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Formula 1

Verstappen's defence of Vegas GP penalty choice misses the point

by Josh Suttill
5 min read

Max Verstappen accepted that he deserved a five-second penalty for forcing Charles Leclerc off the road on the opening lap of the Las Vegas Grand Prix - but in doing so he missed the flaw in Formula 1's most abused penalty.

A highly entertaining fight for the Las Vegas GP started with Verstappen forcing his RB19 down the inside of poleman Leclerc into the low-speed Turn 1 left-hander.

Both drivers braked as late as they could and Verstappen skirted just beyond the limit of the track, taking Leclerc with him.

Verstappen claimed the lead but the stewards took a dim view and quickly dished out their penalty of choice in 2023: a five-second time penalty to be served at Verstappen's next pitstop.

While Verstappen was unhappy with the penalty initially, upon a post-race review and chat with Leclerc, he accepted full responsibility.

"The start was good then we both braked quite late to defend the position, but I was on the inside on the dirt I guess," Verstappen said after the race.

"As soon as you're a bit off-line here, it's just super low grip. I braked and there was no grip.

"I didn't mean to push Charles off the track but I couldn't slow down. I just kept sliding on, four wheels wide.

"That's why we had to go wide. At the time you're also full of adrenaline. And I was not happy with the decision but looking back at it, it was probably right call.

"And after that, with that five-second [penalty], it was definitely a bit harder to come back to the front."

Leclerc agreed it was deserved but believes there would be a better way to penalise drivers.

"Max already came to me and explained to me the situation," Leclerc said.

"It was on the limit...over the limit and I think the five-second penalty is deserved. It was tight, I still tried to push off track but it was so low grip to try and keep that position, but it's way it is.

"Then he has been penalised, he paid the penalty. And that was the right penalty to give. It's like this.

"In those kinds of situations, it will be better for the FIA to ask to give the place back because there's quite a bit of an advantage to take care of tyres when you have free air. But it's way it is."

When asked for his thoughts on Leclerc's suggestion of a 'hand position back' order, Verstappen didn't see the point.

"We opted to just stay ahead [rather than hand the position back]," Verstappen said.

"Then you take the five-second penalty. I don't know what's better in the end...I mean, I paid the penalty. So doesn't matter in a way.

"If you go back behind you probably also end up losing whatever, five seconds. It's pretty similar in the end."

The Race says

The problem with Verstappen's logic is that it is only a "similar" penalty in some circumstances.

The slew of what have seemed to be premeditated illegal overtakes throughout this year have not happened because drivers felt the 5s penalty was similar to staying behind the car they were attacking. They were done because the penalty of 5s was far less costly than having to stay in the dirty air of a slower car.

Take George Russell's blatant off-track move around the outside of Oscar Piastri at Turn 12 in the Austin sprint or his chicane-skipping pass on Esteban Ocon at Monza.

When a faster car is losing seconds per lap behind a slower car it can often be advantageous to just sweep that slower car out of the way and take a five-second penalty that can be nullified within a couple of laps.

The key difference was there was little evidence that Verstappen's Vegas move was premeditated. His explanation of sliding off the track - when the majority of the field did the same - is valid but a five-second time penalty to fix it felt wrong.

Yes Leclerc's pace and medium tyre management were enough for him to stay with Verstappen this time, but ordinarily, the Red Bull's advantage would be such that Verstappen could carve out a five-second lead comfortably.

It was simply a quirk of the closer Red Bull-Ferrari pecking order in the first stint that stopped this penalty from looking silly.

If the incident takes place in the final stint - where Verstappen had the legs to pull a significant gap over Leclerc and only slowed in the closing laps to help Perez stay ahead of him - it would have decided the race and inevitably caused ill-feeling.

Swapping the drivers back to their rightful positions (while not always the right solution as either driver could pit and drop out of reach), removes the element of doubt over whether the penalty is punishing that driver enough.

Sometimes they'll lose more than five seconds by reverting positions, sometimes they won't, but at least the wronged driver has a chance to fight it again.

You can't blame Verstappen for his view. Within the context of this race, the choice of penalty probably didn't change much. But that's reflective of the luck of the shape of the pecking order rather than the appropriateness of the penalty.

More often than not, the stewards dishing out a five-second penalty for a faster car forcing a slower car off the road is still unfit for purpose.

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