Penalties, drivers whinging and Stare Decisis

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In common law systems, Stare Decisis is the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent. Sure, it’s become popular in recent American political debate but I’m not interested in that conversation. What I am interested in is the case of stare decisis in the FIA technical and sporting regulations with regards to penalties given to drivers or teams.

With Sebastian Vettel’s recent penalty in Austria during the Qualifying 2 session for impeding a driver (Carlos Sainz) but ultimately not preventing that driver from making it to the final qualifying session (Q3), questions were raised. Should the FIA be distributing penalties for the actual action or the result of an action. Meaning that, in this case, since Sainz did make it through to Q3, should a penalty have been assessed at all? It could, after all, impact the world championship directly as Vettel is a legitimate contender for the title.

Vettel believes that the penalties and increased number of penalties for incidents such as these are due to the drivers, himself included, whining about every little incident.

“I wasn’t told, I tried to look out for him, I don’t want to drag on about it, but… The rule book’s now so fricking big,” he said.

“I think it’s a result of all the drivers, all of us, I think we’ve more or less all been there, whinging and complaining, ‘oh he’s done this, he’s done that’.

“In the end you should let us sort it out on track, that’s my belief.”

That may or may not be true and I’ll let you consider that with your inside voice. However, it prompted FIA race director Charlie Whiting to say the following:

“I think it was deserved. Completely consistent with other decisions”.

“The impact was low, so if you wanted to take that path of trying to assess the implications of the actual incident then you could say, in effect, ‘no harm, no foul’,” he said.

“But that’s not something we are thinking about [at the moment]. We are thinking about talking about it, but it’s not something we do presently.”

Two issues to consider for me. First, stare decisis. The fact that it was consistent with other penalties is a major issue for Formula 1. The lack of consistency has been a bugbear of the series for decades and fans are very frustrated by that just as they are when it happens in other sports. Also, the last thing they want to do is engage in outcome-based penalties. That is a very bad and slippery slope they do not want to go down.

In the case of Vettel, I think the penalty was the right call because of stare decisis and the precedent set for penalties assessed for similar actions. Thinking like that leads to consistency regardless of the title battle or driver in question or outcome. That’s the way it should work and this is coming from a Ferrari fan no less.

Now, where stare decisis could be reviewed is also an issue. Just like American common law systems, stare decisis may exist in a legal case but it is not written on a rock if a future court finds the interpretation of the ruling outside of the regulatory framework.

In the case of Vettel, they may have made the right call but if that call has a precedent but lacks legitimacy for being a penalty due to being outside the regulatory framework the race stewards are using to render judgement of the race on, then it should be either removed or altered with levels of punitive actions available to them.

The point is that precedent doesn’t always mean that it is a good regulation or one that should remain or perhaps one that should be amended or changed so that it fits better into the framework of the regulations or minimizes the impact on the stakeholders involved.

Times change and even though there is precedent, that doesn’t mean it can’t be changed if the FIA deem it to contravene the regulations or produce a result that is untoward to the racing series in general. There are enough court cases in America to show where previous precedents are not written on a rock as future courts have found them to be outside the legal framework or interpreted incorrectly.

I’m not suggesting that impeding a driver during qualifying is not fitting of a penalty or that it isn’t within the regulatory framework, I’m saying that just because stare decisis exists within F1, doesn’t mean those precedents are to be written on a rock and never changing. Regulations have changed quite a bit over time but if the FIA are looking at opening up outcome-based penalties instead of re-working the actual actions of the infraction, that’s not the right way to go.

It would be better to look at the full implication of the act of impeding another driver and considering if the current penalty available is still applicable, achieves the desired effect and the overall efficacy of the penalty based upon measured results. Precedent or not, the penalties in F1 should always be considered in their entirety even if they’ve been liberally applied in the past like too much bleu cheese dressing over a small wedge salad.

Hat Tip: Autosport

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saviour stivala

“a penalty that could effect the championship should not be imposed unless it’s flagrand. in the case of Vettel it was not. shame”. Mario Andretti.

Alianora La Canta

In Britain, stare decidis more or less is written on a rock, unless a court or Parliament can find a very good reason for it not to be. (Note also that in Scotland, it’s allowed to consider other common-law courts which have had similar cases when deciding if such a thing has happened – so a sufficiently persusasive American court’s judgment could potentially affect Scottish interpretation of law). It’s more or less why the British system got known as “common law” in the first place. So this may not be helping the FIA’s cause with the British press, if the… Read more »


It seems like an easy solution to the consistency problem would be to have the same exact team of stewards at race control for every weekend. In leagues like the NBA and NFL, it’s well known that different officiating crews tend to call different games. And those leagues need to have a large number of crews available, since they can have a dozen or more games played on the same day. F1 doesn’t have that problem–there is only one event going on at a time, usually once every two weeks. There’s no reason you can’t assemble a group of the… Read more »

Meine Postma

I think a precedence is written in stone. That is the whole principle, to prevent looking into the same issues again and again and to keep decisions consistent.

Maybe a lawyer finds this interesting, is Max Mosley still around?

For me personally, just give a standard penalty that is equal for everybody, and given at once. If a driver manages to still get a good result: that only makes the racing better.

And do not change penalties after passage of time! That way you undermine the whole system and create very foggy rules.


I’m for penalties based on action. The FIA have sometimes selectively enforced penalties which in some cases influenced championships so a certain driver would not be in contention (I’m thinking Senna in Japan). What I am not in favor of is not enforcing penalties solely for the reason of ‘it affects the championship’. All penalties affect someone’s chances at the championship, whose are more important, the top 3, top 5, top 10? To me a penalty is a penalty. Now, if the action has no material affect on what was happening around that person I can see giving the stewards… Read more »