Unfair and inconsistent: The problem with Fernando Alonso accusations and harsh FIA verdict

Thomas Maher
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, 2024 Australian Grand Prix.

Fernando Alonso picked up a penalty during the 2024 Australian Grand Prix, but was it fair?

Fernando Alonso was hit with a time penalty for “potentially dangerous” driving in Australia, despite having made no contact with another car.

George Russell’s last-lap crash in Melbourne resulted in both he and Fernando Alonso heading to see the stewards, before the Spaniard was given a penalty for “potentially dangerous” driving – but was this a fair verdict for Alonso?

Why was Fernando Alonso given a penalty for George Russell crash?

Heading into Turn 6 on the penultimate lap of the Australian Grand Prix, there’s no doubt Fernando Alonso was worried about the next long blast down the curved straight alongside the lake.

With George Russell breathing down his neck, half a second behind in what was the visibly faster car, the Mercedes would likely be able to slingshot past him using DRS and deprive him of sixth place within sight of the chequered flag.

Without any weaponry left to defend against the Mercedes, the only avenue open to Alonso was to, somehow, curtail the momentum of Russell just as the two cars launched onto that straight.

With a slower corner, this can be done by dawdling on the apex momentarily, blocking the driver behind from accelerating momentarily and, hopefully for the driver defending, allowing them to scamper away enough to hold off their rival down the next straight.

But, with a corner as fast as Turn 6, that option would be pretty dangerous to achieve – but not utterly impossible. The timing of hindering Russell’s slingshot onto the straight would be critical to succeeding, and that’s exactly what Alonso seemed to have on his mind as he approached the corner desperate to stay ahead of his rival.

Alonso put his plan in motion and, with Russell closing up on the back of Alonso’s car far more quickly than he expected, the British driver found himself in a situation he didn’t want to be in – having to slow down at a point when he should have been getting back on the power.

Caught out by the closing speed against Alonso, the rear of Russell’s car got light, and off he went into the gravel as he couldn’t keep control of his W15. It resulted in a scary crash for Russell, ending up in the middle of the track as later radio messages revealed the extent of his panic as he waited for safety.

Alonso initially tried to explain away the situation as him struggling with battery issues on his Aston Martin, but that story changed by the time he had to face the stewards – perhaps indicative of the Spaniard’s realisation he may have taken things a bit too far.

“Alonso explained to the stewards that he intended to approach Turn 6 differently, lifting earlier, and with less speed into the corner, to get a better exit,” the stewards said.

“Russell explained to the stewards that, from his perspective, Alonso’s manoeuvre was erratic, took him by surprise, and caused him to close distance unusually fast, and with the resulting lower downforce at the apex of the corner, he lost control and crashed at the exit of the corner. There was no contact between the cars.”

With Alonso’s actions thus a major contributing factor in catching Russell out, the question that lingers afterward is whether or not the Spaniard should bear any responsibility for Russell’s loss of control.

After all, the stewards confirmed in their investigation that Alonso’s slowing didn’t come down to him braking. The verdict read that, while Alonso had “braked very slightly at a point he did not usually brake”, the amount of braking he applied was “so slight, it was not the main reason for his car slowing”.

So, if not a brake test, as Max Verstappen was given a 10-second time penalty when he caused a collision with Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, why was Alonso hit with a 20-second time penalty for a lesser offence?

Alonso was confirmed as having lifted “slightly more” than 100 metres earlier than on any other lap, and that he downshifted where he never usually did, before upshifting and accelerating again before the corner.

In other words, Alonso lifted off on the straight, before speeding up again, but the car only slowed as much as the aerodynamics of the car naturally slowed it – hardly what can be deemed a “brake test”.

What was Alonso’s explanation for this? “Alonso explained that, while his plan was to slow earlier, he got it slightly wrong and had to take extra steps to get back up to speed,” said the stewards.

“Nonetheless, this manoeuvre created a considerable and unusual closing speed between the cars.”

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Should Fernando Alonso have to take responsibility for George Russell’s crash?

