Drawing parallels – the Ricciardo & Maldonado penalties

Yesterday I wrote a blog on my thoughts on the Pastor Maldonado/Esteban Gutierrez crash and the consequences of same. In that blog I tried to explain why Maldonado had not been given a race ban, as many had called for after the crash. A surprising amount of people who read the blog responded in support of my argument – but a lot more still complain about the harsh penalty awarded to Ricciardo a week beforehand, and how unfair it was.

During the Malaysian Grand Prix a week ago, Ricciardo was let out of his pit box without the front left tyre being properly attached. As reversing down the pitlane is an automatic disqualification, Ricciardo was left sitting in his car as he waited for his team to run to him, pull him back to his pit box and properly attach the wheel. Ricciardo was subsequently awarded a ten second stop/go penalty to be served during the race and a ten-place grid penalty for the next Grand Prix. He was completely blameless for the incident, which put no one in danger, and yet when Maldonado T-boned Esteban Gutierrez during the Grand Prix yesterday, causing the Sauber to flip twice, he was given a mere five place grid penalty.

Ricciardo is pushed down the pitlane after an error saw him released with an unattached wheel. Picture (c) Red Bull/Getty Images

Ricciardo is pushed down the pitlane after an error saw him released with an unattached wheel. Picture (c) Red Bull/Getty Images

The stewards follow a rule book. When you see the graphic on your TV screen announcing that “the driver of car X is under investigation for causing Y”, the stewards are going to the rule book to see which rules have been broken, and what the pre-determined penalty for that infringement is. It’s exactly the same as a team who make adjustments to a car while it’s in Parc Fermé after Qualifying: an automatic removal of Qualifying time and a mandatory pit-lane start are given. Each infringement has it’s own punishment.

I’ll admit that Ricciardo’s punishment was incredibly harsh, especially as he was faultless in the incident, but although I felt sorry for Ricciardo, it’s a punishment I have to wholeheartedly agree with.

As part of the new rules brought in this year, a mandatory ten-place grid drop was introduced for any driver who was the subject of an unsafe release. Every two or three races we would see a driver drive off without a wheel or drive straight into the path of another driver in the pitlane due to mistakes by their pit crew: Michael Schumacher in China 2012, Robert Kubica in Japan 2010, Jenson Button in Silverstone 2011, Kubica and Sutil in Hungary 2010 to name but a few recent incidents. Pitlanes have always been dangerous places to stand, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was Mark Webber’s loose wheel striking an FOM cameraman in the pitlane at the German Grand Prix last year. The cameraman was lucky to escape with his life after taking a direct hit from the 16kg Pirelli as it bounced between Lotus mechanics and hit him in the back. He was airlifted to hospital but fortunately made a full recovery.

The ten-place grid penalty was as a direct result of this incident as the FIA grew concerned that the teams could cut corners on safety in the name of saving a split second during a pit stop. The idea behind the rule is to make sure that the pit crew take a split second more to make sure that the car is ready to go before giving the all clear.

So, of course, I feel angry that Ricciardo can have two races ruined as a result of something he was blameless in, but the rule is brought in purely to ensure that the drivers, mechanics and anybody else in the pitlane or trackside are kept safe. The radical post-Imola ’94 changes to safety brought about by Dr Sid Watkins and his men, as well as the work of Jackie Stewart and other drivers who were subjected to ridicule for their obsession with making Formula One safer, would be made completely redundant if something as easy as double checking a wheel nut was ignored, leading to a wheel striking and killing somebody.

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