F1's penalty problems: just because it’s popular doesn’t make it right


Sebastian Vettel scored another popular podium finish but his team's breaking of rules cannot be ignored says Chris Medland, despite fan outcry

Sebastian Vettel, 2021 Hungarian GP

Vettel's Hungarian podium was a feel good story but rules are rules

Florion Goga - Pool/Getty Images

The Hungarian Grand Prix is a great race to look back on, but it’s one that is providing ongoing storylines as Aston Martin tries to get Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification overturned and his second place reinstated.

P2 for Vettel was a great result, especially given how his last few years have gone. Sure, he scored the same finish in Baku, but to see him threatening to win a race again was an exciting prospect for pretty much anyone who is a fan of Formula 1.

And that’s what made the later news that he was going to be disqualified so disappointing. It had been a bit of a fairytale afternoon with the Enstone team winning again courtesy of Esteban Ocon’s maiden victory, as well as Vettel’s performance. But it turned out that, as the results stand, the race we’d watched was between one legal and one illegal car.

But just because it’s a massive shame Vettel looks set to lose his second place doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision or even unfair.

I know I should be careful not to read too much into Twitter, but the reaction of so many fans in my mentions was one of anger at the FIA, that the penalty is far too harsh and is even only being imposed to help Lewis Hamilton gain more points over Max Verstappen.

I get it. Emotions were running high after Silverstone and there’s a clear divide between fans of each championship contender. Plus Vettel has become more and more of a fan favourite for his willingness to speak openly and honestly and attempts to make the world a better place – including clearing up rubbish in the grandstands after the British Grand Prix – that is all happening as he enjoys a new lease of life outside Ferrari.

And seeing him score big results with a new team is a feel-good story for so many people, but that’s not how you decide the outcome of infringements.


F1 race director Michael Masi and race stewards have come under scrutiny in recent races for penalty decisions

At this point I should add the caveat that Aston Martin might still push ahead with its appeal against the disqualification, but given the wording used by the stewards’ in their decision to reject the request for a right to review the penalty, it looks a tall order to overturn the result.

“In the original decision, the Stewards only assumed the fact that there was not enough fuel in the tank,” the stewards wrote. “The question of what caused that situation was left out of consideration. Art. 6.6 in its entirety and Art. 6.6.2 of the F1 Technical Regulations unequivocally calls for a remaining amount of 1 litre and does not allow any exceptions under which circumstances or for what reasons it could be dispensed with.

“Therefore, for the assessment of whether or not the 1-litre requirement was broken, it does not make a difference why there was less than 1 litre. There may be a couple of explanations why at the end of a race the remaining amount is insufficient. In any case, it remains the sole responsibility of the Competitor to ensure that the car is in conformity with the regulations all times (Art. 3.2 FIA International Sporting Code) and it shall be no defence to claim that no performance advantage was obtained (Art 1.3.3 FIA International Sporting Code). 

“In order to be able to affirm a ‘relevant’ fact, Aston Martin would have had to present facts that actually more than 1 litre of fuel was remaining. The explanation why this requirement could not be met is not relevant to the decision as to whether a breach of the regulations has occurred.”

And from that, it’s hard to see how Aston Martin will be able to put up much of a fight. Good luck to the team if it does so – in such complex situations there might well be a valid argument to be made – but as things stand Vettel hasn’t been hard done by, he’s been rightly disqualified.

The blame for the car being illegal rests with Aston Martin and Aston Martin alone. Clearly it wasn’t intentional, but it’s a reliability issue, just like any other failure. While watching the power unit give up or a hydraulic leak bring the car to a stop on track is a clear and obvious race-ending problem, a fuel system failure is just the same, only the timing of it made the car illegal at the end of the race rather than forced it to come to a halt during it.

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On many occasions common sense is suggested as a reason why something should or shouldn’t be penalised – for example Verstappen stated that’s what should have been used to decide Hamilton’s penalty for their collision in Silverstone – but the can of worms that would be opened by doing so is enormous.

Regulations need to be as black and white as possible. Once you start building in exceptions and grey areas then that only leads to more opportunities to argue in and around them. If Vettel’s disqualification was overturned because the fuel system failure was deemed unfortunate or unintentional, then teams will start pushing the limits further, claiming failures and pointing to such a precedent.

It has been this way for so long. Breaches of technical regulations lead to exclusion because the emphasis is firmly on the teams to ensure their cars are legal at all times. F1 cars are so complex that the FIA can’t check the legality of every single item in detail after every session or race, but that doesn’t make it unfair if a team gets caught doing something it shouldn’t be just because it hedged its bets that it wouldn’t be checked.

That’s one of the reasons why one car is picked out after each race for further physical inspection by the FIA, to try and keep them in line.

Common sense doesn’t come into it. That’s a different concept to different people and so would never work. More often than not, such a solution is suggested because the normal application of the rule is going to ruin the romantic story, just as it does with Vettel.

That won’t always be the case, and that’s what we need to remember. Just as Vettel looks set to lose his second place, there’s the same chance he will benefit from a similar situation in future. It doesn’t matter who benefits to a greater or lesser degree – just like driving infringements the outcome of the penalty is irrelevant – it’s a rule applied in a consistent manner.

It’s a shame, but it’s not wrong.