When a Pass is a Fail

An old issue reared its head again during this weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix.  The issue is whether or not to penalize a driver who completes a pass by going totally outside the white lines that mark the boundary of the track edge.  I saw lots of commentary on Twitter from fans and journalists alike regarding one particular pass this weekend: The pass by Romain Grosjean on Felipe Massa at Turn 4.

First, let’s look at the governing rules from the 2013 Formula One Sporting Regulations:


Drivers must use the track at all times. For the avoidance of doubt the white lines defining the 
track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.
A driver will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with the 

Should a car leave the track the driver may rejoin, however, this may only be done when it is 
safe to do so and without gaining any advantage.

A driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.

The key phrase here is “without gaining any advantage.

Grosjean was driving very well, and could potentially have pushed Hamilton for the win had things continued to go well.  Unfortunately, his ambitious pass, which was certainly exciting to watch, resulted in a Stewards’ investigation and ultimately a drive through penalty.  On board video clearly showed Grosjean had 4 wheels outside the white lines.

Most of the opinions voiced in opposition of Grosjean’s penalty fell into two camps.  First is the “Grosjean was only out by a few inches and it was a great pass” argument.  Well, out is out.  And as great a pass as it was, if we are asking the Stewards to bring the quality of the pass into consideration then we might as well throw away the rules and hire figure skating judges.

Second, is the “Massa didn’t give Grosjean any room, so he would have collided with Massa if he didn’t go off” argument.  Circuits have changed significantly in the last decade. Many corners are paved with generous run off areas.  Gone are the large lagoons of gravel that used to trap wayward drivers.  The risks for pushing the limits in a corner are much lower than they used to be.  This is resulting in drivers trying to pass in places and situations where they have a safe place to bail out of things don’t turn out well.  And I think it’s an unintended consequence of trying to make circuits safer by replacing gravel with asphalt.  But because of this, it’s even more important for the Stewards to watch carefully for abuses in passing in a corner.

It would appear that Grosjean reasonably concluded in a split second that his car and Massa’s were not going to fit in the same spot.  Passing on the outside comes with some increased risk.  As Grosjean drifted to the outside, he prevented a collision by leaving the circuit and gave himself the speed to complete the pass on Massa.

But this is where he, and his team, made the important mistake.  You cannot leave the circuit and gain an advantage.  And gaining a position is most definitely an advantage.  Ask Lewis Hamilton about his pass on Kimi Räikkönen in Spa back in 2008. Lewis cut the Bus Stop Chicane and passed Kimi only to cede the position back knowing that he’d be in deep trouble if he didn’t.  Of course, it wasn’t over there, and the Stewards came to the bizarre conclusion that he didn’t give back “enough”.  But that’s another issue.

In my opinion, Grosjean gained an advantage by passing on the outside and leaving the limits of the track.  He returned with an advantage that he did not surrender.  It ultimately robbed him of a possible podium and us of a great battle.  The Stewards showed consistency in penalizing him for this.  The Regulations are clear.  A drive through penalty required if there are more than five laps remaining in the race, otherwise 20 seconds is added to the driver’s time.  So those arguing that it was a “harsh” penalty need to understand that the Stewards don’t get to invent penalties to suit the moment.

The consistency issue is more interesting when considering other situations where drivers leave the circuit.  A time advantage is also important.  If you continually cut some corners each lap you can eat into a competitor’s lead.  When this is done egregiously, the guilty party’s team will often get a call from Charlie Whiting warning them to behave.  It’s not clear how closely the FIA and the Stewards monitor this behaviour.  With 22 cars and 20+ corners at some circuits it’s going to be difficult to police.  I suspect violations are largely reported by team spotters watching their competitors.

Some people advocate eliminating the safe runoff areas to increase the risks.  I’m not sure that’s where we want to go as a sport from a safety perspective.  I’d rather see complaints about harsh penalties than ambulances.  But it is an interesting issue, and ultimately one of balance.



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