Why was there a Safety Car for a seemingly innocuous stoppage? Why did Mercedes not realise the pit lane was closed? And was the penalty too severe? MotorsportWeek.com delves into the crucial moments of Formula 1’s Italian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton’s Italian Grand Prix unravelled when he transgressed the regulations by coming into the pit lane after it had been closed. In the space of around 20 seconds the entire complexion of the race was changed.
The World Champion had been comfortably leading the race at Monza when Haas’ Kevin Magnussen stopped exiting Parabolica due to a suspected power unit issue.
It turned the race on its head and resulted in AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly picking up the most unexpected of victories.
Why was a Safety Car needed?
Magnussen had been running at the back of the field after he stopped at the end of the opening lap following front wing damage.
A potentially long afternoon was truncated when his VF-20 developed a power unit problem and he halted on the inside of the circuit exiting Parabolica.
Initially a single waved yellow flag was issued but Race Control then deployed the Safety Car – a decision which on first glance appeared extreme, given Magnussen had stopped near an opening.
But there was a problem – it was not an opening into which his car could be wheeled back.
“It’s actually not a gap in the fence,” said FIA Race Director Michael Masi.
“As drivers and teams are made aware some of the openings are vehicle openings, some are just marshal posts, the shorter orange bands [on the barriers] are just marshal posts so the car would not fit. So the only safe place would have been to push it down into the pit lane.”
Why was the pit lane closed?
Marshals were about to wheel Magnussen’s car into the pit lane – and thus Race Control opted to shut pit lane for safety reasons.
It is a rare occurrence in a Formula 1 race.
Under previous regulations the pit lane was closed as soon as the Safety Car was deployed but this was deemed an unpopular move that risked turning races into a lottery.
In Brazil four years ago the pit lane was shut when Marcus Ericsson crashed heavily through the final kink – it has not happened since then.
How is this signalled to drivers and teams?
When the pit lane is closed there are numerous ways in which drivers and teams are informed of the decision.
“Depending on the circuit there are either two panels or one panel, so the light panels that normally display ‘Safety Car’ and all the other flag signals, have a big red cross on it,” explained Masi.
“At Monza we have two panels that display that cross to signify that pit lane is closed from a trackside perspective. Additionally the software that the teams use has the pit lane shown as red with ‘Pit Lane Closed’, and the third element to that is on the timing page that has all of the incident notifications pop up, that actually says ‘Pit Lane Closed’, on page three.
“The last two panels prior to pit lane entry – I think it’s panels 16 and 17 – and further just to make it clear, that the map indicating those is distributed to all the teams in my event notes and is part of the pit lane diagram. And obviously it’s also what forms part of the race director’s event notes which is used for the drivers’ meeting.”
So why did Mercedes pit?
Quite simply they did not pick up quickly enough what was happening. The pit lane was closed at 15:41:47 and Hamilton entered the pit lane at 15:41:59. That was a gap of just 12 seconds – some of which included the time in which Hamilton was already committed to the line.
Hamilton was called into pit and just as he was about to enter the pit lane – with no way of backing out – a team member back at its Brackley base noticed Race Control’s message and shouted to abort, an instruction that was given to the driver via engineer Pete Bonnington. But by then it was too late.
“One of the strategists shouted into the radio while we were entering the pit lane and there was confusion as you are preparing yourself for the pit stop to make it [the stop] good,” said team boss Toto Wolff.
“We were looking at this situation, no one looks at page 4 [of timing] that the pit lane is closed, we can’t see the signs, this is just the sequence of events that screwed Lewis’ race and while we’re not happy you have to take it on the chin.”
Did Hamilton see the stewards?
The suspension of the race following Charles Leclerc’s hefty accident afforded Hamilton an opportunity to converse with the stewards – with TV cameras capturing the Briton walking through the corridors inside the expansive main building.
“I spoke to the team, they didn’t have any video, and I just wanted to see what had been missed, because I could have sworn on the entry to the pit lane there was no red light,” said Hamilton. “They just quickly showed me the onboard, and there were two signs that had an X on it. I actually didn’t see them, because I was looking elsewhere.”
Masi, who operates in a different room, was not present but “from my understanding it was that once he saw the footage he came across fairly content. As content as you can be.”
Was the penalty too harsh?
Daniel Ricciardo was issued a five-second time penalty for the same transgression in Brazil 2016 but since then the regulations have been changed. The hands of the stewards were tied – there was not a range of options from which they could have selected: their only choice was a 10-second stop/go penalty. All of the Sporting Regulations were agreed upon by the Team Managers and each year they have the opportunity to review them.
“Naturally it feels severe,” said Hamilton. “I think ultimately, a stop and go penalty, often I would imagine would come if you have done something intentional, if you’re driving dramatically and put someone in danger maybe.
“Having experienced it and ultimately almost put you out of the race, 30 seconds behind the last car, it’s not the greatest thing for racing, but there are the other side of things where we could have had a free stop which no-one else got to do. I do understand it.”