Fernando Alonso’s podium at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was the 100th of his career, but will be remembered more for the confusing and farcical situation that surrounded it.
Alonso celebrated on the podium, then was hit with a penalty that dropped him to fourth, only for that penalty to be overturned by the same set of race stewards a couple of hours later.
It turned into the main headline from an race which otherwise underlined just how far ahead Red Bull is at this point in the season.
Here’s why it all unfolded the way it did.
What happened in the race?
The incident that triggered this series of remarkable events happened in the moments just before the race started. As Alonso arrived in his second place grid slot, he did so with the contact patches of his Aston Martin’s left tyres crossing over the line marking the left-hand side limit of his grid spot.
Up until recently, the only rule governing a driver’s position in the grid slot was how far forward the car was but in this year’s sporting regulations the positioning of the front wheels within the side markings of the slot was also added. A yellow line is painted to the right-hand side of the white grid markings to give drivers a visual reference of how far forward they are in their slot, but lining up between the lines relies entirely on the driver’s approach to their position.
Lining up outside the box is an easily identifiable transgression thanks to cameras and technology on the grid, and results in a slam-dunk five second penalty (Esteban Ocon received the same penalty at the opening race two weeks earlier).
F1’s sporting regulations dictate that five-second time penalties must be served at the driver’s next pit stop, with the clock starting once the car has become stationary and mechanics waiting five seconds before starting work on the car. If the driver does not make another pit stop after being awarded the penalty, the five seconds are simply added to their race time at the end.
Alonso served his penalty at his pit stop on lap 18, during a safety car period triggered by the retirement of his teammate Lance Stroll. The Aston Martin mechanics observed the five seconds before getting stuck in to the tyre change, but whether they had started “work” on the car before that time became the key factor in the post-race controversy.
Why did Alonso lose the podium in the first place?
Every penalty served in the pit lane is observed by the FIA in real time and reviewed by race control as well as the FIA’s Remote Operations Center (ROC) in Geneva — one of the new measures implemented by racing’s governing body after a mistake by race director Michael Masi influenced the outcome of the 2021 world championship. The ROC has been compared to the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system in football but is also similar to how the NFL assesses officiating decisions in real-time from New York. Any sign of a transgression and the incident and evidence is referred to the independent stewards for consideration, but on the initial review of Alonso’s pit stop everything was considered OK.
The first hint that that might not be the case came in the final laps from the radio chatter of a rival team, with Mercedes informing George Russell that Alonso, the car ahead, might have an additional time penalty to serve at the end of the race and to make sure he reduced the gap as much as possible. But at that point there was still no official suggestion from the FIA of a penalty.
That only came after Alonso got out of his car, talked to the waiting TV cameras and made his way to the podium with Red Bull drivers Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen. On F1’s official messaging system, the FIA then said it had noted an incident, which quickly resulted in a full investigation into Alonso’s pit stop.
Shortly after Alonso had left the podium and entered the TV pen to complete more media duties, news was out that he had been served with a 10-second time penalty, which would be added to his race time and meant he would lose third position to Russell. However, the official document detailing the reasoning for the penalty would not be made public until after midnight, over three hours later, adding to the confusion over exactly what happened.
“Today is not good for the fans when you have 35 laps to apply a penalty and to inform about the penalty, and you wait for after the podium,” he said. “There is something really wrong in the system, but it’s the way it is.”
Fernando Alonso had to wait until the early hours of Monday morning for his Saudi GP podium to be confirmed. Lars Baron/Getty Images
Why the delay?
Alonso’s pit stop had been in the first half of the 50-lap race – plenty of time, you would think, for the FIA to assess whether a piece of equipment had touched a car or not. Initially both race control and the ROC determined Alonso had properly served the penalty. It was only on the final lap that race control had shared a new report with the stewards stating that ROC now did not think the penalty had been properly observed and requesting a full stewards’ investigation.
The decision, which eventually followed shortly after midnight in Saudi Arabia, would state: “Based on the representation made to the Stewards that there was an agreed position that touching the car would amount to ‘working’ on the car, the Stewards decided to impose a penalty.”
Why the U-Turn?
This “agreed position” would prove key. After the opening race of the year, the FIA’s Sporting Advisory Committee (SAC), which includes the ten teams, had met and, among other things, discussed what did and what did not constitute working on the car.
According to FIA race director Niels Wittich and new FIA sporting director Steve Neilsen, who presented the alleged Aston Martin transgression to the stewards in Saudi Arabia on the final lap, the SAC had agreed that touching the car in any way during the time penalty period was tantamount to working on it.
It was on this basis that the stewards awarded the ten-second post-race penalty as it emerged via video footage that the rear jack — one of two devices used to hoist the car into the air as tyres are changed — was touching the rear of Alonso’s car during the five seconds. It was hoped this had cleared the matter up, but based on its own interpretation of what was actually written in the rules and backed up by previous examples of time penalties being served at pit stops, Aston Martin did not believe that a jack touching the car constituted work taking place.
Alonso’s team appealed the decision and 40 minutes later an Aston Martin team representative (sporting director Andy Stevenson) went to the stewards for a hearing. Aston Martin was granted its right to review after sending both the minutes of the SAC meeting and video evidence of seven different instances where a jack had touched a car during a penalty similar to the one Alonso served during the race which were not penalised. This met the FIA’s threshold of “significant and new” information coming to light and allowed for the review, which proved successful.
The FIA released its final classification at 01:15 in the morning local time, showing Alonso back in third position and Russell back in fourth, 5.1s behind the Aston Martin driver as he had been when he crossed the finish line.
Shortly afterwards, the FIA released a clarification statement, admitting there had been “conflicting precedents, and this has been exposed by this specific circumstance”. The topic will be addressed at the next SAC meeting on the Thursday ahead of the next race, the Australian Grand Prix.