Why penalties can’t decide championships

Sebastian Vettel in the press conference room at the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix.

Sebastian Vettel said on the Thursday before the Austrian Grand Prix that mistakes rather than moments of individual brilliance would decide his championship fight with Lewis Hamilton. His words appeared prophetic when the stewards handed him a grid penalty on Saturday night.

The infringement was minor but nonetheless careless. Having finished a flying lap in Q2, the German was on a slow-down lap en route to the pits when Carlos Sainz rapidly closed in on the back of the Ferrari at turn one.

Vettel had positioned himself on the racing line on the exit of the corner, forcing Sainz to take evasive action off the circuit as he powered away from the apex.

Despite the near miss both drivers progressed to Q3, where Vettel qualified third and Sainz qualified ninth, but the stewards summoned both to a hearing after the session, and two hours later they handed down their judgement: Vettel was guilty of unnecessarily impeding Sainz and warranted a three-place grid drop and a penalty point.

Vettel had protested that he couldn’t see Sainz in his mirrors and that the team hadn’t warned him of his presence, and Sainz agreed, but the stewards didn’t believe the excuse was sufficiently mitigating.

“It is the belief of the stewards that, notwithstanding the absence of a radio call, [Vettel], being aware of the issue of rear vision with his mirrors, should not have been so slow and on the race line during a slow-down lap in qualification.

“Having reviewed all alleged impeding incidents since the beginning of 2016, the penalty of a drop of three grid positions is consistent with all other similar incidents.”

But the reasoning submitted by the stewards in slapping Ferrari driver with a penalty wasn’t enough for everyone, with some complaining that it would have undue influence on the championship fight, especially given Sainz wasn’t negatively affected as a result.

One such individual was 1978 world champion Mario Andretti, who tweeted in the aftermath that an incidental breaching of the rules shouldn’t be enough to incur a penalty for a title contender.

Andretti’s opinion was by no means unique, with fans in some quarters backing the Lotus champion — and it’s tempting to buy into his point of view, particularly with F1 still struggling to emerge from its Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton hegemony and especially considering Ferrari already appeared to be on the back foot in Austria.

Indeed penalties have been handed out according to the same logic in the past, albeit in reverse. When Romain Grosjean was given a one-race ban for causing the first-turn smash at the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix the stewards noted that “it eliminated leading championship contenders from the race” in their reasoning.

Results, wins, championships being decided behind closed doors by administrators is anathema to sport fans, who want their narratives written on the natural field of battle. With overtaking particularly difficult in the current era of Formula One and the prospect of Vettel struggling to progress from sixth very real, the idea that the seven points he could’ve lost indirectly through the penalty deciding a closely contested championship was detestable.

Unfortunately for Andretti and those in his camp on this issue, however, deciding penalties based on championship contention is a strategy rife with problems.

For one, the approach is open to misapplication. Who is in title contention today won’t necessarily be in contention tomorrow and vice versa, making the weighting of early season penalties particularly fraught with risk.

Second, penalties are graduated, making the threshold at which an offence is serious enough to warrant a penalty for a championship contender only a further administrative grey area for the sport to grapple with. That stewards rotate from race to race heightens the possibility for inconsistency.

Third, it simply isn’t fair. The championship is series drawcard, but teams and drivers not competing for the major prize are still racing for position in the constructors standings, which brings with it much-needed prize money, and in the drivers standings, which brings with it career progression. To penalise some and not others would be grossly unfair.

If the problem with penalising title contenders is that it could potentially affect the outcome of a sporting contest, surely what amounts to giving leading teams and drivers preferential treatment devalues the sport in the first place. This is why Vettel deserved his penalty — and why he and his rival frontrunners ought not count on stewards giving them a free pass just for the sake of entertainment.