Controversial penalties and another Mercedes head-scratcher in Austria

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SPIELBERG, Austria — The Austrian Grand Prix saw Max Verstappen dominate for the second weekend in a row at Red Bull’s home race, but the main talking points in the paddock after the race were all related to incidents behind him.

After speaking to the team members and officials involved, we bring you the background stories to the three biggest talking points at the Red Bull Ring.

Should Norris have been penalised?

There were almost as many penalties at the Austrian Grand Prix as there were in the quarter final stages of Euro 2020, and if you are reading this you have likely already made your mind up on the most controversial penalty of all. On lap four of the race following a Safety Car period, Lando Norris squeezed Sergio Perez’s Red Bull into the gravel on the exit of Turn 4 and was given a five-second penalty as a result.

The reasoning given by the stewards was fairly simple: Norris had entered Turn 4 alongside Perez but did not leave a full car’s width on the exit of the corner. But inevitably the incident opened up a fresh argument over what should and should not be allowed under the FIA’s overriding edict of “let them race”.

Interestingly, Red Bull boss Christian Horner was among those in the paddock who felt Norris did not deserve a penalty — even though he was using the argument to try to clear Perez for a later incident with Charles Leclerc, which resulted in a less controversial five-second penalty.

“With the incident with Checo and Lando, it’s racing,” he said. “If you go round the outside, you take the risk — particularly when you are not in a position where you are ahead [going into the corner].

“But I think the FIA, having awarded that penalty, couldn’t not award a penalty for a very similar move with Charles [and Perez later in the race]. But these guys have raced in karting since when they were kids and it happens, if you go around the outside you take the risk, even if you are ahead.

“So I think the penalties were a bit harsh and go against the “let them race” mantra we have been championing in recent years.”

Horner’s opposite number at McLaren, Andreas Seidl, was even stronger on the subject as he believed it cost Norris a shot at second place.

“Every go-kart driver knows that if you go to the outside on the first lap, you will end up in the gravel but you can’t complain about the guy that was on the racing line,” he said.

“I look at this penalty and I think it’s wrong, because that is normal racing for me and that’s what we want to see. To interfere like that in terms of the race result is disappointing.”

Such incidents often bring about comparisons with previous penalties, not least because that is one of the ways the stewards decide on what punishment to dole out.

But when FIA race director Michael Masi — who is not one of the stewards but is an authority on what is and isn’t a penalty in F1 — was asked how the Norris/Perez moment was different to the first lap incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at Imola, when Verstappen forced Hamilton off the track, he gave the following explanation. “I think first corner, lap one — and you have to remember this from a team perspective as well — all lap one incidents are treated in a more lenient manner, and that has been the case for a number of years under the “let them race” principles,” Masi said.

“But each and every one … obviously it’s very difficult to compare, and I know everyone likes to group everything, but it’s very difficult to compare two very different corners a la Imola and Turns 4 or Turns 6 here.”

Another comparison was made between Sunday’s penalty and an incident between Norris and Pierre Gasly in France, in which Gasly ran both cars off the road but was not penalised. However, the clear difference in France was that there was ample run off for the cars to use and return to the track, whereas in Austria Perez ran wide into a gravel trap, and Masi said this was a factor in deciding what should be penalised.

“Obviously the gravel does have an impact in those places,” Masi said. “Absolutely. Each of those you have to look at based on their merits and the characteristics of the circuit etc.”

But Seidl believes more consistency is needed between races if decisions like Sunday’s are going to be justified.

“I struggle to see the consistency, because to compare with the incident in France — when Pierre came from the back and pushed Lando off — that for me was a clear racing incident,” he said. “But if you see what happened today, Lando was parallel with Perez or maybe slightly ahead, sticking to his racing line and not doing anything crazy with his car, plus considering it is at the very beginning of the race when a lot is going on, I struggle to see how you can justify a penalty.”

Although McLaren will not challenge the penalty, the question of when the stewards should intervene will likely be a talking point ahead of the next race in Silverstone.

How damaged was Hamilton’s car?

Lewis Hamilton’s race was already looking like one about damage limiations — finishing a distant second to championship rival Verstappen — but it unravelled shortly after lap 30, when Mercedes believe he hit some kerbs at Turn 10. The team felt it should have been an insignificant moment but the damage was far from insignificant, both in the context of the race and the title fight.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff estimated Hamilton’s car lost “around 30 points” of downforce. That amount is hard to quantify in terms of pure lap time, given all the other variables in play, but Mercedes estimated it was north of 0.5s a lap.

Wolff explained why this damage – regardless of how much the actual lap time was — led to a downward spiral for the seven-times world champion.

“It’s very difficult to say as this is a first guess and what we see on the sensors, and you can’t really convert it into lap time. On rebalancing the car, the new tyre obviously masks a little bit a loss of performance and gave a relative advantage to the guys running on an older tyre.

“[30 points of downforce] is a number that is not checked yet, but there was quite a loss in performance and that meant he was pushing the tyres in a direction that wouldn’t have made it to the end probably.”

Team orders at Mercedes

When Hamilton started losing performance, it became clear to Mercedes that he would struggle to hold on to second place. Around lap 48, the pit wall briefly dabbled with the idea of telling Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas not to attack Hamilton in order to protect the two podium positions from Norris in fourth, but ultimately decided against the team orders.

On the face of it, it would have looked like a clear case of favouritism towards Hamilton, but it could easily have been justified by either a glance at the drivers’ standings (even after Sunday’s race Bottas is 58 points behind Hamilton, who is now 32 points behind Verstappen) or the fact that Hamilton finishing second and Bottas third would have been a better team result than second and fourth.

The pit wall issued the order for Bottas to hold position behind Hamilton on lap 48 in order to give itself time to crunch the numbers — and there were a few key numbers at play.

First off, the team calculated that a driver would need a 0.9s advantage over the car in front to stand a 50/50 chance of pulling off an overtake. However, Hamilton had demonstrated earlier in the race that a smaller margin could be enough to make a move stick when he passed Norris, which showed that a talented racer could make a pass with less than 0.9s, and Norris is certainly talented.

The team then assessed both the cost in lap time of the damage on Hamilton’s car, measured at more than 0.5s but less than a second, and the impact it was having on tyre degradation. Although the damage wasn’t helping, it soon became clear that the impact on tyre degradation would be the key factor, and even if Bottas was able to protect Hamilton early on, within 10 laps or so the loss in tyre performance on Hamilton’s car would run the risk of Norris passing both Mercedes.

“We wanted to evaluate what the damage was and whether Valtteri could have protected against Lando, but that wasn’t possible. It was also fair to Valtteri to do his own race and that is when we decided to switch, obviously knowing that we would lose P3 to McLaren.” The team initially told Hamilton to let Bottas through at Turn 1, which he was willing to do, but then decided Turn 3 would result in less lap time loss, although that message didn’t make the TV transmission.

Ultimately, the decision proved to be the right one as Norris passed Hamilton fairly easily on lap 54 but failed to beat Bottas to second. Hamilton then pitted for new tyres a few laps later in order to ensure fourth place and make changes to the front wing to help balance the loss of rear downforce.



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