Insight: The tightrope Sebastian Vettel must now walk

Sebastian Vettel is on a fine line

Sebastian Vettel is now one major blunder, or a couple of minor errors, away from being the first driver to face a suspension under Formula 1’s penalty points system.

A driver being banned from a grand prix is a rare occurrence. Since the turn of the millennium it has befallen only two drivers: Yuji Ide had his Super License revoked after four rounds of the 2006 campaign – when it was realised that he was hopelessly out of his depth – while in 2012 Romain Grosjean was banned for one event for his part in the Belgian GP start pile-up.

In 2014 the FIA introduced a new system in which drivers could be issued penalty points for transgressions at grand prix weekends.

Formula 1 drivers must not exceed 12 penalty points, accrued across a rolling 12-month period, as if they do so they will be suspended from the following event. 

No-one has yet fallen foul of the margin, with the closest anyone has got being 10: Daniil Kvyat in 2017 and Grosjean in 2018, both for brief spells.

Vettel has received the most penalty points of any driver since the measurement was introduced and in 2017 his tally reached nine, coming after his deliberate clash with Lewis Hamilton in Azerbaijan.

On that occasion he successfully negotiated the following event in Austria, after which points from 12 months previously were removed, and he remained comfortably the correct side of the limit. 

But his latest error means he faces a delicate balancing act across the next trio of events – and even beyond. 

Vettel picked up two penalty points for a red flag transgression during practice in Austin last year, two for his antics in Canada, and a further two for colliding with Max Verstappen in Britain.

Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel received two penalty points for this collision at the British GP

That means two of his nine points will be removed this year, but not until October 19 – a year to the date since his Austin transgression – meaning he will be on the edge in Singapore, Russia and Japan.

Even after October 19 he will be on seven until at least June 8, 2020, a year after this season’s Canadian Grand Prix. 

Drivers can amass penalty points for an array of incidents on track.

Vettel’s three penalty points at Monza came for unsafely re-joining the track and for causing a collision, which are deemed some of the most severe offences. Do that again and he’s out. 

Typically causing a collision has resulted in drivers picking up two penalty points, though they can also be earned for such offences as leaving the track and gaining an advantage, failing to slow for yellow flags, timing errors under the Safety Car, and for ignoring blue flags. Crossing the white line at pit exit has also come with a penalty point.  

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were issued one penalty point each in Austria for impeding another driver during qualifying. 

It means Vettel will have to be squeaky clean across the coming rounds to avoid the ignominy of hitting the dreaded 12-points cut-off mark.  

Ferrari has ex-F1 racers Pascal Wehrlein and Brendon Hartley as simulator drivers but, in the event of Vettel being suspended, Alfa Romeo racer Antonio Giovinazzi would be its most likely option. Alfa Romeo would then have the ability to draft in reserve and ex-F1 driver Marcus Ericsson.