Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher was penalised for overtaking Fernando Alonso on the last lap of the Monaco Grand Prix. But the penalty was unjustifiably harsh and, besides, was his overtaking even illegal in the first place?
This weekend’s Grand Prix was a procession. Mark Webber led from start to finish and the top 10 was almost identical to the grid.
Aside from the crashes and the continuing dominance of Red Bull, there were few talking points. That was, until the final lap.
Jarno Trulli crashed into Karun Chandok four laps from the end, bringing out the safety car for the third time. The wreckage was cleared in time for the final lap, when the safety car dove into the pits and the drivers rounded the Rascasse and Anthony Noghes corners to the finish line.
On the exit from Rascasse, Schumacher—sitting seventh—went up the side of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and took sixth place from the Spaniard.
After the race, the FIA gave Schumacher a 20 second penalty, demoting him to 12th and costing him eight World Championship points.
The FIA, motorsport’s governing body, said that the German had passed Alonso when the race was still under safety car conditions, when it is illegal to overtake. However, debate remains over whether or not the pass was illegal.
The rule at the crux of this matter is Article 40.13 of the F1 Sporting Regulations, which states:
If the race ends whilst the safety car is deployed it will enter the pit lane at the end of the last lap and the cars will take the chequered flag as normal without overtaking.
Article 40.7 is actually relevant also:
Overtaking is forbidden until the cars reach the first safety car line after the safety car has returned to the pits.
As is so often the case with the rules in Formula One, this debate comes down to interpretation.
There is still the small issue of why green flags were waved, green lights turned on and the ‘SC’ boards held out by marshals withdrawn behind the barriers. A green flag means the driver has passed the potential danger point and prohibitions imposed by yellow flags have been lifted. The phrase often used is ‘proceed at race speed.’
Schumacher was clear in his understanding of the rules: "We got the message that the safety car was in and the track was clear, that means we are back racing, so I took my opportunity.”
There is precedent for this, not that the FIA ever cared much for consistency. When the 2009 Australian Grand Prix finished under the safety car, the ‘SC’ boards and yellow flags were still being held out by the marshals.
No one tried to overtake because clearly they could not. If you wave green flags, what is that but a signal that overtaking is allowed?
Back then, of course, the rule regarding overtaking under the safety car was different. It stated that once the car pulled into the pits, overtaking could resume after the drivers had crossed the start/finish line.
This year, as Article 40.7 says, the drivers are allowed to overtake once they pass the new ‘safety car line,’ which in Monaco was just after Rascasse. Onboard footage from Schumacher’s car shows that he was still behind Alonso when they crossed the line.
If indeed the rules are as unambiguous as the FIA seem to think they are, why was every driver racing to the chequered flag? If overtaking was still banned, surely they would have just cruised to the finish.
The drivers all thought they could overtake, they all tried and only Schumacher—although his teammate Nico Rosberg too came close—managed it.
Serving as a wonderfully ironic backdrop to all this is the fact that one of the four stewards for the grand prix was Schumacher’s one-time rival Damon Hill.
Mercedes have said they will appeal the decision and while we won’t know the end result for some time yet, we do know one thing.
Controversy at Monaco? Michael Schumacher is back, indeed.
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