Not another Gate! Schumacher penalty is wrong…here’s why

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There was certainly drama at the Monaco Grand Prix today and while, as Monaco grand prix go, it was a good race with some action on track, perhaps the biggest action was the last lap pass Mercedes GP driver Michael Schumacher put on Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. The move was not well received and Schumacher was handed a 20-second penalty which is effectively a drive-through penalty but as it was the last lap, no drive-through could be served. We saw this type of penalty in 2008 involving Lewis Hamilton at Spa Francochamps.

As has been posted, and said on TV many times already, the regulations that were used to justify the penalty were the FIA Sporting Regulation 40.13 regarding the Safety car deployment:

“If the race ends while the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.”

This seems quite clear to be sure and as Vick argued here, I could understand the legal perspective and notion that this is indeed a proper penalty. I, however, am not convinced this is a cut and dried case. I think there is nuance and dodgy regulation verbiage that have created this situation. Before we explore the very fact that only Schumacher and Brawn would find a suspect loop hole and try to exploit it while all the other teams are playing fair, I think it warrants a few exoneration’s up front.

First, leave Damon hill alone folks. He is a man of integrity and I seriously do not think his former tussle with Schumacher had anything to do with karma, ill will or malicious intent on Hill’s part to penalize Schumacher. A challenge was made and the stewards have to render a decision. You’ll recall that the stewards have very little they can do to mete out punishment during a grand prix. While Hill may loath Schumacher, His integrity is on the line if he were to render some nonsensical penalty that could be construed as retribution. Hill is a better man that that.

Basically the stewards of a race can asses a drive-through penalty, a 10-second penalty or any number of grid positions for the drivers next race. That’s it. If the first two penalties are chosen within the last five laps of a grand prix, the punishment will default to a 20-second penalty assessed to the drivers finishing position time. This is what happened to Schumacher.

Secondly, the crux of the argument: The new regulations that were instituted this year regarding moving the safety car line. Mercedes GP team boss Ross Brawn explains:

“”There’s a regulation which is new this year that says you can race between safety car line one and the start/finish line,” Brawn told the BBC. “The race used to finish on the start/finish line. Now I think the point Stefano [Domenicali] is raising is it says that if the race finishes under the safety car you are not allowed to do that.

“But we were advised before the end of the race that the safety car was coming in. There was no instruction that the race was going to finish under the safety car, so for us as soon as we got the instruction ’safety car in this lap’ at 15:51 we considered the race was now on again.

“At 15:52 we were told the track was clear and and at 15:53 was the chequered flag. So, from the instructions we have from the FIA, the safety car was coming in on the final lap but the race wasn’t finishing under the safety car and it’s a very important distinction so we advised our drivers that they could still race between safety car line one and the start/finish line.

“And I think you saw the reaction of all the other drivers. If what Stefano has said was true, they would just cruise to the start/finish line because they knew they couldn’t be overtaken, but everyone went for it and I’m afraid Fernando was a little asleep and we took advantage.”

The tertiary point in this mess is that the FIA are ultimately to blame as the ambiguous regulations regarding the new safety car line versus the old start/finish line is culprit. One has to assume that regulation 40.13 is still in force and was kept so to prevent using the new safety car line in the last lap of a race. But that isn’t what the regulations say. They seem very clear about the last lap finishing under the safety car. Brawn has a point in that the race, according to the lights being green on track and the new regulation regarding the racing can start at the safety car line is a compelling argument.

I understand both regulations but due to the lack of clarification, the regulations contradict each other. Most importantly would be to see the new safety car line regulations, mentioned by Brawn, in writing. Do they mention anything about the safety car line in the waning laps of a race? Do they mention that this new line is negating if it is the last lap?

To me, the appropriate penalty would have been to place Schumacher back in his position just prior to the incident. This would place him behind Alonso in 7th place. However, the stewards don’t have that choice as one of the three penalties they can apply. The lightest penalty they could apply was the very one they issued to Schumacher today at Monaco.

In the end, I believe the penalty was wrong because I think the FIA needs to hear the case and either correct the positions due to the ambiguity and misunderstanding of the regulations or render the situation fair and give Schumacher the position. Is it dubious or any surprise that the Brawn/Schumacher teams have made a move on an ambiguous regulation in order to exploit it? Of course not, they have a rich history of handing the FIA their backsides due to weakly written regulations…I offer the dual diffuser 2009 as the most recent evidence of such.

Some have argued that you cannot appeal the penalty and Mercedes GP, as well as the FIA, have made it clear that Mercedes GP is not appealing the penalty. They are appealing the decision. It also should be noted that the Schumacher detractors who are waving flags of Rascasse Redux are missing the point that it was a team order that he agreed with and felt was accurate. The team made the decision and this was not Schumacher acting alone and with reckless abandon. He could have chosen not to take the teams advice to pass Alonso but he also felt the decision was correct and I am not sure I can blame him.

Monaco was a good race but yet again, the FIA have managed to look a tad silly with conflicting regulations. Odd to me that a group of lawyers running the FIA still manage to shoot themselves in the foot with the regulations. The old school notion of leaving the regulations purposefully ambiguous so the Mosley-led governing body could render judgment at the time based upon its own whims and in the interest of the series has come to bite us all on the bum once again. Perhaps Todt’s new regime could take on the task of vetting the regulations, finding ambiguity and clarifying the Mosley-era loop holes and nonsense. If they don’t, Mercedes GP’s Brawn and Schumacher might force them to…one incident at a time.

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