Daniel Ricciardo isn’t having the best start to his new life at Formula One giants Red Bull.
First came the team’s difficult preseason testing. The RB10 was a problem child right from the off, and Ricciardo completed just 158 laps over the three tests.
Then, he finished a fine second at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, but was later disqualified due to a fuel-flow irregularity.
And in Malaysia, he had an absolute nightmare.
On Lap 40, he came in for what was meant to be his final stop. The mechanic working on his front-left wheel couldn’t get the nut on properly, but the traffic-light system Red Bull uses (everyone used to have a lollipop man instead) showed a green light.
The driver has to rely solely on the lights—his seating position means he can’t see what’s going on at pit stops. So it was a blameless Ricciardo who set off with his wheel not properly attached.
After stopping and being pushed back to his box, the wheel was correctly fitted and off he went.
Shortly after that his front wing failed, so he had to stop again. And as he was returning to the track, he was given a 10-second stop-go penalty for the unsafe release—another visit to the pit lane. Mercifully, misfortune’s favourite pinata retired a few laps later.
But it wasn’t over just yet. He’ll also receive a 10-place grid penalty at the Bahrain Grand Prix (the next race), again for the unsafe release.
The outcome is incredibly harsh on Ricciardo, who has received three punishments—the long pit stop which cost him a certain fourth place, the stop-go and the grid-drop—for something he had no control over.
It’s easy to say the race stewards are going over the top, or perhaps accuse the FIA of having a vendetta against Red Bull following their row about fuel sensors. But this wasn’t a discretionary penalty.
In recent years, there have been many instances of cars being released from the pits in an unsafe condition. The incident in which a cameraman was struck by Mark Webber’s loose wheel at the Nurburgring last year is the standout example, but it’s far from the only one.
Another potentially fatal incident occurred when a mechanic was struck by an ill-fitted wheel from Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes back at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix. The race also saw a pit-lane collision between Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil.
In an attempt to further discourage teams from taking chances at pit stops, a new, tougher penalty system for unsafe releases was introduced for 2014. The section in the sporting regulations reads:
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.
Article 16.3(c) governs in-race penalties like stop-gos and drive-throughs.
Sadly for the driver, this double-penalty exists in the rules because there simply isn’t any alternative way to punish the team.
A fine cannot be used because a financial penalty is not much of a punishment to a team like Red Bull or Mercedes. The only way to make it hurt them would be to place the amount in the multi-millions—but that would wipe out a team like Marussia.
Working out the fine as a percentage of the team’s budget would also disproportionately affect the smaller guys.
Another alternative would be a deduction of constructors’ championship points. But again, it couldn’t be used against the smaller teams. Some wouldn’t have any points to take away.
Of the ones which did have a few points, the financial hit from the loss of championship places would be enough to push some into serious difficulty. For the big teams, 25 (or so) points may not affect their final championship standing at all.
Tailoring penalties depending on the team involved would be interesting, but open to all manner of accusations of bias. Race bans would affect the drivers even more than a grid-drop.
Hitting the driver for something he had no part in is horribly harsh. But a horribly harsh punishment needs to exist in the rules to encourage the teams to get pit stops right, because unsafe releases could get someone killed.
Grid-drops and stop-gos are far from perfect, and they’re certainly not fair on the driver—but they’re the only realistic options available.