Opinion: Sainz punished disproportionately for incident that technically didn’t happen

Oliver Harden
Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz spins Fernando Alonso. Australia April 2023.

Fernando Alonso spins after being tagged by the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz. Melbourne April 2023.

Ferrari have requested a right of review over the five-second penalty handed to Carlos Sainz for his collision with Fernando Alonso at the controversial Australian Grand Prix restart.

After the race was red flagged for a second time following Kevin Magnussen’s collision with the Turn 2 barrier, Alonso restarted from third with Sainz fourth on the Albert Park grid.

Sainz attempted to pass Alonso at the inside of the first corner but spun the Aston Martin to the rear of the field, with further collisions down the order – including the clashes between Alpine team-mates Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon and, at the back, Logan Sargeant and Nyck de Vries – resulting in another stoppage.

While Alonso was reinstated to P3 for the final restart and went on to secure his third podium in as many races in 2023, Sainz was hit with a five-second penalty – ensuring he was classified as the last of the 12 finishers when the race ended behind the Safety Car.

With the stewards taking no further action on the incident between Ocon and Gasly – and the Sargeant/De Vries crash not even the subject of an investigation – Ferrari are hoping to have Sainz reinstated to fourth position.

According to Motorsport.com, Fred Vasseur, the Ferrari team principal, said: “As we are discussing with the FIA, and we sent the report to the FIA, I don’t want to disclose any details of the discussion.

“The only thing is that about Gasly/Ocon, and for sure we had Sargeant/De Vries at Turn 1, and the reaction of the stewards was not the same.”

F1’s right of review exists to allow competitors to challenge officials’ decisions, with the first step of the process requiring the stewards to decide that there is a case to be answered and hinges on the discovery of a “significant and relevant new element”.

Upon being informed of the penalty over team radio while awaiting the final restart behind the Safety Car, Sainz reacted emotionally and complained of being prevented from stating his case before being hit with the punishment.

Vasseur explained: “The process is that first they will have a look on our petition to see if they can re-open the case.

“Then we’ll have a second hearing a bit later, with the same stewards or the stewards of the next meeting, about the decision itself.

“What we can expect is at least to have an open discussion with them, and also for the good of the sport to avoid this kind of decision when you have three cases on the same corner, and not the same decision.

“The biggest frustration was from Carlos, and you heard it on the radio, to not have a hearing.

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“Because the case was very special, and in this case, I think it would have made sense considering that it was the race was over, it was not affecting the podium, to have a hearing, as Gasly and Ocon had.

“It’s up to the stewards to what is the right penalty, but for me at least for Carlos, for the team, to reopen the discussion, it’s a first step.

“The outcome of this will be up to the FIA. We have our argument for sure, but I will keep the argument for the FIA.

“For sure we are expecting the review of the decision, because it’s a petition for review, and we are not going to get the same decision.”

While frustrated with the penalty for Sainz, Vasseur acknowledged the stewards have a difficult job, particularly in a race as chaotic as Melbourne.

He said: “I don’t want to blame someone.

“On the racing incidents, and I’m doing this job for 33 years now, each time that we had a crash on track I think you have two versions, always, with a different feedback and a different outcome, depending on the drivers.

“It means that it’s not an easy job. And also that it’s difficult to take a decision when it’s during the race. We are always asking to take decisions during the race.

“This case was probably a bit particular with the three red flags, with the two starts, and the last start with one lap behind the Safety Car.

“It’s where the frustration came from, because we had the feeling that the Ocon and Gasly situation was treated a bit differently.”

On when he expects Ferrari’s case to be heard, Vasseur is hopeful that the situation can be resolved before F1 returns to action at the Azerbaijan GP at the end of April.

“[The FIA] have the lead on the situation now,” he said. “And it’s up to them to decide the first hearing about the fact that they can receive or not the request.

“It’s up to them to decide when they want to do it.

“It could be in Baku, or it could be before. We prefer to do it before, and be focused on something else in Baku.

“They have to do it in a short period. It’s true that for once that we have four weeks between the two races, and it’s a bit more flexible. With Kimi [Raikkonen] two years ago at Alfa Romeo we did the hearings at the next race.”

Sainz was punished disproportionately for an incident that technically didn’t happen

How could the collision between Alonso and Sainz be annulled in Aston Martin’s world but not in Ferrari’s?

There is no doubt that Sainz’s attempt to pass his compatriot at the Australian GP restart was haphazard and ill-judged, but with less than half a lap completed before the red flag flew again it technically did not happen.

Alonso, having been left in the Turn 2 barrier, was allowed to slot back into third place as if he had not been caught up in the madness of the restart, so why did Sainz have to carry the punishment?

And it wasn’t only the penalty itself that stung, but the harshness of it.

In normal circumstances, in an average race, a five-second penalty would be little more than a minor inconvenience, something to be brushed off as indeed Alonso did at the previous round in Saudi Arabia after a race-start procedural breach.

But Australia 2023 was no normal grand prix, and with the race finishing behind the Safety Car Sainz was almost hung out to dry, crossing the line in the knowledge he was about to be shuffled back and out of the points – some reward for his strongest performance of 2023 to date.

The handling of this affair was wrong from start to finish but, seemingly without revelatory new evidence, the right to review is most likely going to be quashed.

However, Ferrari will at least get the discussion they deserve in the continued push for greater consistency in stewarding decisions.