Feature: F1’s curious history of the first finisher not finishing first

A race really should be simple. You get to the end before anyone else, you win. That’s how it works. Right?

Well, in Formula 1, only usually. Here things are never necessarily quite so simple. We had our latest demonstration in Canada last weekend. As has been much ruminated on during and since, Sebastian Vettel getting to the chequered flag first was in fact an optical illusion, and we knew as much in advance.

As he was getting five seconds added to his race time for an earlier incident where he rejoined the track ahead of his pursuer Lewis Hamilton. After the punishment was confirmed, Hamilton sat on the Ferrari’s gearbox to a nicety, and – officially – got the win.

On the penalty, for what it’s worth, Damon Hill’s take was the closest to my own. That “there was enough doubt to let them carry on”. And where there’s doubt – i.e. if the case is marginal – officialdom’s default should be to butt out. But still given the way the regulations currently are – and as noted the offence was at least give-able – I can forgive the stewards for coming to the conclusion they did. Beat that for fence sitting.

Also the strict rules and application to an extent exist for a reason, as a common complaint in recent years has been the lack of stewarding consistency. As has often been noted, and not just in F1, a quest for consistency begets strict rules. As you can’t simultaneously have consistency plus a flexible posture for ‘common sense’ (whatever that means) to be applied in certain cases. So, not for the first time, the bottom line is F1 folk needing to decide what they want F1 to be.

Given that time penalties are often handed out like sweeties these days, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it had been over a decade since the previous time a winner changed due to the stewards adding to the time of the one first to the chequered flag. In that preceding case, ironically enough, Hamilton was the victim and Ferrari the beneficiary, when Lewis got 25 seconds added post-hoc in Spa 2008, for a late pass of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, which came just after he’d cut a chicane. Raikkonen later binned it, meaning his Scuderia team-mate Felipe Massa, never a win contender on the road that day, got elevated to victory.

Damon Hill’s take was the closest to my own. That “there was enough doubt to let them carry on”. And where there’s doubt officialdom’s default should be to butt out

Yet there were plenty of parallels then with what happened in Montreal: a marginal call, based on strict interpretation of current rules and precedent. That went down like a lead balloon.

But there were times before that too, albeit of a variation. The history of F1 penalties is a curious thing. For the most part penalties barely existed. The stop-go didn’t come in until 1991, Pierluigi Martini getting the dubious distinction of being the first to serve one, in Monaco that year for some blocking. The range of time penalties, so familiar today, came in even later.

And prior to 1991, beyond the ubiquitous threat of fines, essentially the only sanction available to stewards for driving offences was the ultimate one of a disqualification (though, amusingly, for a long part of F1 past a black flag meant only going into the pits for a telling off by the clerk of the course before getting back on with it, rather than being thrown out altogether).

The restricted options created two common consequences. That sometimes outrageous pieces of driving would not be punished at all. And that trifling offences sometimes received the ultimate penalty of being scratched from the race. “It’s like the death penalty for a parking offence,” was a persistent refrain back in the day.

Yet, in penalty terms, there was one exception. That a jump start would get a one-minute penalty. And on three occasions in history we had a similar occasion to last Sunday in Montreal, that we reached the end of a race knowing that the guy in first wasn’t actually first as far as the time-keepers were concerned, as they were getting docked a minute. Curiously, two of the three were at the self-same Montreal circuit for the Canadian Grand Prix.

Given that time penalties are often handed out like sweeties these days, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that it had been over a decade since the previous time a winner changed

And one of them altered not only the race victory, but the outcome of the championship. Well, it at least brought forward confirmation of where the title would probably have gone anyway.

The year was 1980 and Nelson Piquet’s Brabham and Alan Jones’s Williams were contending for the crown at Montreal, the penultimate round of that year. Come the race, Piquet cleared off in the lead, then his engine failed. This meant a race win for Jones, now leading, would ensure the title for the Australian. Trouble was, Didier Pironi in the classic Ligier JS11 was all over him like a bad suit.

But at almost the same moment word emerged that Pironi had been penalised a minute for jumping the start. He soon was by Jones and moving clear. But him being first to the flag was converted to third in the results. Jones was champion.

