Picture the scene: You’ve just been to watch a thrilling race, where any one of three drivers looked to be in with a shout of winning for much of it, and there was uncertainty about the outcome right up until the final lap.
Then you’ve made your way onto the grid, watched the podium ceremony surrounded by thousands of others, slowly walked off after a few photos, sat in traffic for a while but still made it downtown to grab some dinner while buzzing about the day you’ve had.
Suddenly you start to overhear strange comments and shouts of annoyance or unusual laughter… And then you’re pretty sure the word “disqualified” was said. You grab your phone and check online and there’s the news.
So it turns out there wasn’t uncertainty about the outcome right up until the final lap — there was uncertainty about the outcome right up until over three and a half hours after the checkered flag had been waved to call off the battle.
It just doesn’t seem right, does it?
Podium ceremonies are a big part of the fan experience at F1 races…which makes their being rendered irrelevant by subsequent revelations all the more of a buzz kill. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images
I’m sure at this point some of you are already busy typing “Do you not know motorsport?! Cars take time to go through technical checks!” And yes, they do. This is not a dig at the FIA, which cannot be expected to check everything on every car within seconds of a race finishing.
In fact, the technical brilliance that is inherent in Formula 1 is something that needs to be protected, but that doesn’t mean the time it took for the result to be changed on Sunday night can’t be looked at and learned from.
In some ways, it’s a tougher challenge than sporting penalties, because of how complex F1 machinery is and the level of detail that needs looking into during post-race scrutineering to ensure that cars are conforming with the technical regulations. But in other ways, it’s much easier.
As we evidenced by the decision that came out from the stewards on Sunday night, there is a zero-tolerance approach to technical breaches.
“The stewards note that the onus is on the competitor to ensure that the car is in compliance with the regulations at all times during an event,” the decision said. “In this particular case, the rear skid in the area defined in the Technical Delegate’s report was outside of the thresholds outlined in Article 3.5.9 e) of the FIA Formula One Technical Regulations, which includes a tolerance for wear. Therefore, the standard penalty for a breach of the Technical Regulations is imposed.”
And it’s not as if Mercedes or Ferrari argued that case at all. Mercedes technical director James Allison has since admitted there is embarrassment within the team for such an error that led to it being disqualified as the rules are so clear cut.
“Of course the disqualification is a significant blow,” Allison said. “It’s a miserable feeling. It hurts and everybody here feels it. Everybody is upset, embarrassed to a degree as well because we absolutely don’t like like being on the wrong side of the rules and just lamenting the lost points.
“Austin is a track with a very bumpy surface and therefore you are a bit more vulnerable to bumping the car on the ground. We just simply didn’t take enough margin at the end of Free Practice 1. When we had done our setup we checked the plank and everything all looked fine, untouched after the FP1 running.
“But the results of the race speak for themselves. We were illegal, so clearly, we should have had our car set a little bit higher up to give ourselves a little bit more margin. It’s of course a mistake — it’s an understandable sort of mistake in a sprint weekend where it’s so much harder to get that stuff right, especially on a bumpy track. But a lesson for us in the future to make sure that we take more margin, especially at a track like that with all its bumps.”
The issue I have is that if there are aspects of a car that can be worn during a race and need to be checked in terms of tolerances, and then a certain car — or two in this week’s case — is proven to be the wrong side of the line, why does it still take so long to be decided upon?
A lesson to be learned from an organizational point of view would be to inform teams they will be called immediately during parc ferme checks to discuss what has happened. There was nearly an hour and a half between Mercedes and Ferrari being summoned and the decision to disqualify both cars being published.
In cases like this, it doesn’t need to take that long. It’s obviously not going to be as simple as the FIA dropping everything to handle that specific situation at a certain time but that’s where resource and investment continues to be required. In a week where the governing body increased the maximum fine amount to competitors in F1 to over $1 million — money that is intended for grassroots motorsport — there surely can be other revenue streams found.
The Remote Operations Center (ROC) in Geneva that was established in the aftermath of the Abu Dhabi 2021 debacle has been up and running for more than a year but doesn’t appear to have had a hugely noticeable impact so far. Perhaps those in the ROC could be tasked with hearing from a team representative as quickly as possible when an issue with a car is found, allowing post-race checks to continue uninterrupted but a decision to be made more quickly.
And perhaps more importantly, there’s got to be flexibility when issues occur. Thresholds surely should be in place for when random technical checks produce multiple infringements of the same type, as was the case at COTA.
Four cars were checked across the top four teams — those of Hamilton, Leclerc, Max Verstappen and Lando Norris — and two of the four were found to be in breach of the regulations. With a 50% hit rate, checking the planks of at least one car from each team should surely become the required follow-up.
The counter argument is everything needs packing up to take to Mexico City, but then we’re in danger of seeing the desire to chase more revenue by constantly adding more races be to the detriment of the actual sporting competition itself. Maybe we’re not quite at that point yet, but that balance needs to be kept in mind.
Austin wasn’t a case of the FIA doing anything wrong — in fact, doing it right by finding discrepancies that then act as deterrents to all teams — but lessons can certainly be learned to ensure fans have a better chance of actually knowing the outcome of a race before they’ve left a track, and teams feel they’ve all been judged equally.