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Does F1 need a penalty points rethink?

Pierre Gasly is seemingly treading on thin ice until round eight of the 2023 Formula 1 season.

Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT03, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR22, collide

Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

That will mark the Monaco Grand Prix, the first race to follow the one-year anniversary of him understeering into the side of Lance Stroll and pitching the Aston Martin into a spin in Spain.

Only after 22 May next year will he have more room to breathe, when the two penalty points for causing that collision are scrubbed from his licence. Until then, he faces nine events where he must keep it squeaky clean if, by the book, he is to avoid a race ban.

On six occasions this season, the stewards have deemed it necessary to add points to the AlphaTauri driver's licence, not to mention the 45 seconds of race time penalties he has also copped.

As such, he now has 10 points in total and sits just two shy of having his licence suspended for an event. None of those incidents includes the three times he was found to have exceeded the pit lane speed limit, or a reprimand for incorrectly rejoining the track in Canada.

Should Alpine-bound Gasly get it wrong this weekend in Brazil, he would have to sit out his Red Bull stable farewell in Abu Dhabi. Any time after that, he'd be hurting his transition to his new team. In either case, his absence might potentially alter the outcome of both drivers' and teams' championships. Hence why he is to hold further talks with the FIA in Brazil to ensure he doesn't face time on the sidelines.

Speaking in Interlagos, Gasly reckoned the prospect of a race ban is "embarrassing".

He said of his precarious state: "I'm not going to lie. It's a very unpleasant situation and quite delicate and in some ways also a bit embarrassing to be standing in a position where I could be banned for a race. After the season that I've done, I don't really feel like I've been particularly dangerous over these last 12 months, and that will be definitely a harsh penalty.

Gasly is anxious to avoid the prospect of a damaging race ban

Gasly is anxious to avoid the prospect of a damaging race ban

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

"But there has been a lot of discussion with the FIA trying to find a solution because personally, I want to do all the races. I want to finish the season in the best way I can with AlphaTauri. I want to do all the races in 2023 and get the maximum chances to perform for Alpine.

"Obviously, there is a lot at stake because no one knows what's going to happen in '23. I could end up with an amazing car fighting for the championship, for example. And I can't take the risk of being banned for a race and lose all my hopes for the championship."

It might be optimistic to expect Alpine and Gasly to be in the mix for titles, but no doubt the show would be diminished to some extent should he or any driver be sin-binned and miss a race. His reasoning is a little less solid, though, where he cites - in his own opinion - not having done much that meets the criteria for dangerous driving.

Of those six times where Gasly has been handed a penalty, twice he has been pinged for causing a collision. The first with Stroll at Barcelona, the second with Sebastian Vettel at Turn 4 in Austria. In both cases, he was declared to be "wholly" at fault to rack up his four penalty points.

A second offence during that weekend at the Red Bull Ring came when he exceeded track limits one too many times for the stewards' liking. That earned just the one point, is much easier to defend, and falls well short of what Gasly refers to as "dangerous".

That was a sentiment reinforced by Williams driver Alex Albon, who in turn counts seven points on his race licence. The Thai-Brit said of his colleague's predicament: "I'm quite high up there as well, and I completely agree with Pierre… I have three points on my licence down to track limits, which is something that is not dangerous at all. I'm not harming any other driver or myself in that situation.

"I've got another two points for a collision with Stroll in Jeddah. At the end of the race we, as drivers, deemed it wasn't my fault. So, there are a lot of points on my licence that I don't think I deserved.

"We are discussing it. I think there is going to be a change… We do need to do something about it. And I don't think any of us are dangerous drivers. But I do understand, of course, you should punish drivers if they do dangerous things. But I think a lot of the points that everyone has right now aren't because of dangerous things."

Albon was also penalised for colliding with Stroll in Jeddah, and agrees that the penalty points system could do with a rethink

Albon was also penalised for colliding with Stroll in Jeddah, and agrees that the penalty points system could do with a rethink

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Given Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas held similar views, it seems the FIA is under genuine pressure from drivers to relax the penalty points system. Should the governing body go ahead and adjust the set-up, the question would be how to implement those tweaks.

If it is deemed that hitting drivers for exceeding track limits, for example, is indeed excessive, then those points will plausibly need to be removed from everyone's licence and new scores issued for those who have pushed their luck with the painted white lines over the past 12 months.

The next time it was seen fit to hand Gasly a couple of penalty points is much more contentious. This came when he was found to have exceeded 155mph while attempting to close to the pack in the sodden Japanese Grand Prix, having pitted for a new front wing after running over the advertising board ripped off by a shunting Carlos Sainz on lap one.

Infamously, as Gasly worked to close up to the field in a downpour, the race was red-flagged. This is an incident perhaps most remembered for the tractor being released onto the track, and the terrifying scenes of the cars darting past with reduced visibility in the grey, dank conditions. By order of magnitude, this returned Gasly a much stricter 20s penalty. Not the 5s dealt for his previous three offences in 2022.

Then, in the United States, it was another two points for dropping "significantly" more than 10 car lengths behind the safety car. But his total stayed at nine points, as the two he earned for colliding with Fernando Alonso at Turn 1 on the opening lap of the 2021 Turkish GP were scrubbed a year after the event.

