Either Lewis Hamilton was punished for leaving the racetrack or he was punished for gaining an advantage when he did so. The stewards have got themselves into a muddle for claiming it was both...
The three race stewards who imposed a 25-second race penalty against Lewis Hamilton have raised more questions than answers - and possibly erred in legal judgement - in declaring that they punished the McLaren driver for leaving the racetrack by describing it as 'fact' that he gained an advantage when cutting the chicane.
Refusing to publicly explain their decision, the three stewards - Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatthi and Yves Bacquelain - instead opted to announce their ruling in a press release through the FIA.
Short on words, the statement, which began by confirming that the 'Stewards determine a breach of the regulations has been committed', listed as 'Fact' that Hamilton 'Cut the chicane and gained an advantage' and specified as 'Offence' the 'Breach of Article 30.3 (a) of the 2008 Formula One Sporting Regulations and Appendix L chapter 4 Article 2 (g) of the International Sporting Code.'
While post-race debate focused almost exclusively on whether Hamilton had gained an advantage when he cut the chicane and if he then surrendered it, the 'offence' for which the stewards declared he had been punished made the issue totally irrelevant.
Article 30.3 (a) of the 2008 Formula One Sporting Regulations' makes no mention of whether an advantage had been gained and instead states that 'During practice and the race, drivers may use only the track and must at all times observe the provisions of the Code relating to driving behaviour on circuits'. The near-identical Appendix L chapter 4 Article 2 (g) of the International Sporting Code adds that 'The racetrack alone shall be used by drivers during the race'.
In other words, Hamilton was purely and simply punished for leaving the racetrack when he cut the chicane.
Such a vague and all-encompassing stipulation in the rulebook gives the stewards considerable latitude. In effect, it allows them to punish any and every driver in the field on every occasion they leave the tarmac. However, given that Hamilton was far from being alone in leaving the race track on Sunday then their decision to focus exclusively on the McLaren driver's whereabouts is bound, once again, to prompt talk of bias and witch-hunts.
Were the stewards to have been inclined to maintain a consistent line then they would, for instance, have had to punish Kimi Raikkonen for leaving the racetrack at the Pouhon corner as he strived to retake the lead. Likewise, Nico Rosberg, with whom both Hamilton and Raikkonen nearly crashed before the Finn temporarily regained the lead of the race as he overtook both cars under a yellow flag, should, if the stewards' application of the rules was consistent, have suffered an identical punishment to Hamilton for sliding off the track and on to the grass.
Technically, as the team cannot dispute that Hamilton left the racetrack, the citation of Articles 30.3 (a) and chapter 4 Article 2 (g) leave McLaren with no room for manoeuvre or appeal.
However, their legal team is instead bound to focus upon the line in the stewards' ruling that reads 'Fact - Cut the chicane and gained an advantage'. In fact, the question of whether Hamilton gained an advantage remains a matter of dispute rather than 'fact' - the only 'fact' is that it is the stewards' opinion that Hamilton gained an advantage. By claiming otherwise, and seemingly basing their right to impose a penalty upon their claimed 'fact', the stewards may have made an error that will enable McLaren to contest their ruling.
For while McLaren cannot argue against the fact that Hamilton left the track, they can argue against the assertion that it is a fact he gained an advantage and the rights of the stewards to claim it is a fact and act accordingly. Were the stewards to be found wrong in doing so then the legitimacy - as well as the accuracy - of their ruling would then have to be called into fresh question.