In the wake of a pit lane camera man being hit by a wheel from Mark Webber’s Red Bull, the FIA introduced harsh penalties in 2014 for what constitute the unsafe release of a car.
A newly-inserted Article 23.12 c of the 2014 Sporting Regulation states that “if a car is deemed to have been released in an unsafe condition during a race the driver concerned will receive a ten grid place penalty at the driver’s next Event. However, if any car released in an unsafe condition is able to resume the race a penalty under Article 16.3(c) will also be imposed on the driver concerned.”
Any driver whose team had been have allowed the car to leave the pit box in an unsafe manner was to receive a 10 place grid penalty at the next race.
A number of drivers were punished during last season and at times feelings ran high over the matter.
Sebastian Vettel described the penalties as being “like going to prison for stealing a chocolate bar. “It’s too harsh for the drivers,” he added, “it’s more for the team. There’s not much you can do as a driver but it is what it is.”
Kevin Magnussen observed, “Of course we are a team and we should be penalised somehow together but I think it’s good if it doesn’t just go to the drivers.”
After being disqualified from his 2nd place podium in Australia last year, Daniel Riciardo was hit hard in Malaysia too. He was on course to finish fourth behind team mate Sebastian Vettel when during a pits top, the team failed to secure one of his wheels.
He was wheeled back and retired from the race. Given that Ricciardo would have been awarded a stop and go penalty, the team deemed it not worth risking the engine as Daniel would fail to score points.
Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez was penalised for an unsafe release during the Austrian Grand Prix both with a five second stop and go penalty and a 10 place grid drop for the following race.
Guitierrez was particularly aggrieved. “I think it’s too harsh because in our case, the wheel didn’t even go off the car. I felt it straight away and I stopped and it was quite safe what we did and we reacted well to the problem.
“You’re already losing time by coming back for a five second stop-and go, and then you’re ten places behind for the following race. It’s way too much”.
In the season opening race yesterday, Kimi Raikkonen pulled his Ferrari off the circuit at Turn 4 due to a problem with his left rear wheel. The Finn asked on the radio, “did you leave the wheel loose?” “Unfortunately the wheel was not tight,” his engineer replied, “I’m sorry, Kimi”.
Ferrari were investigated for an unsafe release because they let Raikkonen leave the pit lane with a wheel not properly attached to the car.
Kimi later revealed: “We had an issue and the wheel didn’t go fully as it should, so it came loose.”
Yet to many people’s surprise, Ferrari and Kimi avoided a penalty from the stewards. Their statement read: “The team explained that the system used to monitor the pit stops gave no indication that the car was in an unsafe condition when released and the team caused the driver to stop the car immediately the problem was apparent from the driver and telemetry.
“The team had paid close attention to the telemetry after the actions of the team members involved in the pit stop and further that the FIA Technical Delegate accepted the car was not in an unsafe condition when released the stewards took no further action.”
The car was clearly unsafe in so much as Ferrari told Raikkonen to stop.
So what’s changed? Given that the definition of an unsafe release appears to be unaltered and Raikkonen – unlike both Ricciardo and Guitierrez – had left the pit lane and accelerated up to speed. We can only presume that were a Guitierrez kind of incident to happen this year, there would be no penalty because the car would be stopped by either the driver or the team “immediately the problem was apparent”.
TJ13 has long campaigned for a representative of the stewards to be made available to explain their decisions to the media. It would be useful for the commentators and fans of the sport to understand – what is now deemed as an unsafe release.