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The extra complications behind F1's Alonso 'brake-test' penalty debate

The controversial post-race penalty handed to Fernando Alonso for his late Australian Grand Prix tactics against George Russell rumbled on at Formula 1’s latest event in Japan.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24, leads George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15

There was a touch of inevitability. Red Bull’s significant Suzuka upgrade has not slimmed the RB20 as predicted, with rumours Ferrari was rushing its important Imola updates scotched too on what was overall something of a slow news day on Thursday.

Then there’s the drivers involved. Alonso and Russell are rather divisive figures amongst F1’s fanbase. But there was nevertheless a surprise split in the opinions of those who really matter in this contentious debate: the drivers.

Haas racer Nico Hulkenberg “wasn't very impressed with Fernando's tactics”, while Sauber drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu both called the decision to penalise the Spaniard “harsh”. Max Verstappen – no stranger to racing battle sagas – opted to keep his powder dry in the Suzuka pre-event press conference, saying only “we'll discuss it in the driver's briefing…”.

Alonso’s position was inevitably bombastic.

“It was a little bit surprising the penalty in Melbourne, but nothing we can do,” he said. “We have to accept it and move on and concentrate on here. But it will not change much on how we drive and how we approach racing.

“There is no obligation to drive 57 laps in the same way. Sometimes we get a slower pace, to save fuel, to save tyres, to save battery. Sometimes we get slow into corners or into some sectors of the track to give the DRS to the car behind because that will be a useful tool if the second car behind is at a faster pace.

“All those things are completely normal. And it was, it is, and it will be forever in motorsports.

“So, we had one penalty, probably a one-off, that we will never apply ever again. But it was for us. We take it. We accept it. We lost two points or whatever it was for the team.”

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin F1 Team

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Russell was equally erudite.

“It was obviously a strange situation that happened last week,” he said, alongside Verstappen in the press conference.

“As I said at the time, [I was] totally caught by surprise. I was actually looking at the steering wheel making a switch change on the straight, which we all do across the lap, and when I looked up, I was in Fernando’s gearbox and it was too late and then next thing I know I was in the wall.

“So, I think if it were not to have been penalised, it would’ve really opened up a can of worms for the rest of the season and in junior categories, saying, ‘are you allowed to brake in a straight, are you allowed to slow down, change gear, accelerate, do something semi-erratic?’

“I don’t take anything personally with what happened with Fernando and it probably had bigger consequences than it should have. But if it went unpenalised, can you just brake in the middle of the straight? I don’t know.”

Analysing Russell’s “can of worms” claim and its clear what he’s trying to highlight – he says it outright.

Russell felt that if the stewards did not step in, what they deemed the ‘erratic’ elements of Alonso’s driving at Turn 6 in Melbourne might start appearing elsewhere and in more problematic ways, such as in junior single seater categories. There is also a parallel with the 2021 Brazil Turn 4 affair between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton and what that led to at the subsequent disgraceful first race in Saudi Arabia.

This is something of a unique debate to single-seater racing – such tactics are unlikely to bother drivers in categories that aren’t so aerodynamically sensitive. That’s a key factor in why Russell went off – because by ending up closer to Alonso’s rear end at Turn 6 than the lap before, he lost the downforce required to take the corner as rapidly as he’d turned in.

Press Conference, George Russell, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team

Press Conference, George Russell, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Here we can detect a certain amount of ‘attack is the best form of defence’ from Russell. He did, after all, state after the incident that “I have gone off and that is on me” and Alonso’s claims that what he did is part of a long-standing, legitimate tradition of such racing tactics do stack up.

But it’s clear Mercedes is unhappy with Alonso – particularly his post-race suggestions of an engine issue that Autosport sources have suggested couldn’t be clearly spotted in the data.

How this might play into Alonso’s aims of perhaps replacing Hamilton at Mercedes – he’s also naturally a clear candidate for Red Bull should it opt or be forced into a major driver line-up change for 2025 – remains to be seen.

But his highlighting of the DRS games that are now common is an important element of this debate too. Sometimes, clever tactics backfire. And surely Alonso’s biggest problem in this saga is that he messed up the manoeuvre, which he admitted too in the stewards hearing in Melbourne.

On Thursday, Alonso also claimed “it was the hardest penalty of the season I think in terms of time lap, which is strange”. But this is somewhat disingenuous.

The FIA has just moved to make penalties for racing infractions harsher for 2024. It has been suggested that this was actually at the request of the drivers, who were consulted twice on the change last season before it was formally put to their teams to consider and then agreed too.

The general consensus, once they’d been shown examples of penalties that earned just five-second time additions in the two meetings, was that most drivers would simply prefer to take these hits and press on to negate them rather than voluntarily hand places back.

The problem is that what is in effect an update to F1’s racing guidelines, which are reviewed ahead of each season, has not been publicly revealed.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24, passes Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24, passes Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

This has been considered by the FIA, but, as one Autosport source put it, the fear is this in turn would open up another “can of worms” in terms of drivers, teams and fans using public definitions to stir additional debate in every racing clash.

But more transparency is always better. And this brings us to the final additional complication now being inserted into the ‘brake-test’ debate.

In the bulletin outlining Alonso’s penalty – a drive-through converted into a 20s time addition given it was dished out post-race, as per the racing guidelines tweak – the stewards said they had “not considered the consequences of the crash. Alonso, however, now “100%” disputes this.

“If he was in Abu Dhabi with run off area of asphalt or whatever, I think George will rejoin the track a few metres after that and will try to have a go on me on the following lap, or the following straight,” said Alonso. “And it will not be any problem.”

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As ever in F1, complex situations breed more convolution. But Bottas concludes this consideration well.

“I think if George would’ve not ended up in the wall, or going off the track, then probably there would’ve not been a penalty,” the Finn opined. “It made it look quite dramatic. I still feel that the car ahead should always be allowed to choose the speed and the line. But it’s a fine line what you can do. I was quite surprised about [the penalty] actually.

“The issue is, quite often [the stewards] do [look at consequences of actions when deciding penalties]. One example was when I was being impeded in qualifying in Saudi and it didn’t look that dramatic and I was pretty positive that if I’d gone even closer and locked a wheel or something probably there would’ve been a penalty.

“So, unfortunately the consequences still do play along. That’s how it is.”

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