Regardless of how amazing the internals of Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso looked during the final seconds of qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix, I am simply staggered that the Dutch driver has only been slapped with a drive-through penalty for Sunday’s race.
The incident in question – where his poorly-bolted-on engine cover blew off and exploded into countless shards of carbon fibre pieces in the final seconds of the session – was born of such incredible and willfully egregious negligence by the team that there should be no sound reason why the FIA Stewards didn’t disqualify the driver and team from the rest of the weekend.
What resulted could have been far worse, and – I don’t want to sound like I’m dramatising this – led to the potential of a serious accident, injuries, or even death if the timing and circumstances of the incident had been different.
Here are the facts:
- The Toro Rosso team elected to perform another power unit element change on Max Verstappen’s STR10 following Saturday’s final practice session with the aim for him to run in qualifying. The final works were still being carried out at the start of the Q1 qualifying session.
- Verstappen was going to incur a 30-place grid penalty per the Sporting Regulations, as he had exceeded his allocation of power unit element changes for the season already. He was one of six drivers set to be issued grid penalties of between 10 and 50 places for Sunday’s race.
- Only Red Bull Racing duo Daniel Ricciardo (50 places) and Daniil Kvyat (35 places) were going to incur bigger grid penalties, and with a 20-car grid, he would theoretically start no better than 18th or 19th on the grid even without setting a qualifying time at all.
- With less than one minute of Q1 remaining, Verstappen was dispatched from the pits, ostensibly to determine if the replacement power unit elements had been installed correctly and all systems were working prior to being put in parc fermé conditions where no further works can be performed.
- It would be impossible for Verstappen to complete an out-lap and start a ‘timed’ lap where he could attempt to officially qualify for the race. As he had already posted lap-times within the 107% threshold in the earlier practice sessions, his starting Sunday’s race was never in doubt.
- Accelerating from the first chicane to the Curva Grande, Verstappen’s engine over detached and shattered into multiple pieces across the width of the track, leading to a localised yellow-flag zone. No driver who had started a timed lap and who still had to negotiate this section of the track would have been able to improve on whatever fastest lap time they had posted.
The FIA Stewards’ panel issued a notification that Verstappen and the team had been reported for allegedly violating Article 23.12 of the FIA Formula 1 Sporting Regulations, the extract of which read as follows:
That the Toro Rosso team was in breach of this rule is beyond doubt.
Verstappen later admitted it, and confirmed that the team’s mechanics had now properly secured his car’s bodywork before he was released from the garage.
“I think the bodywork was only like 50 per cent [secured], from all the bolts, because they [the mechanics] thought it would hold on, as it’s quite strong,” he said after qualifying.
“OK, we all saw that some bodywork came off the car when I was out on track, but you have to understand that [the mechanics] always try their best, they wanted me to get out there and these things sometimes happen when you are on the limit, fighting against time.”
Having bits falling off cars shortly after being in the pits is a thankfully rare occurrence, but this can have serious consequences. Recall the German Grand Prix of 2013 at the Nürburgring, when Mark Webber’s wheel came off after a pit stop, bounced down the pit lane and flattened a FOM cameraman. He suffered a broken collarbone and a couple of broken ribs.
Having parts falling off cars at speed is dangerous.
We don’t need to be reminded of how a damper spring fell off the back of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP Mercedes during qualifying at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, which bounced into Felipe Massa’s helmet and almost killed the Ferrari driver.
His accident came just a week after the death of Formula 2 driver Henry Surtees, who was killed after being struck in the head by a detached wheel.
And less than two weeks’ ago, former F1 driver Justin Wilson was killed after being hit in the head by debris from another car which crashed during the final laps of the IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway.
Wilson used to drive for Toro Rosso in 2003 when it was known as Minardi.
While Formula 1 works to find solutions to prevent head injuries to other drivers in the future, is the sport’s collective memory that short that it can’t appreciate the obvious risks of Toro Rosso’s actions in this situation?
What if another car had been closely following Verstappen and been struck by the debris, or punctured a tyre on acceleration through one of the fastest corners on the Formula 1 calendar and where there is barely any run-off before you hit a wall?
What if the debris path had been different, perhaps striking a track marshal or spectator? There were three track marshals standing just a few metres from where it happened:
Granted, none of this happened this time – thanks only to the luck of physics and milli-second timing – but what if it had?
I see comparisons between this situation and what happened at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, where the driver in question inferred that his team tried to kill, or at least injure, him.
The team and driver in question were Andrea Moda and Perry McCarthy, respectively. The Andrea Moda outfit had earned a reputation as one of the jokes of the paddock and had qualified for just one race all season. The team’s owner didn’t actually want McCarthy to drive for him, and conspired to use a wealth of tactics to ensure the Englishman never got out of pre-qualifying, such as sending him out on a bone dry track on wet tyres, or only releasing him from the pits with less than a minute of the session to go.
The FIA had enough of these antics and by the time the grid headed to Belgium, demanded that the team genuinely attempt to field two cars. The demise of the Brabham team ensured that Andrea Moda would not have to prequalify, and in qualifying McCarthy was sent out onto the track only to find his steering failed through – of all places – Eau Rouge.
“I went into Eau Rouge, desperately trying to take it flat, and the steering seized,” he recalled in his autobiography, Flat Out, Flat Broke. “I still don’t know how I made it through the corner.” When he challenged his mechanics on the steering failure, they were not concerned. “Oh yeah, we know. That’s the duff one we took off Roberto’s [Moreno] car at the last race.”
The FIA had enough and banned the team for bringing the sport into disrepute.
It’s of course ridiculous to suggest Toro Rosso would try and kill a driver who is undoubtedly one of the stars of the future, but I am arguing that the team knowingly allowed one of its cars onto a circuit when it was clearly unsafe to do so.
The team cannot claim ignorance of this fact, nor can they claim ignorance of the potential risks to drivers, marhals and spectators by doing so. The rules are extremely clear. People can die – and have died – from being hit by debris. That fact is irrefutable.
But where too is the FIA’s accountability in all of this? The FIA has pledged to undertake further activities to make drivers safer in the wake of Justin Wilson’s fatal accident, and it could – and should – have used this incident to draw a clear line in the sand. A line that can no longer be crossed.
The rules as they are written indicate a minimum penalty of a grid drop. In the past, however, teams were handed big fines for releasing their cars in an unsafe condition.
Why was there no fine (not that it would have made much of a difference)? Why didn’t the FIA use this opportunity to put their foot down and say ‘This conduct is completely unacceptable’ and make an example of Toro Rosso – are we to suggest that drinks giant Red Bull has too much clout? Why is this yet another example of the FIA’s weak governance under the presidency of Jean Todt? Why will no one take a stance?
Until the sport ‘walks the talk’ and starts taking a zero tolerance approach to these kind of safety breaches, we will continue to run the risk that somewhere, at some point, another person will be seriously injured or killed.
To continue down this path is irresponsible. It is negligent. It is repugnant. It is appalling.
Images via ESPN, FOM, Scuderia Toro Rosso