“It’s clear that he braked 100 metres before the corner, and then went back on the throttle again and took the corner normally,” Russell said after the incident.

“We’ve already seen the data of that, so I’m not going to accuse him of anything until we’ve seen further but I was right behind him for many, many laps – half a second behind him approaching the corner and then, suddenly, he slowed up very dramatically and got back on the power.

“I wasn’t expecting that and caught me by surprise. So that part’s on me.”

The fact is that Russell went off and crashed, based on what the car in front of him was doing – this having been verified as Alonso lifting off early, rather than being a brake test in the true sense of those words.

It meant that Alonso’s driving could be viewed as “erratic” or in a manner “potentially dangerous”, which is covered under Article 33.4 of the Sporting Regulations.

This meant that, regardless of Russell’s crash, the stewards would have had the grounds to examine Alonso’s driving if they’d felt like it. The stewards also said that there was insufficient information to be able to say whether or not Alonso’s driving was designed to cause Russell problems or whether he was simply trying to get a better exit.

The issue this wording raises is whether or not it should be relevant. After all, isn’t the art of defensive driving down to causing your rival “problems” and ensuring they can’t do what they want to do?

Alonso didn’t slam on the brakes, didn’t change direction without warning, and performed an action – however scruffily in execution – that, unlikely intentionally, caused Russell a problem that he couldn’t overcome.

The stewards admitted Alonso had the right to try a different approach, and was not responsible for the dirty air that destabilised Russell. But it was in the nature of his “erratic” driving that allowed the stewards the grounds to punish Alonso and, with Alonso’s account of his approach to Turn 6 confirming an unusual approach, it meant the stewards could rule that he had driven in an erratic or “potentially dangerous” manner – thus the penalty.

Essentially, Alonso has been caught out by a rule that is open to interpretation and is there to catch egregious examples of misbehaviour from drivers. The Spaniard himself took to social media after being given the penalty that dropped him to eighth place (and three penalty points applied to his super licence) and explained the situation from his perspective.

“A bit surprised by a penalty at the end of the race regarding how we should approach the corners or how we should drive the race cars,” he said.

“At no point do we want to do anything wrong at these speeds. I believe that without gravel on that corner, on any other corner in the world, we will never be even investigated.

“In F1, with over 20 years of experience, with epic duels like Imola 2005/2006/ Brazil 2023, changing racing lines, sacrificing entry speed to have good exits from corners is part of the art of motorsport.

“We never drive at 100 percent every race lap and every corner – we save fuel, tyres, brakes, so being responsible for not making every lap the same is a bit surprising.”

It’s notable that Alonso’s incident warranted a harsher response from the F1 stewards than what the F3 stewards applied to Nikola Tsolov earlier in the weekend.

The F3 racer was aggrieved by being impeded by Ireland’s Alex Dunne during practice, and promptly clattered into his rival by deliberately steering towards him and sending Dunne into the wall – the MP Motorsport car picking up extensive damage in the crash.

Tsolov was given a three-place grid drop but the stewards, astonishingly, didn’t treat the incident within the context of it being a deliberate act and, even more astonishingly, pointed to Dunne as being the instigator of Tsolov choosing to use his car as a weapon.

In contrast, Alonso chose to use a defensive tactic (albeit clumsily) by simply slowing down approaching a corner in order to block his rival, and found the book being thrown at him when his rival was caught out by it (and admitted to being caught out by it). Unlike Tsolov, Alonso can hardly be said to have used his car as a weapon, merely a hindrance.

Had the telemetry revealed that Alonso hitting the brakes had been the primary reason for his car slowing down, or if he had been only a tenth or two ahead of Russell, it could be said Alonso deserved his penalty. It would change the complexion of the offence into something far more sinister.

But simply easing off the throttle and then accelerating again, while half a second clear of his rival, shows that Alonso was merely trying to use the dirty air effect to stymie Russell’s momentum – a typical racing tactic that didn’t warrant the penalty he received.

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