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How do you give a small penalty? - The stewards need more choice of sanctions in their arsenal

Published by Stuart Taylor

One of the major problems in F1 that never really seems to get addressed is the fact that, in the middle of the race, the smallest punishment a driver can get is the race-ruining drive-through penalty. Some drivers, like Webber in Germany last year, can overcome a drive-through if they have enough of a car advantage, but often you'll see drivers plummeting down the field only to mope around the press-pen after the race, muttering about what could have been.

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Credit: Daimler AG

Don't get me wrong: often a drive-through is fully deserved. Dangerous manoeuvres and sneaky acts like cutting chicanes need to be heavily discouraged. However, do silly slip-ups and minor transgressions require such a heavy blow to their race? Such acts can give and take championships. Ask Montoya, who in the 2003 US GP was given a highly contested drive-through penalty for making an over-enthusiastic move on Barrichello and fell out of the championship chase as a result.

So what other potential options are available to the stewards?

Idea 1: Drive-throughs with variable 'due laps'

At present the rules state that a driver must serve a drive-through or stop-and-go penalty within three laps of the penalty being given.

Rosberg sat in second place for enough laps to build such a lead that he lost a net zero positions

However, we have seen that if there is a delay from the stewards in announcing the punishment then a driver can use that extra time to open a gap to his competitors in order to reduce the effect of the penalty. This was notable with Rosberg in the 2008 Singapore GP when the stewards were too busy dealing with Piquet's phantom crash to affect his punishment for a pitlane infringement. Rosberg sat in second place for enough laps to build such a lead that he lost a net zero positions. More recently, Ferrari got into a hissy fit when Hamilton accidentally(ish) overtook the safety car due to his own confusion and got a zero-effect drive-through due to a steward delay. In both cases, one could argue that the “crimes” were hardly worthy of such a large punishment.

So stewards could potentially choose to vary the number of laps in which a driver must serve his penalty (possibly including the laps already passed since the rule infringement). A greater number of laps would be more lenient as the longer a period of time a driver has to serve his penalty, the more flexibly a team can strategically minimise the impact. Maybe they'll push like hell to build up a large gap; maybe they'll pull an early pitstop to get their driver into clean air and then push.

Of course, these penalties become increasingly inapplicable towards the end of the race. If the penalty is “serve your drive-through within 8 laps” and there are 7 laps to go, you can see the obvious problem. But don't fret – there are more options!

Idea 2: Variety of post-race time penalties declared during the race

At present, if an incident occurs too late in the race for the “very busy” stewards (what are they doing anyway?) to announce a penalty, they will instead inflict a 20 or 30 second penalty in lieu of a drive-through or stop-and-go penalty respectively. They are limited to these two large penalties only because they represent the large in-race penalties, but in this new world the stewards needn't be limited.

So how about the stewards now give a range of time-penalties, post-race? They could be set in increments of five seconds if the stewards are baffled by too much choice (is there anything they aren't baffled by?). But here's the interesting bit: don't wait until after the race! Announce the post race penalty during the race. This way we can see Alonso with a ten-second penalty in hand fighting to pull out enough of a margin in the remaining laps for the penalty not to be devastating. Isn't that exciting?

People might say it makes things too complicated but I believe not only are the commentators and onscreen graphics more than able to explain the narrative, but I don't buy that the average viewer is too stupid to understand a more complex sport. I'm tired of hearing that sports viewers are turned off by anything more complex than whether a ball goes into a goal or not.

Idea 3: A penalty 'limiter button'

All the cars are already fitted with a “pitlane limiter” that stops them exceeding a certain speed in the pitlane, for safety reasons. There was talk a few years back , when they were revising the safety car rules, of fitting a 'safety car button' to slow the cars down when the safety car is deployed. Instead they chose to close the pit lane under the safety car, which lead to people being arbitrarily penalised if they were low on fuel. Oh look, we've come full circle.

Anyway, they still haven't fitted a safety car button – now drivers are asked to meet delta times of their own accord: a system so difficult to achieve that it has again led to drivers being arbitrarily puni-- Arrrrgghhh!

Why not fit a speed-(or rev)-limiting button to the cars that the drivers must activate for a given period of time upon being punished? It's an instant punishment and we can immediately get back to racing. It's the racing equivalent of a throw-in or a free kick. Short and effective.

The disadvantage clearly is that the drivers could pick a part of the circuit that minimises the impact of the limiter button. This is semi-easily “overcome” by having a 'punishment zone' – a pre-determined area of track in which the button must be pushed; the pit straight seems an obvious choice as every circuit has one.

Concluding thoughts

So there we have it. In a short amount of time I have come up with three simple solutions potentially worth considering. Due to their short conception time, they are probably littered with difficulties but as the existing penalties seem to result in furious debate every time they are enacted, I can't have done much worse, surely.

A final point, worth mentioning: all of these suggestions require the stewards to actually get a bloody move on with their decisions. If their decisions come after 433 separate Sidepodcast live comments screaming for reprimand then it's clearly not fast enough!