Ferrari walked away from the Australian Grand Prix with no points on the board, when it seemed that up until late on, its pain of losing Charles Leclerc on the opening lap would be compensated by Carlos Sainz’s fourth-place finish.
But a decision to red flag the race following Kevin Magnussen’s crash at Turn 2 changed matters and put Ferrari’s hopes of coming away from the race with something of value in disarray.
At the following restart, Sainz was involved in a collision with compatriot Fernando Alonso, who was running in third place.
Starting from fourth, Sainz was slow out of his grid box, while beside him, Pierre Gasly moved ahead on the run to the first corner. Tyre and brake temperatures were low and Sainz was no doubt eager to stay ahead of the Alpine – but in his haste to do so he took an early apex at Turn 1, ran out wide and into Alonso’s Aston Martin.
For Alonso, the contact ultimately failed to impact his result. He took third place as the FIA opted to reinstate the order from the chaotic start after a third red flag was shown.
But Sainz was still slapped with a five-second time penalty, which demoted him out of the points after the cars toured the circuit for a final time behind the Safety Car.
Sainz was distraught when he was informed about his penalty. He pleaded over team radio that it was not the right way to deal with it, and told media after the race that it was “the most unfair penalty I’ve ever seen”.
It is understandable that Sainz wanted to wait until after the race to plead his case. There was just one racing lap left to run behind the Safety Car, after which he could’ve made his way up to the Stewards’ room and provided his side of the accident.
Sainz also argued that it was a “lap one” incident, with the Stewards known to be particularly lenient on dishing out penalties for crashes that occur on the opening lap due to their naturally feisty nature and the difficulty of avoiding them due to the close quarters of the pack.
But that rule remains a baffling one, as a driver needs to be held accountable if they ruin another competitor’s race – regardless of whether it’s the start, middle or end of the grand prix.
In addition, this was not lap one. It was the penultimate tour of the circuit, and although the situation mirrored the start of a race, the stakes were much higher given there was only a handful of corners remaining in the race.
The Spaniard also pointed out over team radio that Alonso was going to finish third regardless of the incident as Race Control called the restart order that was set up prior to the collision.
Alonso was therefore lucky that his car didn’t suffer terminal damage as he wouldn’t have been able to take the restart – a fate that befell the Alpine duo.
But Sainz’s plea to let him go to the Stewards room and argue his case likely would not have changed anything. The Ferrari driver misjudged the first corner and spun a rival around, and although Alonso had his third-place finish reinstated, there can’t be free passes handed out for colliding with another driver on the basis of an anomaly.
Had the race not been red flagged and Alonso was demoted to the back of the pack, Sainz likely still would’ve copped a penalty – and whether it was five or 10 seconds, it would’ve been damaging as the field was still so close.
Sainz posed as the victim post-race. There is a sense of compassion that exists for him given he went from a sniff at a podium to zero points in a blink, but he was the maker of his own downfall. In the immediate aftermath of such a situation, it is often difficult to recognise that as he felt he was dealt with harshly.
But he caused a collision and was punished duly. The red flag and restart situation that followed is irrelevant when dealing with errant driving.
The Stewards did their job and although Sainz feels he was hard done by, he was the only one at fault in that scenario. Seeking an exemption was not right and would set a dangerous precedent for other drivers going forward, should a similar situation arise again.