The Russian Grand Prix highlighted why the FIA’s Formula 1 penalty points system is in need of a change.

For a brief moment in Sochi, world championship leader Lewis Hamilton came perilously close to picking up an automatic one-race ban.

Hamilton was given a 10-second time penalty and two penalty points on his licence for breaking practice-start rules prior to the race. At the time, he was heading to 10 points for the current 12-month period and just two points shy of facing a weekend on the bench.

In a rare U-turn, the FIA rescinded the “inappropriate” penalty points and instead handed Mercedes a €25,000 fine on the basis that Hamilton had followed team instructions.

While Hamilton missed the chance to equal Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 grand prix victories at the first attempt, he will come away from the event with some much-needed breathing space on eight - rather than 10 - penalty points.

Having initially labelled the penalty “ridiculous”, the Briton has vowed to remain “squeaky-clean” for upcoming rounds at the Nurburgring, Portimao, Imola and Turkey, before his next penalty points are due to be wiped clean.

Hamilton was not alone in questioning the decision, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel suggesting the penalty points system is in need of a review.

Verstappen, who split the Mercedes drivers on the podium behind race-winner Valtteri Bottas, felt it had been “a bit harsh” to penalise Hamilton for a mistake made by the team.

"If you cause a crash it's different, but the penalty Lewis got was already painful enough," Verstappen explained.

"I don't know how many points you got - two points? - it's a bit harsh, he's up to 10 points.

"I mean, it was not correct where he stopped but penalty points for that, I'm not sure that's correct.

"He was penalised enough by having this penalty in the race, so I don't think you'd need to hand out penalty points for that.

"But I guess we'll talk about it in the next briefing we have and see if something will happen or not."

Vettel echoed Verstappen’s comments, arguing that “minor infringements” do not warrant the punishment of having penalty points added to your licence.

"I think if you really do some crazy moves on the track and some dangerous driving, then they're justified," Vettel said.

"But if you're speeding in the pitlane or minor infringements, it's probably not the point to apply penalty points."

Vettel’s Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc also feels the situation needs reviewing, with drivers expected to discuss the matter ahead of the next race, the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring on 9-11 October.

"I don't think he has done anything particularly wrong this year," Leclerc said.

"Maybe there's a better way to do it. I don't know, it's not my job either, so the FIA will look into it."

While a race ban for Hamilton might help spice up what is otherwise an underwhelming title fight in 2020, it would not be justifiable punishment to fit the relatively trivial offences.

Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo also weighed in on the topic, saying: “From what I understand, obviously he broke a rule but I don’t think he’s put anyone in danger.

“I guess it’s like football – you get a yellow card for a dangerous tackle and you get a red card for a, let’s say, very dangerous tackle – correct me if I’m wrong on the rules.

“I think penalty points, if you are to miss a race for a few of these, let’s say minor, infringements it’s a little extreme.

“I haven’t heard what was said [by Hamilton] in the press conference but I understand the tone of voice and I would defend that. I don’t think it requires a further penalty and potentially him missing a race.

“Would it spice up the championship? Sure. But honestly speaking I would side with [Hamilton] on that one.”

It is true that some of Hamilton’s penalty points were handed out for in-race incidents including (not once but twice) colliding with Alex Albon, but the rest have been for relatively minor offences.

It would be unfair to brand Hamilton a ‘dirty driver’ or the ‘bad boy of F1’ despite his penalty point tally. One would also be foolish to suggest he has lost concentration this year  – the fact he is a six-going-on-seven-time world champion and has dominated the majority of races this season puts paid to that argument.

2009 world champion Jenson Button, who spent three seasons as Hamilton’s teammate at McLaren, branded his fellow countryman as “the cleanest guy” he ever raced against during his F1 career.

"He is exceptionally talented, and he does not play games,” Button said in an interview with GQ magazine. “He will never play dirty. In fact, I think he’s the cleanest guy I ever raced against."

Despite ultimately breaching F1 race director Michael Masi’s pre-race instructions regarding practice starts, Hamilton said he feels the FIA is changing the rules in order to “keep the racing exciting”.

In response to Hamilton’s suggestion that the FIA were “trying to stop me”, Masi explained that he is always willing to sit down and discuss any concerns drivers might have.

"From my perspective it's very simple that if Lewis wants to raise something, as I have said to him before, and said to all the drivers, numerous times the door is always open, and I'm more than happy to discuss anything,” he said.

"But I think from an FIA perspective, we are there as a sporting regulator, to administer the regulations.

"We have the stewards as an independent judiciary to adjudicate those, and therefore there was an infringement and it doesn't matter if it was Lewis Hamilton or any other one of the 19 drivers.

"If a breach has occurred of the regulations, they will consider it on its merits, adjudicate it equitably and fairly in the circumstances taking all the key elements into account."

There is perhaps an argument to suggest that F1 needs a reset in order to get on top of the inconsistencies that have emerged over the years and avoid any grey areas that currently exist within the regulations.

It is clear from the response of the likes of Verstappen and Vettel that drivers are not on the same page of understanding regarding the list of infringements and associated penalties as the FIA.

The decision not to penalise Leclerc for taking out Stroll left the Racing Point driver aggrieved and was flagged by some as curious, given it was almost a carbon copy of the incidents involving Hamilton and Albon in Brazil and Austria that were punished, though it must be noted that the stewards are usually more lenient when it comes to first-lap incidents.

Would adopting a set of permanent stewards at every race, rather than the current rotatory system, help provide more consistent results?

F1 has also come under criticism for the amount of time it can often take for decisions to be made and penalties handed out in some instances. It took nearly an hour between Hamilton’s practice start taking place and the penalty being issued on Lap 7.

Overall, the balancing act is a difficult tightrope for the FIA to walk and decisions rarely please everybody. Sometimes the stewards appear damned if they do, damned if they don’t. 

Despite some concerns brought up by the drivers, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said he is satisfied with the current penalty procedures that are in place.

“You may feel they are quite harsh, especially if you are the victim of it," Binotto explained in Sochi after the race.

"But on the other side, if you are not harsh sometimes, then you leave the door open to drivers to repeat it in the future.

"I think it's never easy to judge, I think the FIA in that respect is doing a great job. So, I think I'm overall happy."

Either way, a discussion with teams and drivers would not be a bad idea to try and find a pathway forward that provides clarity. 

Following the debate in Sochi, it is certain to be a talking point that will rumble on in the coming weeks…

What do you think? Is the current F1 penalty system out of date and in need of a refresh? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and don’t forget to like and subscribe to Crash F1.

 

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