Op Ed: FIA’s Safety Car confusion spoils European Grand Prix

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We’ve certainly taken our shots at NASCAR here at F1B but there is one thing you have to recognize, NASCAR understands the Safety Car issues and how they can impact races. They understand how to deploy a safety car and how to square the field away in its proper running order. After today’s European Grand Prix, it seems that the pinnacle of motorsport, that is F1, still can’t figure out how to deploy a safety car and marshal the field in the proper running order.

As a Ferrari fan you may color me reactionary if you like but I do not blame their outrage at today’s race. If the roles were reversed, no doubt McLaren would be protesting loud and clear. There are many points to consider given the timing of penalties and decisions that affected a race that was continually progressing and to be fair, that is not an easy task the FIA faces.

I will assume you have watched the race for the purposes of this Op Ed and I will not cover the incidents that prompted the decisions in detail, you can read Victoria’s Race Redux and follow up story for that.

McLaren has been very quiet since the end of the race and with good reason. If I were team boss Martin Whitmarsh, I would be hunkered down and savoring a 2nd and 3rd place finish. Things happen in F1 and you take what you can get. Sometimes it works in your favor (Valencia 2010) and sometimes it doesn’t (Melbourne 2009).

The argument could be made that Lewis Hamilton served his penalty (a drive-through) for passing the safety car on the main straight while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa both fell inline behind the safety car and were penalized even more for doing so as the cars behind them all had the opportunity to dive into the pits while the Ferrari’s lumbered around for another full lap behind the safety car.

Technically speaking, there is a maximum and minimum time for the cars to return to the pit lane when a safety car is deployed. Many teams reacted quickly knowing their cars were approximately at pit entry and called for them to “box” immediately (while the Ferrari’s had just passed pit entry) without having them file behind the safety car for another lap. In the heat of the moment, I can understand how this call was made but that doesn’t justify it as the post-race 5-second penalty was assessed on those teams that ignored the safety car regulations.

In essence, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Nico Hulkenberg, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Sebastien Buemi, Pedro de la Rosa and Vitantonio Liuzzi have been penalised for “failing to stay above the minimum time set by the FIA ECU when the Safety Car was deployed.” Lewis Hamilton, who blatantly passed the safety car and ignored the yellow lights on top of the safety car was penalized with a drive-through penalty that did not affect his race. Many suggest that it was the penalty given and he served it, no harm no foul.

I don’t see Hamilton’s case quite that cut and dry to be honest. He had several laps to bang out hot laps and put a serious gap between himself and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi. Had he been penalized immediately for the safety car infraction, he most likely would have lost track position but even that isn’t to fair as legitimately he should have been just in front of Alonso in 8th place had he obeyed the regulations.

So the Safety car is important and warrants serious recognition when Schumacher makes a pass in Monaco but it is just a suggestion at Valencia? You can pass the safety car and only get a drive-through penalty many laps later allowing you to advance your position? You can ignore the minimum time back to pits and only suffer a 5-second penalty?

The safety car rules are in place for the protection of everyone and they should be taken seriously. Ultimately the teams must obey the safety car regulations or face stiff penalties unlike the ones handed down today in Valencia. You’ll recall that Schumacher garnered a 20-second penalty for passing Alonso while behind the safety car and yet Hamilton and nine other drivers receive a 10 second and five second penalty respectively? Seriously?

McLaren’s Jenson Button admitted that he dove into the pits as soon as the light came saying:

“I don’t think it’s a surprise considering the speed, but starting seventh and finishing third – I was helped out by the safety car lights coming on just as I entered the pits, so it was perfect for me, whereas the other guys had to go around another lap,” he said.

To be clear, I am not blaming Button, Hamilton, Rubens Barrichello, Nico Hulkenberg, Robert Kubica, Vitaly Petrov, Adrian Sutil, Sebastien Buemi, Pedro de la Rosa and Vitantonio Liuzzi for the issues we saw today. I am squarely placing the blame on the FIA for, after all these years and many other series to learn from, they still can’t deploy a proper safety car session and arrange the field in the proper order.

