Lando Norris had to be penalised at the Austrian GP — for the sake of F1 racing


Lando Norris's penalty for running Sergio Perez off the road at the Austrian GP was widely criticised, but stewards made the right decision on this occasion, writes Chris Medland

Sergio Perez, Lando Norris 2021 Austrian GP

Norris was handed a five-second time penalty for forcing Perez off the track at Turn Four

Andrek Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Unpopular opinion time: I thought the stewards were right to give Lando Norris a penalty at the start of the Austrian Grand Prix.

I know, I know, “It’s just hard racing”, “Where was he meant to go?”, “You’re telling them not to race then”.

I’m paraphrasing, but those are all comments I’ve seen in retaliation for those who don’t agree. And before I go any further, I LOVE the fact that we don’t all agree on it. Debating these things never ends with anyone satisfied with the outcome – our arguments are never going to change it anyway – but it shows the passion people have for the sport that they are driven to strongly voice their opinion on what happened between two racing drivers on a Sunday afternoon.

So you’ll be pleased to know that while you’re about to get my opinion on the incidents – and may well disagree with it – it’s not actually the main point of this column. But we’ll get to the main point in a bit.

Hard racing would be squeezing him onto the kerb. Running him fully off the road isn’t right.

Given the restart was a rolling one, and Norris had already pushed Sergio Perez wide at Turn One, I feel like we’d moved past the point of just letting them all get on with it in the way the stewards are particularly lenient at the start. It was a straight fight between Norris and Perez into Turn Four with no other considerations other than each other, and Perez was actually ahead on the outside heading into the braking zone after Norris fairly chose to defend the inside.

From that point on, Norris has to outbrake Perez to retain that position, and he doesn’t to a great enough extent. He just manages to get the two cars parallel, but they’re fully side-by-side through the corner, and for me Perez has earned the right to be left a car’s width on the exit.

Hard racing would be squeezing him onto the kerb, but running him fully off the road because you’re going to lose the spot isn’t right. Running him out of road when he’s barely alongside and it’s a speculative effort is another matter, but I felt like letting Norris get away with it would have set a worse precedent.

If that had been allowed, then every driver would defend the inside into every corner and force the attacking car off the track on the exit, so you can’t attempt to overtake around the outside anymore. And you’re never going to be allowed the inside line, so you’re just not allowed to try and overtake. That’s killing racing for me.

Sergio Perez in the gravel at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix

Perez lost seven positions from his off-track excursion

Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Of all the penalties to give Norris, too, five seconds is the most lenient. It cost him one position in the race, while the incident cost Perez seven right there and then, and could have ended both their races if Perez held his line and stayed on track.

I feel like a bit of perspective of that was lost because Norris is such a popular driver and was having such a great race, so nobody wanted to see his hopes of beating a Mercedes hit. But if that had been the other way round and Norris had those hopes ended by Perez forcing him into the gravel as he tried to take second place around the outside, I’d wager a lot of fans would have called for a penalty.

Once the Norris penalty was given, the one for Perez forcing Charles Leclerc into the gravel at the same corner was inevitable, even if Leclerc came from further back into the braking zone. The one that felt most debatable was the Turn Six incident between the two because Leclerc only got alongside at the very last second and Perez had a snap of oversteer when trying to leave space, but the stewards had set their stall out to be firm on those sorts of moments so it was hardly unexpected or out of keeping with the earlier penalties.

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And this is when we get to the main point I promised: The stewards were consistent, and that is something they should actually be credited for.

Once they gave the Norris penalty, they stuck with that approach for the rest of the race. Michael Masi might be a constant in choosing what gets sent to the stewards, but the stewards themselves can differ from each race, much in the way that you never have the same referee for every game of a football season.

And while football can offer an example of how you need to react, I think rugby is a better one. Firstly, there’s a lot of respect for the officials in rugby, and rightly so. Without them policing the game, the game wouldn’t happen. The same goes for racing at such a high level.

But one of the things that is really interesting about rugby officiating is the way a referee might choose to handle a game. Sometimes they allow scrums and rucks to just play out and the game to restart as quickly as possible, others they are really stringent on certain aspects.

Is it a problem if officials are particularly strict or particularly lenient?

So without getting too technical on the nuances of rugby (I can already hear the editor screaming that this is meant to be an F1 column), the point is the referee chooses how lenient or strict he is being within certain areas, and the players have to adapt.

And my question now is, why’s it a bad thing if it’s the same in Formula 1?

With different tracks race-to-race, you’re so rarely getting carbon-copy incidents week-in, week-out. And each of those incidents is being analysed by a different group of people. So why is it a problem if the officials are particularly strict or particularly lenient at one race or another?

It’s not the editor this time, but I hear some of you saying ‘But then how do the drivers know what they can and can’t get away with?’. And the answer is, they don’t fully until they try it. It’s how much they’re willing to risk, but just like in any other sport, once the participants test the officials and understand how they’re going to interpret the rules, they have to adapt.

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And that’s a skill that I’m more than happy to see more of, because how drivers adapt to unforeseen circumstances is where the drama is and what marks the best out from the rest.

For the Austrian GP examples, once Norris got a time penalty, all of the teams should have been on the radio to their drivers to tell them the stewards are being strict on forcing cars off track on corner exits. They should react to the situation.

Of course this would need to include some sort of pre-race meeting between the stewards and the drivers – much like other sports see the referee enter the changing rooms before a match start – in order for the general approach to be outlined and the drivers to know the sort of thing the stewards will be looking out for, but that’s hardly a massive ask.

Formula 1 is sometimes guilty of chasing perfection to the detriment of the sporting challenge, because it’s the variables that are needed to allow people to make the difference. Otherwise 20 machines running round at exactly 100% in pace order isn’t much to look at.

Whether a penalty is harsh or fair is regularly going to be a point of debate among anyone invested in the sport – from team members to drivers to fans – but consistent interpretation of the rules from lights out to the chequered flag shouldn’t be up for debate.