Fernando Alonso’s podium finish at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was the 100th of his career, but he will be remembered more for the confusing and ridiculous situation that surrounded him.
Alonso celebrated on the podium, then received a penalty which dropped him to fourth, only to have that penalty overturned by the same race stewards a couple of hours later.
He became the main starter in a race that otherwise underscored just how far ahead Red Bull is at this point in the season.
Here’s why it all played out the way it did.
What happened in the race?
The incident that sparked this remarkable series of events occurred moments before the race began. As Alonso reached his second place on the grid, he did so with the contact patches of his Aston Martin’s left tires crossing the line that marks the limit on the left side of his place on the grid.
Until recently, the only rule governing a driver’s position in the grid slot was how far forward the car was, but this year’s sporting regulations also added the position of the front wheels within the side markings. of the slot There is a yellow line painted on the right hand side of the white grid markings to give drivers a visual reference of how far ahead they are in place, but the alignment between the lines is entirely dependent on the driver’s approach to their position.
Lining up outside the box is an easily identifiable transgression thanks to the cameras and technology on the grid, and results in a five-second penalty (Esteban Ocon received the same penalty in the opening race two weeks earlier).
F1’s sporting regulations dictate that five-second time penalties must be served at the driver’s next pit stop, with the clock starting once the car has stopped and the mechanics waiting five seconds before starting work on the car. the car. If the driver does not make another pit stop after receiving the penalty, the five seconds is simply added to his race time at the end.
Alonso served his penalty at his pit stop on lap 18, during a safety car period brought on by the retirement of teammate Lance Stroll. Aston Martin’s mechanics watched the five seconds before getting stuck on changing tyres, but whether they had started ‘working’ on the car before that time became the key factor in the post-race controversy.
Why did Alonso lose the podium in the first place?
Every penalty served in the pit lane is observed by the FIA in real time and reviewed by race control, as well as by the FIA Remote Operations Center (ROC) in Geneva, one of the new measures implemented by the body rector of the races after a mistake in the race. Director Michael Masi influenced the outcome of the 2021 world championship. ROC has been compared to the video assistant referee (VAR) system in football, but it is also similar to how the NFL evaluates officiating decisions in real time from New York. Any signs of transgression and the incident and evidence are referred to the independent stewards for consideration, but in the initial review of Alonso’s pit stop everything was deemed correct.
The first hint that that might not be the case came in the closing laps of a rival team’s radio conversation, with Mercedes informing George Russell that Alonso, the car in front, could face an extra time penalty at the end of the race. the race. and to make sure that he narrowed the gap as much as possible. But at that time there was still no official suggestion from the FIA for a penalty.
That only happened after Alonso had gotten out of his car, spoken to waiting TV cameras and headed to the podium with Red Bull drivers Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen. On F1’s official messaging system, the FIA said it had noticed an incident, which quickly resulted in a full investigation into Alonso’s pit stop.
Shortly after Alonso left the podium and entered the television corral to complete more media tasks, word broke that he had received a 10-second penalty, which would be added to his race time and mean he would lose third position. Russell. However, the official document detailing the reason for the sanction will not be made public until after midnight, more than three hours later, adding to the confusion about what exactly happened.
“Today is not good for the fans when you have 35 laps to apply a penalty and to report the penalty, and you wait after the podium,” he said. “There’s something really wrong with the system, but that’s how it is.”
Why the delay?
Alonso’s pit stop had been in the first half of the 50-lap race, a long time, you’d think, for the FIA to assess whether or not a piece of equipment had touched a car. Initially, both race control and the ROC determined that Alonso had correctly served the penalty. It was only on the last lap that race control shared a new report with the stewards stating that ROC now did not believe the penalty had been observed correctly and requesting a full investigation from the stewards.
The decision, which was finally made just after midnight in Saudi Arabia, would state: “Based on the representation made to the Stewards that there was an agreed position that touching the car would amount to ‘working’ on the car, the Stewards decided impose a foul.”
Why the U-turn?
This “agreed position” would be key. After the opening race of the year, the FIA’s Sporting Advisory Committee (SAC), which includes all ten teams, met and, among other things, discussed what did and did not constitute working on the car.
According to FIA Race Director Niels Wittich and new FIA Sporting Director Steve Neilsen, who presented Aston Martin’s alleged transgression to the stewards in Saudi Arabia on the last lap, the SAC agreed that touching the car either way during the time penalty period was tantamount to working at it.
It was on this basis that the stewards awarded the ten-second post-race penalty, as it was learned through video footage that the rear jack, one of two devices used to lift the car into the air when changing gears, tires, I was touching the rear of Alonso’s car during the five seconds. It was hoped that this would have clarified the matter, but based on their own interpretation of what was actually written in the rules and supported by previous examples of time penalties being served at pit stops, Aston Martin did not believe that a cat touched the car. car. constituted work taking place.
Alonso’s team appealed the decision and 40 minutes later, a representative of the Aston Martin team (sports director Andy Stevenson) addressed the stewards for a hearing. Aston Martin obtained its right of review after submitting both the SAC meeting minutes and video evidence of seven different instances of a cat touching a car during a penalty similar to the one Alonso served during the race that were not penalized. . This met the FIA threshold of “significant and new” information coming to light and allowed for the review, which was successful.
The FIA released its final standings at 01:15am local time, showing Alonso back in third and Russell in fourth, 5.1sec behind the Aston Martin driver when he crossed the finish line.
Shortly after, the FIA issued a clarifying statement, admitting that there were “contradictory precedents, and this has been exposed by this specific circumstance.” The issue will be taken up at the next SAC meeting on Thursday before the next race, the Australian Grand Prix.