The driver's code - more like a guideline

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There have been a number of incidents in 2019 requiring steward intervention, many of which result in a difference of opinion as to whether a penalty was or was not justified. In this article we look at the actual rules and what punitive measures are available to the race director.

First, your return to the track was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a driver for the driver's code to apply and you're not. And thirdly, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome to the madness of F1 stewarding, dear reader!

Paraphrasing Pirates of the Caribbean for comic effect.

What do the actually rules say?

The drivers are duty bound to obey article 27 of the sporting regulations, which read :

27) DRIVING
27.1 The driver must drive the car alone and unaided.
27.2 Drivers must observe the provisions of the Code relating to driving behaviour on circuits at all times.
27.3 Drivers must make every reasonable effort to use the track at all times and may not deliberately leave the track without a justifiable reason.
Drivers will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with it and, for the avoidance of doubt, any white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.
Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage. At the absolute discretion of the race director a driver may be given the opportunity to give back the whole of any advantage he gained by leaving the track.
27.4 At no time may a car be driven unnecessarily slowly, erratically or in a manner which could be deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers or any other person.

The "Code" mentioned in 27.2 refers to Chapter 4 of Appendix L (pp39-41) of the FIA's International Sporting Code, which in itself is unusual for the FIA in it's brevity. Where the 2019 front wing regulations run to six sides of A4 the driver's code of conduct only spans three pages (each page split into 2 columns, French on the left and English on the right so in reality only 1.5 pages!!). The code covers obeying marshal's signals, overtaking and defending, car control, track limits, how to stop on track in the event of a mechanical failure, as well as entering and exiting the pit lane. The code does not outline offenses as such and is more a guide to how the drivers are expected to behave on track, which leaves the interpretation of any offence and punishment for it at the discretion of the race stewards and director. We'll look at the key talking points from Monza and which bits of the code pertain later on.

What options are available to the stewards?

The stewards have a number of options to punish drivers for overstepping the rules, which are outlined in Article 38 of the F1 Sporting Regulations. They include the five and ten second time penalties, which are either served at the next pit stop or are added to the race time, a drive through penalty, a 10s stop-go penalty - which is distinct from the 10s time penalty in that it must be served within three laps and no team member may touch the car while it is being served, and finally race disqualification. If the drive through or stop-and-go penalties are given in the last three laps of the race a time up to 30s may be added to the driver's race time or a grid penalty may be applied for the next race. Each in-race penalty can also include penalty points to be added to the driver's race license, and 12 points in a 12 month period will result in a race ban. Currently Sebastian Vettel is nearest to a race ban with 9 points accrued on his license since October 19th 2018, so he must keep his powder dry for the next three events.

Monza qualifying debacle

The third qualifying session for the Italian GP was blighted by the frankly laughable situation where only two cars were able to beat the chequered flag to start a final flying lap, Sainz and Leclerc, Leclerc gave up on the lap with pole secure while Sainz improved his time but not his position. Such was the power of the tow on the high speed straights at Monza, no driver wanted to be first over the line to start their lap, potentially giving an advantage to their rivals behind, which resulted in a corner cut, erratic and slow driving and much anguished hand waving from a certain German. So what rules apply in this situation and what should/could have been done?

2(e) It is not permitted to drive any car unnecessarily slowly, erratically or in a manner deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers at any time.

This section of the code is repeated as article 27.4 of the sporting regulations and was used to investigate Nico Hulkenberg, Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz after the qualifying session for the Italian GP, though none of them were subsequently penalized. This was an interesting decision as 15 drivers were investigated for the same offence in the F3 qualifying session, 13 of whom were penalized with a 5 place grid drop. This is a case where the driver's code (which applies to all circuit racing) is open to interpretation, and the F3 stewards (Dennis Dean, Műmtaz Tahincioglu, and Simone Ossola) deemed the offence severe enough to penalize the drivers, while the F1 stewards (Garry Connelly, Silvia Bellot, Paolo Longoni, and Derek Warwick) thought the code was not clear enough to exact punishment, pertinently adding "The Stewards strongly recommend that the FIA expedite a solution to this type of situation" in their official decision documents, as a hint to the FIA making a definitive rule to quantify "unnecessarily slow", with an out-lap delta (similar to the VSC delta) likely to be applied in future. There was also an argument that junior series should be subject to more scrutiny than the top series as the drivers are still learning their craft, but this sort of thinking doesn't really hold up to scrutiny itself as the top series should be an example for the junior formulae.

2(c) Drivers must use the track at all times. For the avoidance of doubt, the white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.
Should a car leave the track for any reason, and without prejudice to 2(d) below, the driver may rejoin.
However, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any advantage. A driver will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with the track.

