The 20-second time penalty handed to Sebastian Vettel after the completion of the 2012 German Grand Prix may well have been the absolutely correct, but it was also devastatingly unfair and exposed the inconsistency that has become the hallmark of Formula One stewards.
Vettel had caught a struggling Jenson Button on the penultimate lap of the race and pulled up alongside and slightly ahead—with the aid of DRS—as the pair entered Turn 6.
While Vettel was ahead, Button had the inside line, preventing the German from turning in on him.
Not to be outdone, Vettel continued the pass on the outside of the corner but had to leave the track on the exit of the corner to ensure that he didn’t hit Button.
That’s outside of the rules, therefore a penalty is appropriate.
The penalty relegated Vettel to fifth place. He really didn’t gain that much of an advantage.
While Vettel can’t really complain, the penalty does underscore the inability of the stewards to act with anything approaching a degree of consistency.
The design of modern racetracks in the Hermann Tilke, uber-safe world gives drivers massive amounts of runoff area around difficult corners.
The downside of this design is that while safety is dramatically improved, there are rarely any consequences for running off the road. More importantly, it can often be quicker to run off the road to improve exit speed from a corner.
And that’s where it becomes tricky.
Fernando Alonso clearly left the track—between Turns 15 and 16—when setting his pole position lap.
Drivers were doing it all weekend, because it was the fastest way around that corner and if it’s faster, then drivers are, by definition, gaining an advantage.
Anyone penalised? Of course not, and nor should they have been.
If, however, we cast our minds back to Bahrain, we saw a very similar situation unfold between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton where Hamilton went a long way off the track to pass Rosberg.
While the incident was investigated, it was from the perspective of Rosberg being the wrongdoer.
Going back further to China in 2010, Alonso went cross-country to beat Felipe Massa into the pits and gained a huge advantage. That incident wasn’t even investigated.
Returning to Vettel’s penalty, we have a guy who was markedly quicker than Button who used a run-off area to avoid a collision. He had run no lower than third for the whole race, but was hit with what is arguably an excessive penalty that demoted him to fifth.
Why? Was it to make an example of him?
He didn't put anyone in danger, quite the opposite, so why this penalty? Why don't the stewards have the discretion to size the penalty to just redress the perceived injustice and reinstate Button to second place?
After the last race at Silverstone, Pastor Maldonado got away with a reprimand after his third serious incident of the year.
Perhaps he could loan Vettel his lawyer.