Do penalties actually work?

By on Friday, October 12, 2012

Grosjean has been in trouble in 2012

There’s been a number of occasions recently where the result of a Formula One session has taken a couple of hours to clarify, which is irritating not only for those who religiously follow the sport, but also for casual viewers. After all, imagine leaving a football match not knowing if the winning goal will stand. But there’s a wider perspective to this, and it’s the issue of whether assigning penalties to drivers, and the consistency of said sanctions, is actually having any positive effect on the sport.

The concept of penalising drivers has been around in the sport for a few decades, but they’re becoming an increasing talking point in Formula One. Rather than a clash being seen as a ‘racing incident’, there’s a desire to show that one driver was clearly at fault and subsequently hand him some sort of penalty.

These penalties work in terms of hindering a driver’s expectation of achieving a good result, but how fair are they and to what extent does it mean the offending pilot will stay squeaky clean?

You may think I am referring to Romain Grosjean’s actions at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix, in which he tipped Mark Webber into a spin, hurting both of their races. The fact that Grosjean had already served a one race suspension for triggering the carnage at the Belgian Grand Prix gave ammunition to those who believe that race bans do not work. Romain is a deeply intelligent driver who was on the verge of tears when being interviewed by Sky Sports, but that isn’t the point. He was handed a stop and go penalty in a race where his hopes of scoring a point had already evaporated. Had he retired from the race at Turn 1, rather than limp on to the pits, he would most likely find himself starting from towards the rear of the grid in Korea.

Schumacher hit Senna and received a 5 place grid drop for Monaco

Michael Schumacher wiped both himself and Jean Eric Vergne out of the Singapore Grand Prix and Schumacher was given a ten place drop for the Japanese Grand Prix. This left the outgoing Mercedes driver with a mountain to climb and he finished in eleventh place. So Schumacher hurt his race, Vergne’s race but also his own chances at the next event. Grosjean, meanwhile, can start the Korean Grand Prix with a clean slate. Doesn’t sound wholly fair, does it?

But Schumacher’s shunt with Vergne also leads on to another point. Do these penalties actually have any effect on the driver? After all, Singapore was the third occasion in the space of a year where Schumacher had misjudged closing speed and slammed into the back of a rival. Furthermore, the penalty awarded to Schumacher in Spain also robbed the sport of the chance to see him start from pole position in Monaco. The record books will forever show Mark Webber as the Monaco pole sitter, and that is a shame – not as an insult to the Red Bull driver, but because the fans want to see proper results, not something that has been decided in a room a couple of hours after said fans have gone home.

I’m not calling for penalties to be scrapped, but it’s got to a point where everything feels a little silly. Reprimands here, there and everywhere, while grid penalties also seem inconsistent. If the FIA is trying to send out a message to clamp down on dangerous and stupid driving, then why are three place penalties handed out for blocking a rival in qualifying, while if the cogs in your gearbox pack up, you go back five places. How baffling is that?

Charles Pic. Photo credit: Marussia F1 Team

Does a fine work? Unlikely. If you’re a multi-millionaire, then a couple of thousand dollars won’t go amiss, however crass that may sound in the current economic climate. No-one knows what goes on behind closed doors in the driver briefings, but being on the receiving end of the scorn of your rivals and losing some of the respect you’ve earned may well have a big effect.

It was interesting to note during the Singapore Grand Prix weekend that Charles Pic was handed a community service penalty, meaning that the Frenchman must attend ‘an FIA Action for Road Safety campaign at the instruction of the FIA President’. Whether Pic’s penalty marked a change in the FIA’s mentality, or whether he just got it as he shares a nationality with Jean Todt is anyone’s guess. Let’s hope it’s the former, as it may well act as an eye-opener for a driver who has sinned and, more importantly, something positive comes out of it for the FIA, the driver and the sport itself.

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