Earlier in Q3 Sebastian Vettel appeared to have left the track on exit of the Parabolica, an offence the FIA warned ahead of the weekend would result in the deletion of lap times for both the lap the track was left and the subsequent lap. It was argued that various camera angles showed Vettel's car might not have left the circuit as parts may have "shadowed" the line. The words "in contact with the track" in this case being superseded by the interpretation that the width of the car as defined in the technical regulations be taken into account instead. This is a rather unsatisfactory explanation as the wording, in this case at least and for once, appears clear and the FIA statement ahead of the weekend suggested a hard-line enforcement of this rule at the Parabolica. Interestingly the stewards seem willing in some cases to allow drivers to drift wide of the lines, and perhaps the solution is to just penalize all cases where drivers leave the track, especially in qualifying.

Hulkenberg was also investigated for leaving the track at the first chicane on his out-lap - kicking off the whole debacle of drivers dawdling around a live race track as they tried to remain in his slipstream. Interestingly Vettel and others also cut T1 in the Q2 session but was not investigated, perhaps doing a better job of making the excursion look accidental with a small brake lock. Hulkenberg was investigated under article 27.3 of the sporting regulations which differs slightly in wording to 2(c) of the code as written above, in that it specifies drivers may not "deliberately" leave the track. Again in this case Hulkenberg was found not-guilty as it could not be proved beyond doubt he intentionally cut T1. Despite it being glaringly obvious to most observers.

Ferrari International Assistance?

During the Todt and Schumacher years the FIA were often accused of favoring the Scuderia over their rivals and some Mercedes fans and impartial observers perhaps felt the handling of the incidents between Leclerc and Hamilton during the Monza GP were a return to the old times, with suggestions that the lack of penalties was a means to keep the partisan Italian crowd on side. But what does the code actually say and were the stewards correct?

2(b) Overtaking, according to the circumstances, may be carried out on either the right or the left.
A driver may not deliberately leave the track without justifiable reason.
More than one change of direction to defend a position is not permitted.
Any driver moving back towards the racing line, having earlier defended his position offline, should leave at least one car width between his own car and the edge of the track on the approach to the corner. However, manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited. Any driver who appears guilty of any of the above offences will be reported to the Stewards.

In the first instance Hamilton got a better run through Curva Grande towards the Della Rogia chicane forcing Leclerc to defend the inside, this one defensive move was above board and is allowed in the rules. However, Leclerc subsequently made a second move back to the right to take a more normal racing line into the corner, which is also legal but importantly he left less than one car width to the edge of the track which forced Hamilton onto the grass and into the escape road. As is the wording of the rules the had to be and was reported to the stewards, but no punitive measure is specified for a breach with that at the discretion of the stewards. In this case the race director opted to use the black and white driving standards flag to indicate that while the move breached the code the stewards felt the outcome was not worthy of a penalty as Hamilton had successfully avoided contact, the wording of the rule definitely allowing the stewards to take the outcome into consideration!

Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage. At the absolute discretion of the race director a driver may be given the opportunity to give back the whole of any advantage he gained by leaving the track.

The second talking point involved Leclerc cutting the first chicane after a lockup. In this case the stewards didn't even deem the infraction worth investigating. Again this is a scenario where the wording of the sporting regulations (27.3) and driver code (2(c)) differ - in article 27.3 of the sporting regulations the key point is leaving the track and gaining a "lasting advantage". In this case Leclerc actually lost time to Hamilton, again allowing the Brit to close through Curva Grande where Leclerc made another defensive move to block the inside line into the second chicane. This defensive move coming quite late and aggressively, but contravening neither the sporting regulations or driver's code. In some cases the stewards will deem repeated cutting of a corner as gaining a lasting advantage, but in this case only one cut meant Leclerc was in no breach. The code and application of the rules is not like the ladder systems in the tennis or football code of conduct where a yellow card means the next infraction will see red, and the discretion of the stewards means multiple driving standards flags could be shown to a driver or a straight disqualification if the situation warrants, so in this case the stewards were absolutely correct.

2(d) Causing a collision, repetition of serious mistakes or the appearance of a lack of control over the car (such as leaving the track) will be reported to the Stewards and may entail the imposition of penalties up to and including the exclusion of any driver concerned.

Vettel found himself in trouble for a second time in Monza having spun through Ascari, collecting Lance Stroll's Racing Point as he attempted to rejoin; Stroll himself having a near miss with Pierre Gasly as he rejoined. Both drivers were awarded pit lane penalties with Vettel given a 10s stop-go, the harshest penalty available to the stewards other than disqualification, while Stroll received a drive-through. After the race Stroll stated he believed Vettel only deserved a drive-through, but 2(d) in the code is quite clear that causing a collision is separate and more serious than just rejoining without due care and attention. Interestingly this is the only rule which mentions a possible penalty, and race exclusion at that, and not just that it will be reported to the stewards.

In the case of the race the stewards decisions would all appear to be correct, especially since Spa when race director Michael Masi reintroduced the driving standards flag for minor offenses. However, in qualifying the antics of Hulkenberg (leaving the track and driving slowly), Stroll and Sainz should have received punishment as shown could be so by the F3 stewards. The exact wording though does leave space for interpretation which the F1 team managers will always exploit. Vettel also should have lost his Q3 time as the wording for once seems to leave no wriggle room.