There are a couple of reasons why I have not written about the penalties in Sepang, as yet. The major problem is that no-one had much information to go on at the time – and there were more important things to be considered. The decisions were made just before 8pm, more than two hours after the race ended. It took rather more time for the decisions to be published in the Media Center and elsewhere and so by the time this information arrived, the F1 paddock was not exactly packed full of people who could explain what had happened. People do not hang around in Sepang. It is hot and they want to go back to their hotels and have dinner. So, the journalists had little information to work on. Lewis Hamilton was reckoned to have “made more than one change of direction to defend a position”, which was a breach of Article 20.2 of the 2011 FIA Formula One Sporting Regulations. Alonso was deemed to have caused a collision. The Stewards are sensible people and include the driver Emanuele Pirro, who raced in 37 Formula 1 races between 1989 and 1991 before a very successful career in sports cars, including five victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours. The stewards had access to all manner of data that is not available to the fans, including different video footage, and even GPS satellite positioning data. So what was it that they saw that led to the penalties?
The two men in question said the following things after the race.
Lewis Hamilton: “Today was just one of those days. It’s never satisfying to start second and finish seventh, but that’s racing. We just have to take it on the chin and move on from it. During the race my tyres kept dropping off; we pitted earlier than was optimal, and ran out of tyres at the end. I’d hoped to make the end of the race on a set of used Primes, but they didn’t last so we had to pit right at the end of the race. There were a lot of factors that made this afternoon very difficult: the delay at the pitstop, being chased by a couple of cars when I was trying to look after my tyres, and being hit from behind by Fernando. I think he got a bit too close, and, when he pulled out, he just clipped me with his wing and broke my car’s rear floor.”
Fernando Alonso: “We were not lucky: if the moveable rear wing had worked all the time, I could easily have passed Hamilton down the straight, but instead we had to fight hard. He defended very well and, unfortunately, we touched: that broke my wing and I had to come back into the pits to change it, thus losing any chance of getting to the podium. These things happen.”
Ferrari engineer Pat Fry confirmed that Alonso had had to fight with one hand behind his back, because the DRS, “which failed after a few laps because of a mechanical problem”.
The incident which caused Hamilton’s penalty was timed at 17.20 and the incident which caused Alonso’s penalty was timed at 17.22. Given the lap times involved one can say with some certainty that Hamilton’s penalty related to a move on lap 45, while Alonso’s penalty was linked to the collision on lap 46 that led him to pit at the end of the lap.
What my own lap chart (yes, I still do an old-fashioned manual chart) tells me is that the two cars collided on lap 46, when Alonso was chasing down Hamilton for third place. He had been on Prime (harder) tyres for just five laps, while Hamilton was on similar rubber, which he had been using for nine laps. Alonso thus had a tyre advantage. However, his rear wing DRS was not working so overtaking Hamilton was not going to be easy. The time sheets reveal that on lap 43 Hamilton lapped in 1m42.579s, and Alonso in 1m41.810, Fernando thus carved 0.769s off the gap on that lap and ended up just 1.3s behind his old rival. On lap 44 he sliced another 0.995s off the gap, which meant that they were just under three-tenths apart as they started the 45th lap. In terms of lap time, therefore, it is clear that Alonso was much faster than Hamilton. But could he overtake?
The 45th lap saw their times increase, as happens when drivers are fighting for position. Lewis recorded a 1m43.781s and Fernando a 1m43.721s. At the end of the lap the gap was 0.237s. Next time around Hamilton’s lap time was a 1m43.841s, a tenth slower than the previous one. Alonso pitted with a broken front wing. After that Lewis’s lap times were consistent at 1m43.770s, 1m43.617s, 1m43.587s and 1m43.556s. Damage to his car was minimal given this progression.
The stewards’ decisions are interesting for two reasons. The decision made against Alonso was the result of “a report from the Race Director”. The Stewards considered the evidence, determined that a breach of the regulations has been commited by Alonso when he caused a collision with Hamilton. That was simple enough.
In the case of Hamilton there was no mention of any report from Race Director Charlie Whiting, which means that the Stewards were probably acting because of a complaint from Ferrari as Whiting obviously did not think anything had been done wrong. The Stewards looked at the evidence and must have concluded that Ferrari was right enough about a move by Hamilton to warrant a sanction. However, it is clear from the wording that the manoeuvre would have gone without any action if someone outside Race Control had not raised the issue.
The other point to consider is that Whiting did not consider the collision to have been sufficiently serious to warrant an investigation during the race, so he must therefore have looked at it again later and decided to report the incident to the Stewards. What was that he saw that led him to take action? Did he, perhaps, suspect that Alonso ran into Hamilton deliberately, hoping to cut the McLaren driver’s rear tyre and that the move backfired and he damaged his front wing?
There is no doubt that the Stewards would have looked at Hamilton’s technical traces to make sure that he did not back off in an effort to catch out Alonso. Clearly there was no suggestion of such a thing, which begs the question, why was there an accident?
We do not know the answers to these questions and it is unlikely that we ever will, at least not “on the record”. It is easy to sit at home and blame the Stewards, but they have a great deal more information than those with a cup of tea, some biscuits and an opinion.
I do not know the answer but i will make discreet inquiries as and when that is possible…