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Confusion reigns over Vettel's safety car incident - Debate rages after the Red Bull driver was penalised

Published by Mr. C

As ever, during the days that follow a Grand Prix, Sidepodcast's comments are alive with discussion of the incidents that shaped Sunday's race. Of interest to me today, is that whilst I thought a mid-race drive through penalty awarded to Sebastian Vettel was a cut and dried affair, many people saw it differently.

Asleep at the wheel, Vettel throws away certain victory.
Asleep at the wheel, Vettel throws away certain victory.Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

How it happened

The story leading up to Vettel's penalty begins on lap 1 of the race, when Force India's Tonio Liuzzi damaged his front wing at the first corner. The initial damage coupled with extended vibration and load eventually caused the left end plate to fall clean off of the wing, depositing it on the racing line 15 laps into the Grand Prix. This necessitated the deployment of the safety car.

Race leader Sebastian was given the call to pit at the very last second, he was followed in by Alonso behind him. Team mate Mark Webber who had been jumped by the Ferrari at the start, was left out to gain track position and clear air. He found himself at the head of the safety car queue, while Vettel being the first man in and out of the pit lane, formed an orderly queue behind the Australian.

Once the all clear was given, the safety car returned to the pits and as is always the case, the driver at the head of the queue can dictate the pace of the field until he reaches the first safety car line. Usually when this happens, the lead driver backs the rest of the pack up, slowing everyone down before being the first man on the throttle and off into the distance.

For whatever reason that didn't happen in Hungary, Mark stayed glued to the rear bumper of the safety car, never attempting to slow the field down. His actions caused a napping Vettel to fall a long way behind the pack. Too far in fact, putting him in breach of the sporting regulations Article 40.9, which requires driver to stay tight to those in front of them.

NB: It's worth mentioning that the penalty came from the stewards for a breach of regulations at 14:29 (local time). Cross referencing this time with Sidepodcast's Factbyte Factbox coverage, confirms the penalty was given for falling too far behind just before the race restart, rather than at the beginning of the previous lap as FOM television coverage suggested at the time.

What Webber did

It's impossible to guess why Mark opted to run a different pace car strategy. Maybe he saw his teammate was asleep and figured he'd eek out more of advantage by disappearing as fast as possible. Maybe he knew the rulebook well enough to deliberately force his team's number one driver into making a mistake.

On lap 29 of the Hungarian Grand Prix, race stewards awarded Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel a drive through penalty for "Exceeding 10 car lengths behind Safety Car". A fuming and very confused Vettel served his drive through 2 laps later, gesticulating his frustration in the direction of his pitwall. On the radio, the driver sounded baffled as to the reason for his penalty.

At the end of the race, a still angry and third placed Sebastian was ordered over the radio to "take a deep breath and calm down". During the post race press conference he looked angry and confused, stating:

I didn't understand what was going on and why I was penalised. It was a question mark for me. I didn't understand at the time [...] At the re-start I was sleeping. I was probably relying too much on the radio but somewhere in the first stint I Iost the radio connection and I didn't hear anything.

- Sebastian Vettel

A tough day for the pole sitter and one time race leader.

Explain that call

Formula 1 stewards regularly make a fist of the regulations, but here I think they made a decent call, with the Red Bull driver falling foul of the following regulation:

40.9: Once behind the safety car, the race leader must keep within ten car lengths of it and all remaining cars must keep the formation as tight as possible.

- 2010 FIA Sporting Regulations

The only notable exception to this rule, is for the last lap of the race, in which case the safety car will return to the pits whilst cars cross the line for a vanity finish. We saw an amendment made to this ruling earlier in the year, when Mercedes GP and Michael Schumacher tried to exploit a loophole and gain an advantage on the last corner of the last lap in Monaco.

What isn't clear from reading the regulations is how close all the cars behind the leader must be to each other. The wording "as tight as possible" is intentionally left open to interpretation because there likely exists no reasonable means of measuring the gap between each of the 24 cars at all times when queuing. It's up to the stewards to interpret the regulation as they see fit, which in this case meant a gap of no more than 10 car lengths.

Updated: In the comments, Acecil notes that article 40.7 specifically states: All competing cars must then reduce speed and form up in line behind the safety car no more than ten car lengths apart. This seems like a more appropriate article to cite when handing out this particular penalty.

Why does the rule exist?

Sunday highlighted exactly why 40.9 needs to exist in the regulations. Red Bull could easily have played the team game, asking Vettel to back up the pack to offer Webber the best chance of extending his lead, giving him enough time to pit and rejoin the race in front of then third placed Fernando Alonso.

The team could have timed it such that Vettel regained the lead and they finished an easy 1-2. F1 fans, already feeling cheated by Ferrari's actions in Germany a week earlier, would not have welcomed yet more race fixing with open arms.

Did the stewards decision come quick enough?

To me the stewards made the correct call during the race. We've criticised them in the past for being slow to call a driver in for a drive through already this year, but with much going on following a number of pit lane incidents I believe they did a reasonable job in this instance.

  • Lap 17: Infringement occurred
  • Lap 25: Driver under investigation
  • Lap 29: Penalty given
  • Lap 32: Penalty taken

Four laps between investigation and penalty, although still 12 laps from the time the incident originally happened.

Should drivers know every F1 regulation?

As noted above, Vettel was suffering from radio problems during the race, and blamed this partially for him not being aware of the situation unfolding. The question is, do modern drivers rely too much on team assistance and are they destined to fall down every time they experience radio issues? Should every driver know the rule book inside out and back to front?

I got the impression from TV footage shown prior to the podium ceremony that Mark Webber knew exactly what Vettel had done wrong, and maybe had pushed him into that very situation. Let's not forget that these two teammates are anything but best friends forever right now, with Webber considering himself to be the unfavoured son in Milton Keynes. Could Webber's knowledge of the sporting regulations have secured him a victory on Sunday?

Whatever the case, Mr Vettel comes out of this as something of a halfwit, who's asleep at the wheel and relies on his team for too much support.

World Champions are made of stronger stuff.