The next one was 10 years later. Gerhard Berger had moved to dominant McLaren-Honda but was having a tricky baptism. In Canada he joined team-mate Ayrton Senna on the front row, but moved before the starting signal. It didn’t do much for him as he arrested his forward momentum before the green light came on, but the minute’s penalty was just the same. If you’re going to do the time Gerhard, you may as well do the crime…

In a wet-dry race that McLaren had to itself, Senna seemed happy to ‘let Berger go’. And indeed the Austrian put in a fine and aggressive drive, and finished first on the road by the tune of 45s. But, somehow in doleful keeping with his tricky McLaren initiation, it converted to a Senna win and Berger classified just fourth.

A jump start used to get a one-minute penalty, and on three occasions we had a similar occasion to last Sunday in Montreal. Curiously, two of the three were at the self-same Montreal circuit

The third of these cases was the first chronologically. It came in the tragic 1978 Italian Grand Prix; indeed the tragedy may have contributed to it. At the initial attempt at a race get-go the starter did the standard Monza trick of showing the green light before all of the field had come to a halt in their grid slots. This, with cars at the back having greater forward momentum than those ahead, may have contributed to the resultant startline carnage, after which Ronnie Peterson would die on the operating table.

Then in the re-start attempt some time later, the starter went apparently to the opposite extreme and waited an interminable time before shining the green. A young and excitable Gilles Villeneuve, starting on the front row for the Ferrari home team, eventually twitched and decided to go before the light changed. Mario Andretti, starting alongside, resolved to go with him.

The rest never saw them again, as pair then contested the lead in a race of two. Most assumed that this being a Ferrari in Italy, the stewards would turn a blind eye. But no, the PA burst with the news, to the gasps of those watching on, that the front pair were each having a minute added. Andretti beat Villeneuve to the flag, but sixth and seventh respectively was their reward. Niki Lauda was declared an unlikely winner for Brabham.

And yes, there have also been winners changed post hoc due to disqualifications. Though again F1 went decades without so much as the concept of such a thing. Indeed, when, briefly, James Hunt’s McLaren was disqualified from his 1976 Spanish Grand Prix victory, Peter Windsor noted that at the time a disqualification in scrutineering was an “unheard of situation…something that nobody in Formula 1 really was prepared for”. Indeed, F1 regs until then for the most part could fit on the back of a paper napkin while the maximum car dimensions, of which Hunt fell foul, thanks to using bulgier tyres than before, had only just been brought in.

When, briefly, James Hunt’s McLaren was disqualified from his 1976 Spanish Grand Prix victory, Peter Windsor noted that at the time a disqualification in scrutineering was an “unheard of situation…something that nobody in Formula 1 really was prepared for”

Hunt a few weeks later became the first winner to be permanently disqualified, when he had his British race win taken away for not completing the opening lap when the race was stopped for a first-corner pile up.

In early 1982 Nelson Piquet was scratched from his Brazilian Grand Prix victory, as was Keke Rosberg’s Williams from second place, as officialdom struck back against a wheeze employed by the non-turbo and therefore lighter Cosworth-powered brigade to run under weight – with a water tank supposedly for brake cooling which they could handily fill up before being weighed by scrutineers. Renault’s Alain Prost got the win. Oddly, other Cossie runners using exactly the same wheeze weren’t kicked out and were elevated in the Brazil results.

As if to demonstrate yin and yang, Prost then lost his 1985 San Marino Grand Prix victory to Elio de Angelis’s Lotus after the event. The Imola race was notoriously tight on fuel consumption, and Prost did too good a job of eking it out. His McLaren with almost literally no fuel in it turned out to be marginally under the minimum weight. Yes, you’ve probably twigged by now that silly F1 sanctions are far from an exclusive preserve of the modern age.

In 1989 Prost was the beneficiary as Senna, in a well-trodden tale, lost his Suzuka win, thus confirming Prost’s third championship. While Michael Schumacher lost the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix to Hill’s Williams due to excessive plank wear.

And there was another case of the driver home first not winning, though not due to stewards’ sanction.  Another way things were done differently in the past was when a race was stopped mid-way through, then restarted for its completion. Now it’s a simple restart. Then they sought to factor in the gaps established in the first part of the race, and based the final result on an aggregate time of parts one and two. It meant the picture on track was not the picture on the timing screens.

In the 1987 Mexican Grand Prix, Piquet lost a tonne of time in a first-lap contretemps with Prost. The race was then stopped at half-distance due to a big Derek Warwick crash. Piquet then seized the lead at the restart and was first to the flag, but by then he’d only made back 19 of the 45 seconds he’s lost to his Williams team-mate Nigel Mansell in part one. And so Mansell was the victor. Piquet getting the unwanted status of twice being first home and not first in the results.

Vettel by comparison maybe should count himself lucky.