At the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and for the second race in a row, a driver has been penalised for a start position infringement, something that has so rarely happened before in Formula 1.
There’s been a clampdown from the FIA on positioning on the grid, with Fernando Alonso emulating his former team mate Esteban Ocon in copping a five-second penalty in Jeddah.
What exaggerated the penalty damage for both was their teams’ subsequent failure to serve the five seconds correctly.
I can sympathise with both Ocon and Alonso in these situations. It’s actually way harder than you’d imagine to line a Formula 1 car up in a grid box. The drivers are sat so low, with the cockpit sides coming up high, obscuring their vision. The big wheels only make it harder to get a reference to a grid spot as well.
It seems the drivers are going to have to get used to taking extra care with this in the future. Alonso was penalised in Jeddah, but there were others further back that were lucky to get away with their positioning as well.
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When lining up on the dirty side of the grid, you stay on the racing line for as long as possible, to ensure that you don’t pick up muck on your tyres, before sweeping over and forming up.
This means that drivers cross the track at the last moment to take position, and in the case of Fernando, often combine it with a late burnout to keep some surface temperature in the rear tyres before the launch.
The best way to line yourself up laterally in the box is to drive over other grid markers before and use them as a reference point as they slowly disappear underneath your car. I’m sure we will see more drivers being cautious with this from here on, because while Alonso eventually got away with just his redundant five seconds, it could have been more costly.
Being to the left-hand side won’t have given the Aston Martin any tangible benefit on the run down to Turn 1, and isn’t the reason that he jumped up the inside of Sergio Perez for the race lead. Had Alonso been an inch or two to his right, the result would have been the same in the dry conditions in Jeddah.
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There’s a reason to be tight on the rule though, because in other circumstances, there are times when drivers can play with their positioning in their grid box – particularly if it’s patchily wet with some drier lines. In these occasions, there would be significant benefit in starting to the side of your designated spot and picking up the dry line. The stewards have to draw the line somewhere, so why not the actual grid box? It makes sense.
While the drivers are getting caught out by the FIA scrutinising things a little closer this year, to my eyes, it seems the teams have also been getting sloppy over the winter as well.
A five-second penalty should be fairly routine for teams to contend with. The driver comes in, stops on their marks and then nobody can touch the car for five seconds.
Alpine had a miscommunication with one mechanic in Bahrain, and that is what cost Ocon a subsequent 10-second penalty. One mechanic was a bit eager to get working and touched the car after 4.6 seconds instead of the mandated five, effectively ruining Ocon’s race.
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For Aston Martin, the offence wasn’t so straightforward, which is why they managed to argue their way around it – and probably also why the stewards took so long to deliberate the offence.
Initially they found everything to be legitimate with Alonso’s penalty, but right at the end of the Grand Prix, they had another look and saw the rear jack touching the car as the Spaniard pulled to a stop. This was surely the work of another team prompting the stewards to have a closer look – and they weren’t wrong.
According to the understood meaning of the rules, the 10-second penalty was justified, as the rear jack isn’t allowed to touch the car as it constitutes working on it. The ‘accepted’ meaning wasn’t accurately written in the rulebook though, providing Aston Martin enough wriggle room to argue their way out of it, with some legal nous.
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It’s difficult to argue that Alonso didn’t deserve his podium. He had already built an eight-second gap to Russell behind in the first stint to negate the initial penalty, and had he been told of a looming second penalty earlier, it’s possible he could have opened up a bigger gap by the end as well.
From my experience as a driver, leaving the notice of an infringement so long after the incident seems particularly unfair – and while Alonso was very magnanimous when he was told of his penalty, it must have been immensely frustrating to hear.
The wording of the rulebook will be tightened once more after this latest loophole exploitation and hopefully now the teams and drivers can adhere to them, so we can focus more on the racing action and less on the activity in the stewards’ room going forward.
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