After Sunday’s German Grand Prix, in which he crossed the line second, Sebastian Vettel had 20 seconds added to his race time for an illegal pass on Jenson Button. The penalty pushed Vettel all the way down to fifth in the race results.
The incident happened on the penultimate lap, on the exit of the Spitzkehre hairpin. Vettel had drawn alongside Button before the corner with the aid of DRS. Button held the inside line, and reached the corner exit fractionally in front of Vettel. It became obvious that Vettel would run wide on the corner exit, which he did, to the point where all four tyres of the Red Bull were outside the white line that defines the limits of the track. Vettel kept his foot down, and managed to rejoin the track in front of Button.
A driver may not gain an advantage from running off the track. That much is very clear in the rules of Formula One. Had Vettel not run off the track, he would have had to back out of the throttle and fall into line behind Button. It was clear that the pass could not have been completed without the use of the run-off area. Vettel had obviously gained an advantage, and he was duly penalised.
It seems a little strange that Red Bull did not get on the radio to Vettel to tell him to let Button back past. They should have known immediately – as Button, McLaren, the BBC commentary team and the viewing public knew – that Vettel would likely receive a penalty that would cost him more than just the one position. If he had surrendered the position, no action would have been taken against him.
At this stage of the championship, with Alonso so dominant at the front, 15 points for third place would have been invaluable. Instead, Vettel walked away with only ten points, and fell even further behind the championship leader.