Formula One, NASCAR and the Penalty Box

Fernando Alonso, driving for Aston Martin, earned his 100th podium in Saudi Arabia - Aston Martin photo
Fernando Alonso, driving for Aston Martin, earned his 100th podium in Saudi Arabia – Aston Martin photo

It’s time to talk about penalties and race control in motorsports. It’s a never-ending issue: racers railing against arbitrary sanctions; too many rules; always-changing enforcement of said rules and, of course, the quest for the unfair advantage.

The late, great Tyler Alexander who, together with Teddy Mayer ran McLaren Racing after the death of Bruce McLaren, always referred to Formula One as a “bunch of overbred Cocker Spaniels.” The series and its race control proved the American right this past weekend during the second race of the year at Saudi Arabia.  

The night race had evergreen Fernando Alonso, the elder statesman of F1 on the front row in the second position. He didn’t box properly for the start and was a smidge too far to the left of his grid slot, according to those in the control tower. Alonso was handed a five-second penalty, which he served on his first and only pit stop with his Aston Martin team. They waited a full five seconds to service the car (in way less than five seconds) and sent him on his way. This occurred during the safety car for teammate Lance Stroll’s retirement which, in this writer’s (and many others’) opinion really didn’t need a real safety car; a virtual safety car would have sufficed to remove Stroll’s stopped machine that was already off the track.

When Alonso called to the pits, the rear jack was touching the car, ready to lift it once the five-second penalty had been served. The FIA, who oversee all racing on this orb and is, specifically F1’s governing body, believed that the penalty had not been served through this touch. This although a combination of race control and the recently added ROC in Geneva – Remote Operations Center – thought the penalty had been served and Alonso was back in the game.

Or so he thought, having brought the car third behind pole man and race winner Sergio Perez, together with second-placed Max Verstappen, both of Red Bull. It was the 100th podium for Alonso, who achieved his first podium result in his 18th race, the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix. During the race’s final, 50th lap, F1’s race stewards received a report from race control, stating that ROC reported to race control the lack of penalty served, and on-site race stewards were asked to investigate.

After the trio enjoyed the fruits of their labors and saluted their teams and the crowd, it was announced that George Russell of Mercedes AMG, who was fourth at the checkered flags, would be awarded third place because the rule that “no part of the car could be touched” while a driver was serving a penalty, had been breached. The rear jack touched the car; Russell got the position, but not the champagne or the cheers of the crowd.

Three and a half hours later, the added 10-second penalty given Alonso was removed and yes, he did finish third for his 100th podium. Alonso insisted he would have been able to make up those 10 seconds had the new penalty been meted during the race, but no, the FIA waited until well after the contest to penalize the Spaniard. It didn’t look good on Sunday and retained a sour taste on Monday, even though the sanctioning body relented and realized they’d not done the right thing. 

Apparently it was another team that brought this to the fore, something that regularly happens in the world of “overbred Cocker Spaniel” racers. It comes after F1 and the FIA have been trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to regain the trust of fans and teams after the season finale fiasco in 2021 that allowed Max Verstappen to gain position over Lewis Hamilton and take his first Formula One World Championship. 

At Saudi Arabia, the largest problem was the lack of communication between Alonso’s team, Russell’s team and the FIA. It took more than three hours before Russell was removed from his podium result and Alonso reinstated. Nobody knew about this until bags were packed and drivers and teams were preparing to leave the Middle East. 

It must be noted that jacks touching the cars have been allowed in the past in situations of this type and that there has been no change in the regulations concerning that. By the time the decision was reversed, Alonso had left the track and millions of fans were making their own decisions on this debacle. Nobody was happy. Not even George Russell! “Fernando deserved to be on the podium today and I was pleased with P4,” he said. Alonso was “happy in the end with the result tonight and our second podium. We showed that we can be the second fastest team and we had good pace throughout. It was my mistake at the start with the position on the grid,” he noted, but mentioned that he pushed hard to make up that time.

And then there’s NASCAR which, at this point is on the verge of being a spec series, much like INDYCAR. Sure a little this and that is permitted by the teams, but the series is extremely quick to mete out penalties no matter the infraction. Last week it gave a gut punch to one of its most successful teams, Hendrick Motorsports, stating their spec louvers had been tampered with. NASCAR then threw points and money penalties to the team, which said it would appeal. 

With 2022 being the first year of a new car spec for the NASCAR Cup Series and even with plenty of pre-season testing by teams and their manufacturer partners, there were issues, particularly with cooling. NASCAR permitted cooling ducts and there were tests after the close of the 2022 campaign to vet them.

As Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition explained, “When we started to get parts at the beginning of the 2023 season, we didn’t have the parts that we thought we were going to have.” The teams, manufacturers and NASCAR had several discussions about whether they could “clean up the parts or not clean up the parts,” Knaus revealed. 

“And it’s changed, quite honestly, every couple of weeks,” he said. “So it’s been challenging for us to navigate and we’re just going to have to see what happens when we get through the appeal,” one that Hendrick Motorsports decided to make once the penalties were announced after the Phoenix race two weekends ago.

Hendrick Motorsports stated, before last weekend’s Atlanta Motor Speedway race (won by Joey Logano for Team Penske), that NASCAR had identified the louvers on all four Hendrick cars: No. 5, No. 9, No. 24 and No. 48 Chevrolet-powered Cup cars) during what it said was a voluntary inspection prior to on-track activity. NASCAR took possession of all the cars’ louvers and elected to issue penalties. 

The four-car team’s appeal states these facts: ”Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR; documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers; and recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection,” the team stated.

The penalties – highest in NASCAR history – were given to Hendrick Motorsports under the aegis of “unapproved modification of a single source vendor supplied part.” Every crew chief on the team has been fined $100,000 and suspended for four races (now three). Both the team and each of its four drivers have been assessed with the loss of 100 points and 10 NASCAR playoff points.

That meant a shuffling of squads in Atlanta for the dominant Chevrolet team, which recorded a best result of 14th with Alex Bowman. Substitute crew chiefs were Kevin Meendering for the No. 5 of 2021 champion Kyle Larson, Tom Gray for Josh Berry in the No. 9, substituting for the injured Chase Elliott, Brain Campe (who served as lead engineer for Josef Newgarden in INDYCAR when the Tennessean won his first title) on the No. 24 of William Byron and Greg Ives on Bowman’s No. 48.

The problem with NASCAR and louvers is this: if the team notified the sanction that there were changes to the louvers from those they used in testing, nothing should have happened to them. If they didn’t, the onus was still on NASCAR’s Elton Sawyer to rule with an even hand. Did he check other team’s louvers to discern if they’d changed them too? Or did they just pick on one of the most successful teams in the paddock? It should be noted that NASCAR gave the same penalties to the No. 31 of Kaulig Racing.

Whatever the case, in both NASCAR and F1, the technical infractions and subsequent

punishments for same were over the top these past couple of weekends. This isn’t unusual for F1 or for Cup. But it’s got to change. People don’t tune in – or sit in stands – to see spec cars parading about a track with all the same stuff attached. NASCAR, in fact made a point of having their new cars resemble the street vehicles for which they are named; they need to be consistent in their tech inspections of these same cars, whether on Friday before practice begins or after a race, when certain cars are taken to NASCARs Charlotte facility for tear-downs.

It’s a shame the results are predicated on this kind of thing. F1 made their errors right; let’s hope NASCAR does the same.

About Anne Proffit 1298 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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