Fernando Alonso penalty debacle exposed yet another FIA rulebook weakness

Thomas Maher
Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso celebrates third place at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Jeddah, March 2023.

Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso celebrates third place at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Jeddah, March 2023.

Fernando Alonso’s ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he?’ podium finish at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was a serious blow to the FIA’s attempts to be seen as a more efficient authority.

Having come home in a comfortable third place on track in Saudi Arabia, Fernando Alonso took to the podium alongside the two Red Bull drivers and joined in the celebrations as he marked a second consecutive podium finish for the first time since 2013.

But, moments after the podium ceremony was televised all around the world, Alonso was hit with a 10-second time penalty that dropped him to fourth behind Mercedes’ George Russell and only just four-tenths ahead of fifth-placed Lewis Hamilton.

Both Alonso and Russell then completed their media duties – Russell obviously thrilled but admitting Alonso deserved the podium, while Alonso did his best to remain positive but still taking the opportunity to lash out at the decision-making process.

“I think it is more a poor show from the FIA today, more than disappointment from ourselves. You cannot apply a penalty 35 laps after the pit-stop,” he said.

“They had enough time to really inform about the penalty because, if I knew that, maybe I could have opened 11 seconds to the car behind.”

The contentious moment which had earned Alonso a penalty came on Lap 18, when he came in to serve a five-second time penalty for having been outside his grid box at the start. Alonso held his hands up for that error, and his team held off on ‘working on his car’ as he came to a stop in his pit box. The crux of the issue came as a result of the rear jack man putting the jack under the rear of the car.

While he didn’t raise the car from the ground, Alonso was given the 10-second time penalty due to the car being ‘worked on’, only for Aston Martin to later argue ‘contradictory precedents’ from the past as they presented seven examples of jacks being placed under cars serving time penalties – a successful argument that meant the stewards overruled the initial decision.

The full explanation into the sequence of events and why Alonso was penalised can be read here.

One of the ways FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem addressed the fallout from the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the establishment of a ‘Remote Operations Centre’ (ROC) – a ‘Race Control’ away from the race track that’s in place to work in tandem with the Race Control team on the ground.

Curiously, the ROC, together with RC, were both satisfied that Alonso had served his penalty correctly when he came in on Lap 18. As a result, the matter was considered closed.

Article 16.3 of the FIA’s Sporting Regulations dictate that decisions regarding competitors in a Grand Prix “should be given to him within twenty-five (25) minutes of such decision, and receipt must be acknowledged”.

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With Alonso being informed of the penalty over an hour after the alleged transgression, key wording in the final decision documents reveal the matter was re-opened by RC on the very last lap of the race.

“Subsequently, at the last lap of the race, the Stewards received a report from race control that they considered that the penalty was not properly served by [Alonso] and they asked the Stewards to investigate the matter. The matter was reported to race control by ROC,” stated the FIA.

Why did the stewards decide to open back up the matter? One can only imagine a competitor team had broached the topic with RC, with the Race Director and Sporting Director both pointing out that what the teams had agreed with the Sporting Advisory Committee (SAC) was that ‘no part of the car could be touched while a penalty was being served’.

With the investigation opening up on the final lap, it meant that the 25-minute timer then kicked in again – Alonso promptly being given a penalty a few minutes later. Legal by the letter of the law, but questionable in terms of the fairness shown to the driver for what was a sporting transgression and not an overarching technical breach.

However, all this means that new weaknesses in the Regulations have been identified. Aston Martin boss Mike Krack referred to the rule as ‘ambiguous’, a word that should no longer apply to anything written in the FIA rulebooks.

After all, root-and-branch reviews of all the Regulations books undertaken since Abu Dhabi ’21 were supposed to address areas of ambiguity for the sake of clarity. It was ambiguous wording of rules which allowed for the infamous “any does not mean all” defence regarding unlapped cars behind the Safety Car.

To the FIA’s credit, much like their response to the dangerous situation at last year’s Japanese Grand Prix which saw the governing body hold their hands up about several shortcomings, they are aiming to clarify the wording of the rule at a special meeting of the SAC before the Australian Grand Prix.

However, once again, this is a display of a reactive approach from the FIA, and not proactive.

While one can argue that such weaknesses in wording can’t be anticipated until a particular unique racing scenario emerges to challenge it, F1 is supposed to be at the cutting edge of everything it does – such glaring holes in the rulebook, particularly in light of the scrutiny it’s been under over the past 16 months, simply should not exist anymore.

Referring back to Abu Dhabi 2021, the verbal agreement between the teams that races should end under green flag conditions where possible, an agreement that came to light afterward, was a far from binding rule that didn’t exist in the Regulations.

Similarly, a verbal agreement over what constitutes ‘working on the car’ that isn’t written in the official rulebook is merely a repeat of the same behaviour once again – how difficult can it be to have an iron-clad definition of ‘working on the car’ and to have identified the ambiguity at any point over the past year of scrutiny?

Had that been done, then the nonsensical display that saw F1 embarrass itself with a two-time World Champion being handed back a podium place after already criticising the governing body wouldn’t have happened…