McLaren dodged a bullet today and that’s F1 but I find the argument, “Well, Ferrari have gotten away with their fair share of antics in the past so all is fair” a completely weak and shameful argument as it says that McLaren isn’t about integrity, it’s about moral relevancy and ambiguity amongst regulations and that’s all that matter to the team. The McLaren I know is better than that. They are a team of principle and I believe that even they know today’s results were suspect at the hands of a floundering FIA.

I would not join Alonso in suggesting that the race was manipulated but the FIA certainly left room for scrutiny and should attend NASCAR’s “safety car deployment 101” class to learn how to properly deploy a safety car and arrange a field of cars. Today’s result were unfortunate for Ferrari but I would not classify it as a scandal or the worst thing the FIA has done.

The FIA has some very smart people in race control but how they allowed this debacle is beyond me because I believe they are smarter than this. They should have been working with the race stewards to asses the situation quicker and reprimand those who were afoul of the safety car regulations. They are there for a reason and safety is chief among them not to mention fairness of play.

Congratulations to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilotn and Jenson Button. Honorable mentions go to Kamui Kobayashi for pulling Sauber up the grid with an inspired drive and much needed result. How does Ferrari’s main man feel? Piero Ferrari said on their website:

“I am incredulous and bitter, not just for Ferrari, but for the sport as a whole, as this is not the sort of thing one expects from professionals. For a long time now, I have also followed races in championships in the United States, where the appearance of the Safety Car is a frequent occurrence, but I have never seen anything similar to what happened today at the Valencia circuit. If it raises some doubts over the actions that led to a false race, to me that would seem more than reasonable.”

What do the rest of the team have to say about the race?

Stefano Domenicali: “The outcome of this Grand Prix leaves us with a very bitter taste. We had everything we needed to clinch a good result and we have ended up with a handful of points which is even less than we brought home from our worst race, a month ago in Turkey. It is a real shame because over this weekend we have shown that we have made a good step forward in terms of performance and the opening stage of the race looked promising. Then came the unfortunate blow linked to the safety car period, which arrived at the very worst moment for us in that both our cars had just gone past the pit lane entry and therefore were forced to do a full lap behind the Safety Car. And that definitely compromised our race. I think that the incidents linked to the neutralisation put some questions on the table regarding how to manage situations like this and the eventual penalties linked to them. We have to ensure that our sport remains credible in the eyes of those involved and those who follow it, at the track and in front of their TV screens.”

Fernando Alonso: “The race was ruined by the Safety Car and everything that followed on from that. I am disappointed most of all for the thousands of spectators who were here today and saw how the situation was handled. I am very bitter about what happened today. I was in third place, a metre behind Hamilton at the moment the Safety Car came out on track and, at the chequered flag, he was second and I was ninth, even though we had made the same choice of strategy. The penalty he was given came when it could no longer have any real influence on his finishing position. From then on, my race was compromised. I was always in traffic and I did not get the performance I had expected from the hard tyres: this also explains the difficulty I had in passing first Sutil and then Buemi. This is definitely a bad result for us, but I still hang onto the idea that we will do the maths at the end, in Abu Dhabi: incidents we have no control over will be made up for. We must continue to work and push on the car development front to try and be the quickest on the track.”

Felipe Massa: “Another horrible race on the back of the one in Canada. We were lying third and fourth with cars capable of getting a great result and instead, everyone has seen how it ended. On the lap when the accident happened, we were coming into the final corner and there was nothing, then suddenly, the Safety Car came out on track and I saw in the mirrors that the cars behind us were pitting: our chance of fighting for the podium went up in smoke at that moment. The difference between us and Hamilton is that he committed an infraction and we did not, but his penalty had no effect on his result. I think that errors were made in the way this situation was managed. From then on, our race was practically one long procession in traffic with no chance of changing anything. A real shame because today we could have done really well.”

Chris Dyer: “We are very disappointed with the outcome of this race. The arrival of the Safety Car on track ruined what should have been a very good race for us, given the potential at our disposal. It is very, very difficult to overtake at this track therefore our race was totally compromised by an innocuous occurrence like a Safety Car period. In performance terms, this weekend has shown that we have made a step forward, but at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do to be where we want to be.”

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