A month ago, if anyone had asked me who the happiest Formula 1 driver would be at the start of the 2022 season, I would probably not have said Aston Martin racer Fernando Alonso. Now, the 41-year-old driver has claimed back-to-back podiums in the opening two F1 races of the year. But his third-place finish in Saudi Arabia yesterday certainly came with its fair share of drama.
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Alonso is having a great start to 2023. After leaving Alpine to join the British side for the new season, the Spanish driver sits third in the driver’s standings after finishing third in both the opening Bahrain race and this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
But, Alonso’s claim to his second podium of the year proved contentious this weekend due to a penalty he picked up at the start of the race, and the way he served said penalty. Let me explain.
Things started to look troublesome for Alonso at the end of the parade lap that the cars complete before the race begins. After running around the circuit at slow speeds, each car then lines up in its grid box to start the race. But when Alonso lined his Aston Martin up for lights out at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, he appeared to be too far to the left of his box.
As F1 fans saw in Bahrain, the sport’s governing body keeps a close eye on a car’s position at the start of the race, and measures it with sensors on the car and track. So, as soon as the message came in that Alonso was under investigation for his position, a penalty seemed certain.
As expected, a five-second time penalty came Alonso’s way. This meant that when he stopped in the pits to change tires, the mechanics and engineers would have to hold the car for five seconds before they could begin work.
When the Spaniard stopped on lap 18 for fresh tires, his mechanics did just that. This meant that the total time for Alonso’s stop was 26.879 seconds, where frontrunner Sergio Perez was in the pits for just 20.715 seconds.
That, it seemed, was that.
But then, in the closing stages of the race, fourth-place-running George Russell with Mercedes was told to try and close up on third-place Alonso, as a penalty might be coming for the Aston Martin driver. The Mercedes driver was told to try and get within five seconds of Alosno, just in case third place was up for grabs.
Onlookers were confused, and then Martin Brundle in the commentary box started explaining that it could all be to do with the way Alonso served his penalty. Then, lo and behold, after the race was finished and the Spaniard had sprayed his third-place Champagne, he was handed a ten-second time penalty for failing to serve his previous penalty correctly.
According to documents shared by the FIA, the rules state that mechanics can touch “no part of the car” while it’s serving a time penalty in the pits. When Alosno came in to stop, “it was clear that the car was touched by the rear jack,” the sporting body said. This counted as “working” on the car, and meant that Alonso had failed to serve his penalty correctly.
So, third place was handed to Mercedes’ George Russell, who got his hands on the trophy and, presumably, Alonso’s now-empty bottle of Champagne.
But it wasn’t over yet: Aston Martin appealed the decision made by the FIA and the Formula 1 stewards.
The British team went in all guns-a-blazing for its appeal. They took footage of other cars serving similar penalties to the stewards, as well as minutes from the meeting in which Formula 1 decided on the definition for “working” on a car in a penalty situation. They argued that the steward’s decision that touching the car equaled working on the car was wrong. According to the FIA:
Having reviewed the new evidence, we concluded that there was no clear agreement, as was suggested to the Stewards previously, that could be relied upon to determine that parties had agreed that a jack touching a car would amount to working on the car, without more.
In the circumstances, we considered that our original decision to impose a penalty on Car 14 needed to be reversed and we did so accordingly.
As such, Alonso had his ten-second time penalty reversed, and his podium trophy reinstated. This gave the veteran driver his 100th podium in Formula 1, making him just the sixth driver to hit triple-digit podiums, after Lewis Hamilton (191), Michael Schumacher(155), Sebastian Vettel (122), Alain Prost (106) and Kimi Räikkönen (103).