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Maldonado’s unfortunate penalty

Pastor Maldonado has been handed a ten-place grid penalty for today’s Brazilian Grand Prix after receiving his third reprimand of the season from the stewards. The reprimand was issued after Maldonado missed a call to the weigh bridge as he entered the pits during yesterday’s qualifying session.

The weigh bridge is there to ensure legality of the cars during the competitive sessions. An underweight car would be a huge advantage, particularly in qualifying where the cars are already running as light as possible. The officials conduct random checks on cars during Q1 and Q2, and all cars taking part in Q3 are weighed after the end of the session. The procedure for calling a driver to the weigh bridge during a session involves a red light at the pit lane entrance and an official indicating which way the car should go. If the driver does not see the light or official – bear in mind that the driver is approaching the pitlane at considerable speed, not always in a straight line, and sometimes (as in Brazil) while cresting a hill – he will receive a reprimand. Three reprimands during the season earn the driver a ten-place grid penalty.

The problem with calling a driver to the weigh bridge during qualifying is that it costs time, which puts that driver at a disadvantage compared to his competitors. In the case of Maldonado, he was 13th in the session with only seven minutes remaining in Q2. He would have been acutely aware of the need to get back to his pit garage, put some new tyres on, let the team make any changes or add fuel if necessary, and get on with the business of delivering a quick lap. A delay at the weigh bridge would have cost him valuable time, particularly if the team needed to make any minor changes to the car.

While the weigh bridge serves an important purpose, the way it is currently used results in random drivers being disadvantaged in the name of scrutineering. There is also an obvious communication problem, which clearly needs to be resolved. A simple call to the team to inform their driver over the radio that he must report to the weigh bridge seems quite logical and could completely avoid the need for petty penalties.

Nonetheless, the rules are clear, even if the mode of communication is not. Maldonado missed the weigh bridge, earning him a third reprimand, and resulting therefore in a ten-place grid-penalty. He will now start the race 16th, after qualifying an impressive sixth.

Williams driver line-up too inexperienced

In January of this year, Williams announced that Bruno Senna would join the team to drive alongside Pastor Maldonado. The announcement meant the end, at least for the moment, of Rubens Barrichello’s Formula One career. The choice of drivers was fairly obviously financially based, with both Maldonado and Senna bringing significant sponsorship to the team. But what they brought in funding they lacked in experience, with only one full season each in the sport.

Maldonado has demonstrated that he is very quick when the circumstances are right. The Venezuelan driver won this year’s Spanish Grand Prix from pole position with a mature and measured drive that greatly impressed everyone in Formula One. However, he had to wait almost five full months for his next points finish – at last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix- and produced some scrappy performances in between, showing just how new he is to the top level of motor sport.

Senna’s Formula One career has got off to a difficult and unsettled start. He raced for back-of-the-field HRT in 2010, before joining Renault as their reserve driver for 2011. When Nick Heidfeld departed from the team mid-way through the season, Senna was given the opportunity to drive for the team in the last eight races of the season. Now with Williams, he has yet to set the track alight with his speed, but has performed consistently and is now only eight points behind Maldonado in the Drivers’ Championship.

While both Maldonado and Senna could have long and successful careers ahead of them, their lack of experience has a crucial downside for the Williams team. They are unlikely to be able to extract maximum performance from the car on a consistent basis. Furthermore, they do not have experience in developing a front-running car, unlike more seasoned veterans such as former Williams driver Barrichello.

The 2012 Williams FW34 car is a good car. The victory in Spain clearly shows that. But one has to wonder if a more experienced driver could have done more with the available equipment. Rubens Barrichello is the most experienced driver in Formula One history. He was team-mate to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari during the most dominant period of the team’s history. He has unique and valuable experience that could only help an outfit like Williams to re-assert itself as a front-running team.

Williams discarded Barrichello too soon, and are now paying the price for that decision. The Williams driver line-up for 2013 has not yet been confirmed, and it is possible that the team could look to recruit at least one experienced driver. It would certainly make sense to have a mix of youth and experience going forward. The current youth-only formula is not likely to work long-term.

Maldonado vs Hamilton – Who to blame?

On lap 56 of 57 in the European Grand Prix, Pastor Maldonado and Lewis Hamilton collided, putting Hamilton into the wall and out of the race, and taking the front wing off Maldonado’s car. But who is to blame?

Arguably, both drivers acted wrongly.

Maldonado pulled alongside Hamilton on the outside under braking for the right-hand turn 12. Hamilton maintained the inside line, but drifted towards the outside on the exit, forcing Maldonado off the track. Maldonado did not yield, and kept attacking, despite being off the track. As he rejoined the track, the front of his car made contact with the left side of Hamilton’s McLaren. The left side of Hamilton’s car was lifted off the track, and the car bounced sideways into the wall on the outside of turn 13. Maldonado lost his front wing in the process, but was able to continue and ultimately finished tenth.

Maldonado was penalised for “failing to rejoin the track in a safe manner”. He had all four tyres outside the white line that demarcates the track limits. His return to the track resulted in a collision. The stewards added 20 seconds to Maldonado’s race time, which dropped him from 10th to 12th in the final results.

