The inaugural 2023 F1 Las Vegas GP is off to a rocky start. But like any new Grand Prix, especially at a street circuit, there were always destined to be teething troubles on the first time around. A manhole cover coming loose on the circuit’s longest straightaway and completely destroying Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari is one thing. The FIA issuing a 10-place grid penalty for replacing the parts is another problem entirely.
It’s a matter of the letter of the regulations versus the circumstances that caused Ferrari to replace Sainz energy store (F1’s term for the hybrid battery) with his third one this season. In F1, all teams are allocated a certain amount of parts for the year, which includes engines, hybrid system components, control electronics, turbochargers, exhausts, and energy stores. Everyone gets two energy stores for the season, and using more than what’s allocated triggers an automatic grid penalty.
The rule is written to prevent teams from overspending on spare parts throughout the season, and also introduces an element of attrition to the competition. Reliability and consistency factors just as much as performance, and big crashes could cost the team more than money. Where it gets complicated is when the circumstances are out of a competitor’s control, and doubly so when the circumstance is a result of track preparation, and thus the FIA's responsibility.
According to The Race, F1 stewards wanted to dismiss the grid penalty, but stated they were "obliged" to apply the letter of the law despite "highly unusual external circumstances." The stewards come off almost apologetic in their judgment, noting that "if they had the authority to grant a derogation in what they consider in this case to be mitigating, unusual and unfortunate circumstances, they would have done so, however the regulations do not allow such action."
Of course, F1 has had difficulties applying the letter of the law versus the spirit of it. The biggest example being the 2021 season finale when former FIA Race Director Michael Masi mishandled the final safety car restart, giving Max Verstappen an advantage over title rival Lewis Hamilton. Or when the FIA brokered a secret deal with Ferrari to keep a lid on potential engine cheating in 2019. Or when Benetton was found with an illegal launch control program in 1994, and the FIA didn’t move to penalize them when they couldn’t prove if the team used it or not.
The point is this: The FIA could waive the grid penalty if it wanted to, even with its insistence that it cannot. This circumstance is exceptional. But F1 is a shark tank, and even the smallest opening can be exploited. In this specific instance, Sainz and Ferrari have been penalized for nothing, team mechanics had to rebuild his car from the ground up, and even Alpine's Esteban Ocon suffered colossal damage from the manhole cover.
As it stands, Sainz is going to serve a penalty for driving on a circuit that wasn't fit for competition. Loose manhole covers have happened at other street circuits, and while being a massive safety hazard, they’ve been fixed quickly. It’s the raising of the hands, the rejection of responsibility, and leaving a team out to dry in the face of a mistake that stings here. And it looks like that isn’t going to change.
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