan Sargeant, who committed a remarkably similar error to Sainz by clattering into a blameless Nyck de Vries and ending his race. This incident was not even investigated by the stewards, never mind acted upon.

In past seasons, F1 media had the opportunity to question the race director after grands prix about the handling of such decisions. Sadly that practice ended at the race before the notorious 2021 finale and has never been reinstated, depriving F1’s fans of valuable insight into how it is policed.

But what rankled with Ferrari was the fact the stewards waited to hear from the two other drivers involved in incidents, Alpine team mates Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon.

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“The biggest frustration was – and you heard it on the radio – to not have hearings,” Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur told media including RaceFans before yesterday’s hearing. “In this case, I think it would have made sense considering that the race was over, it was not affecting the podium, to have the hearing as Gasly and Ocon had.”

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly, Alpine, Albert Park, 2023
Gasly got to make his case over Ocon collision

It’s clear from the stewards’ verdict on the collision between the Alpine drivers that their comments influenced the decision not to penalise either driver. The stewards “determined that it was a first lap [after a standing restart] racing incident”, and “both cars [drivers] recognised and accepted this as such”.

Given the incident in question involved two team mates, it is hardly surprising the pair of them agreed it was a racing incident. Ocon would not be popular in the Alpine garage if he strolled into the stewards’ office and lobbied them to throw the book at Gasly. Particularly as his team mate is two penalty points away on his race licence from a one-race ban – something else the stewards might have factored into their decision.

In all three cases, there was no need for the stewards to hear from either of the drivers involved. The fact the stewards were able to rule on the Sainz case makes that clear, and their explanation for how the decision was reached show they usually have the necessary details at their fingertips to make a quick call.

As the Australian GP’s stewards pointed out, they “have access to a considerable amount of telemetry data” in order to analyse how incidents occured. Multiple video angles of incidents are usually available. And in the event some vital detail relating to a driver cannot be seen, team radio means they can communicate any important information before being hauled before the stewards.

It’s not hard to see why Ferrari felt they were not treated fairly given the difference between the treatment of Sainz’s case and that of the Alpine drivers. Giving some drivers the opportunity to explain away incidents while others don’t is unfair.

But the solution is not to give every driver a hearing on every incident. That would mean few penalty decisions being made until long after a race.

Instead it should be the default position of stewards that they don’t need to hear from the drivers unless they believe there may have specific information relevant to a decision which they want to obtain. And in the majority of circumstances that is unlikely to be the case.

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