Hamilton is arguably also guilty – of forcing the Williams driver off the track. Maldonado was alongside going into the corner, and therefore Hamilton was required to allow him space. Hamilton did not do that, and therefore could have been penalised. His race ended in the incident, which nullified the need for a penalty.

This is one of those crashes that could almost be considered a “racing incident”. Accidents happen in racing, and it is not always necessary to apportion blame. However, the rulebook requires that Maldonado be penalised – because his car left the track completely before the crash –  and so a penalty has been imposed.

Valencia Preview Quotes – Williams

Mark Gillan, Chief Operations Engineer: “Following the last two sets of race results we are keen to continue to demonstrate our team’s improvement and ensure both cars come home in the points. Valencia proves a difficult track for both driver and car and with the expected large track evolution throughout the weekend tyre management will once more be crucial. Pirelli bring the medium and soft compounds to this race, a pairing that was last used in Bahrain. The track layout places a lot of stress on the braking system and the high ambient temperatures, coupled with a lower than average mean speed, forces one to open up the cooling package.”

Pastor Maldonado: “Valencia is a challenge for the drivers because it combines a street circuit that’s used by regular road cars throughout the year with sections of regular race track so it can be tricky to achieve the ideal set up. The layout is quite quick with some long straights but there are also some slow corners so finding the right balance will be crucial to doing well. We’re constantly developing the car and it is showing good long run consistency at the moment and hopefully we can improve on the last couple races and pick up some good points.”

Bruno Senna: “Street circuits are always challenging for a driver and Valencia is certainly no different, requiring decent straight line speed combined with an efficient braking system to cope with the heavy braking areas. Our pace in Canada was not really reflective of the cars potential, but we’ve been working hard to understand the reasons why and hopefully we can put that behind us and gain a stronger result here.”

Rémi Taffin, Head of Renault Sport F1 Track Operations: “It’s actually a big challenge to get the engine mapping right for Valencia as the corners are so similar. Ten corners are taken in first, second or third gear, and if you get one corner wrong then you will be at a disadvantage for the rest of the lap. Typically delivering this driveability at low torque and mid revs is one of the strengths of the Renault engine as our engineers are adept at tuning drive maps to deliver torque smoothly to help the driver control slip ratio and tyre wear.”

Paul Hembery, Pirelli Motorsport Director: “For Valencia we’re bringing the P Zero White medium tyre and the P Zero Yellow soft tyre. We normally experience hot weather there and Valencia contains more corners than any other circuit on the Formula One calendar, with reasonably high average speeds, so we need harder compounds than we have had at the last two street circuits: Monaco and Canada. Last year, the frontrunners all adopted a three-stop strategy, with three stints on the soft tyre followed by a final stint on the medium tyre. It will be interesting to see what they opt for this year, with the cars so closely matched. As there are limited overtaking opportunities, qualifying well to gain track position at the start will be crucial, just as it is in Monaco.”

Maldonado’s penalty not harsh enough

Pastor Maldonado was found guilty of causing an avoidable collision in Free Practice 3 at the Monaco Grand Prix last weekend. Maldonado cut across the front of Sergio Perez’s car, colliding with the front left side of the Sauber, in what looked like a deliberate side-swipe. The stewards examined the incident, determined that it was avoidable, and gave Maldonado a 10-place grid penalty.

But was that enough?

Look back to 1997, when Michael Schumacher turned in on Jacques Villeneuve in a desperate attempt to take the Canadian out of the race and thereby win the championship. Schumacher was punished by being excluded from the results of the 1997 championship, which is possibly the most severe punishment handed out in Formula One history. The reason was simple. Formula One cars are dangerous, and when they make contact, there is the possiblity of tyres touching, which can cause one or both of the cars to roll and have a catastrophic accident. Deliberate contact cannot be tolerated.

The circumstances are different in the case of Maldonado and Perez. The incident occured in a practice session, where Perez was just trying to get out of the way. There was no championship pressure present, they were not even racing at all. The incident with Schumacher and Villeneuve can be understood if not condoned. The stakes were high. In the case of Maldonado and Perez, there were no stakes. If the contact was deliberate from Maldonado’s side, it’s bizarre. It shows a blatant disregard for safety on the track, and contempt for his fellow competitors.

It’s not the first time such an incident has taken place with Maldonado. At the end of the second session of qualifying for the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix, Maldonado appeared to deliberately drive into the side of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren. At that point, the session was already over. There was no need to be aggressive on the track.

Racing is dangerous enough under the best of circumstances. When a driver starts to use his car as a weapon, as Maldonado appears to have done twice now, there can be no excuses, and zero tolerance. If the stewards really did think that the contact was deliberate, the 10-place grid penalty was woefully inadequate. He should have been prevented from racing at Monaco, or perhaps even had his licence suspended. The punishment does not fit the crime. If the rule-book allows him to get away with the incident with only a 10-place grid penalty, then the rule-book needs to be rewritten.

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