Why Vettel had to pay the penalty

Sky Sports F1 commentary expert Mark Hughes on the history behind Sebastian Vettel's penalty at Monza, why the punishment was inevitable, and whether Red Bull ought to be concerned at their lack of straight-line speed in Italy...

Last Updated: 11/09/12 1:45pm

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The two scenes were remarkably similar: curve grande 2011, the same place in 2012, Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull and Fernando Alonso's Ferrari fighting it out, one of them trying for the brave outside line, putting himself at the mercy of the other at over 180mph - and finding himself in the next moment with his outside wheels on the grass. The only difference was the reverse positions, with Alonso the man on the outside this year.

Well, that's not quite the only difference: Vettel left rather less room than Alonso had, and it was this together with the new-for-2012 wording of the prescribed etiquette within the sporting regulations - against a backdrop of the stewards clamping down on driving standards following Spa - that made Vettel's drive-through penalty inevitable.

What Alonso did last year as Vettel came to his outside was, quite early in the corner, twitch slightly towards the Red Bull and it was this shimmy to the left that Vettel reacted to, for he could not be sure that it wasn't the beginning of Alonso choosing to take up the whole width of track. As it turned out, Alonso did leave a car's width to his left (just), but Vettel was partly on the grass by this time.

Fernando made the point afterwards that he had left Seb room but he'd chosen to drive on the grass. But that was disingenuous; yes, he did ultimately leave Vettel enough room for Seb not to have needed to drive off the track. But Alonso's twitch to the left just before that signalled that he wasn't going to. He'd dummied him off the track, essentially. Vettel was angry about it - and has referred to it on occasion since, once in a jokey but pointed way in a press conference with Alonso sitting alongside him, finishing his sentence with, 'That's right isn't it, Fernando?'

Had that 2011 incident not happened, would Vettel have done what he did on Sunday? Only he can truly know that. But, defending against a significantly faster car, Vettel was surely highly motivated in dishing out a bit of natural justice. The fact that they are each in contention for the world championship just added extra spice to the incident. But the fact remains that Vettel actually did choose to take up almost the full width of the track in the full knowledge that Alonso was to his outside - and that does break the letter of the regulation.

Last year that etiquette was not worded in the regulation (though it was already how Charlie Whiting expected the drivers to behave, as was evidenced when he warned Mercedes that Michael Schumacher should leave a car's width to his outside in his dice with Lewis Hamilton) but even if it had been Alonso could have argued that he had left that room. The regulations did not and do not cover any intimidatory feigning moves before the moment of truth.

That naughty little twitch of Alonso's in 2011 failed to stop Vettel then, but may well played its part in getting him penalised this year; though as it turned out it had no direct championship implications because of Vettel's later alternator failure.

But a question highlighted by the incident was just why the Red Bull was so much slower than the Ferrari at Monza - Alonso was only behind because he was recovering from a mechanical failure in qualifying that had left him starting 10th in a car that had looked good for pole, something that was well out of reach of the Red Bull. It's true that the RB8 was well down on end-of-straight speeds, but that was also the case last year when Vettel dominated the race.

Slow end-of-straight speeds are not necessarily a defining disadvantage at Monza - so long as you are coming onto those straights faster than the others, as Vettel was last year. It's the speed profile through the entire straight that is much more important than the headline numbers through the speed trap. Kimi Raikkonen for example complained after the race that he was unable to defend because he was slow on the pit straight, yet a look at the speed trap figures from the end of the straight showed the Lotus to be the fastest of all.

What he was referring to was how slow he was onto and into the first part of the straight because his very low-downforce set up had made him slow through the preceding Parabolica. The high end of straight speeds of that set up weren't even overcoming how much time had been lost by entering the straight so much slower. Red Bull opted for the opposite approach, gaining as much time as possible through the turns to get onto the straights quicker. But unlike last year, the Red Bull had no corner speed advantage over the others.

It is probably significant that the two extremes of set up came on two cars powered by the Renault engine, as if they were trying different ways to minimise the same shortfall - top end engine power. The Renault is an excellent engine over the full spectrum of circuits but for all-out top end power demanded by Monza it definitely falls short of Mercedes and Ferrari. It has terrific low-speed punch, driveability and fuel economy but these are not as heavily rewarded at Monza as elsewhere. Last year Renault led the way the sophistication of mapping required for exhaust-blown diffusers, and that helped give the Red Bull a traction advantage out of the Monza chicanes. That advantage has been nullified by the 2012 regulations banning this type of mapping.

Much of Red Bull's 2011 advantage appears to have been derived from the better job it was doing with exhaust-blown aerodynamics than the others. Without that, the 2012 car is merely competitive and at Monza it was only barely even that - reverting back to how Red Bulls always used to be at there in fact.

But of the remaining tracks on the calendar there are none which should penalise the RB8 in this way. So expect the team to return to full competitiveness - and for there to be more Alonso/Vettel grudge matches.

MH

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