As per article 4.2 of the sporting regulations: "Penalty points will remain on a driver's super licence for a period of 12 months, after which they will be respectively removed on the 12-month anniversary of their imposition."

Finally, to complete a hat-trick of penalised races, Gasly was served just the one point for leaving the Mexico City track and gaining an advantage while overtaking Stroll (again) at Turn 4.

By the letter of the law, it is right that Gasly might miss a race. He has committed six offences and left himself at risk. It is also easy to justify why his exceeding track limits at the Red Bull Ring should not contribute to his tally, given he was running wide for the sake of a tenth of a second. That can be penalised another way.

Overtaking Stroll off the track in Mexico earned Gasly his latest penalty point

Overtaking Stroll off the track in Mexico earned Gasly his latest penalty point

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

He was not exposing himself or anyone else to undue risk. The same is true of his safety car procedure infringement at Austin. Scrub those from the record and suddenly with seven points on his licence, there's a bit more wiggle room. But, again, all other race licences would need amending accordingly.

Naturally, if Gasly doesn't commit another foul before the chequered flag of the Emilia Romagna GP next season then there will be no races missed, no additional controversy for the governing body to contend with.

But, what if he does? Irrespective of F1's swollen audience post-Netflix boom, a driver avoidably missing a race (not through illness or another exceptional matter), is not a good look for the top flight. Given how tight the battle for fourth in the constructors' has been this term between McLaren and Alpine, losing a full-time driver for just one event could conceivably skew the final order in the standings.

That would alter the end-of-season prize money and the allocation of windtunnel time under the sliding scale of the Aerodynamic Testing Regulations. Take that to its full conclusion, and the competitive order of the following season might be skewed too.

Despite "unprecedented" being a buzzword since 2020, the FIA does have plenty of past examples to cite - even if all are from before the penalty points system was introduced in 2014 - when it and Gasly are continuing their talks to resolve the situation. And judging by those, it doesn't look too good for the driver.

Famously and most recently, Romain Grosjean was benched for his part in the enormous La Source shunt in the 2012 Belgian GP when his Lotus only narrowly avoided Fernando Alonso's head and four cars were eliminated in one fell swoop.

Eddie Irvine was also initially banned for one race. That was his punishment for shunting with Martin Brundle and Jos Verstappen in Brazil for the opening round of the 1994 campaign. An unsuccessful appeal from his Jordan team had the ban upped to three races.

Also, Mika Hakkinen was prohibited from contesting the 1994 Hungarian GP for leaving the track without permission when he was meant to explain his German GP start shunt with Rubens Barrichello. Nigel Mansell was done for ignoring black flags at Estoril in 1989, and likewise for Michael Schumacher at Silverstone in 1994.

Race bans are nothing new - Hakkinen's involvement in the melee at the start of the 1994 German GP earned him a suspension

Race bans are nothing new - Hakkinen's involvement in the melee at the start of the 1994 German GP earned him a suspension

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Going by those past examples, Gasly might seek to argue that he is under scrutiny for repeat indiscretions rather than one particularly egregious incident, as his predecessors were. Although, the simple counterargument to that is surely that he has made too many mistakes, could be considered a repeat offender and therefore must learn the error of his ways with a timeout.

As Gasly concedes: "It's a very tricky situation. I have been discussing quite a lot with the FIA to try to find solutions because the way the regulation is written, at the moment it's quite strict on the drivers and quite harsh penalties, even though it's not always then related to dangerous driving.

"Definitely, the penalties have massive repercussions on the teams' and drivers' championship. So, I do hope to have again more conversation. I do hope we can find a solution ahead of the weekend to avoid ending up in a silly situation where I'll be banned for a race.

"That will be terrible for myself and definitely not the way that I've seen the sport growing up. I don't think that's a correct approach because obviously I can't really go into next year with only two points and have that risk over my head. But at the same time, at the moment, there's no clear solution. Hopefully there can be a good plan going forward for 2023."

Penalty points table

Driver Points Next points dropped
France Pierre Gasly 10 22.05.23 (2 points)
Japan Yuki Tsunoda 8 14.11.22 (2 points)
Thailand Alex Albon 7 27.03.23 (2 points)
Australia Daniel Ricciardo 6 26.03.23 (1 point)
Netherlands Max Verstappen 5 20.11.22 (2 points)
France Esteban Ocon 5 20.03.23 (2 points)
Canada Lance Stroll 5 09.04.23 (2 points)
Canada Nicholas Latifi 5 12.06.23 (1 point)
China Zhou Guanyu 4 27.03.23 (1 point)
Spain Fernando Alonso 4 08.05.23 (3 points)
United Kingdom George Russell 4 10.07.23 (2 points)
Denmark Kevin Magnussen 3 08.05.23 (2 points)
Mexico Sergio Perez 2 02.10.23 (2 points)
Finland Valtteri Bottas 1 20.11.22 (1 point)
Germany Sebastian Vettel 1 10.07.23 (1 point)
United Kingdom Lando Norris 1 10.07.23 (1 point)
Monaco Charles Leclerc 1 09.10.23 (1 point)
Germany Mick Schumacher 1 23.10.23 (1 point)

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