Vettel's fuel sample failure: Why it happened and what comes next
Aston Martin faces a tough challenge to keep Sebastian Vettel's second place in Sunday's Formula 1 Hungarian GP after the FIA was unable to provide a large enough fuel sample.
Vettel was subsequently disqualified, but by filing a notice of intention to appeal on Sunday evening, the Silverstone team gave itself the breathing space to put its case together and find a way to prove that the right amount of fuel is indeed still in the tank of the AMR21.
The requirement to provide a one-litre sample of fuel for testing has been in the rules for decades. It is key to the policing of F1 and ensuring that teams are always running the exact fuel 'fingerprint' that they have registered with the FIA.
Fuel can be sampled and checked at any point over the weekend, but naturally the crucial times are when it really matters – after qualifying and the race.
The FIA needs that much fuel because initially it provides three samples, one that is tested by the FIA fuel specialist at the track, one that goes to an independent lab, and one that is retained by the team. Some is also kept should a more detailed form of testing be required later.
Not every car is checked after every race or every session, so there may well have been cases where drivers didn't have a big enough sample left, but they still retained their points.
However, everyone knows that checks can be made at any time, and no team would ever deliberately run their car to the point when there is less than a litre in the tank. There is little to be gained, and much to be lost.
But over the years, a few drivers have fallen foul of the rules. The most famous example was perhaps the 2012 Abu Dhabi GP, and it also concerned Vettel. Having qualified third, the German was told by his Red Bull team to stop on track on his lap back to the pits.
That raised the suspicions of the FIA. At the time the relevant regulation read: "Except in cases of force majeure (accepted as such by the stewards of the meeting), if a sample of fuel is required after a practice session the car concerned must have first been driven back to the pits under its own power."
Vettel was previously caught out by running short on fuel at the 2012 Abu Dhabi GP
Photo by: Sutton Images
The stewards subsequently accepted that there was a reason for stopping. However, when the car was checked by FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer, the crucial litre could not be retrieved.
The Red Bull team was convinced that it was in there somewhere, and tried everything to squeeze it out, without success. Thus Vettel was disqualified from qualifying and sent to the back of the grid, ultimately starting from the pitlane after changes were made under parc ferme to help him overtake.
Subsequently, the wording of that rule changed. To remove the possibility of drivers stopping on their in-lap after qualifying just to save fuel, and having the track littered with parked cars, the FIA made it clear that drivers had to get back to the pitlane.
The rule now reads: "After a practice session, if a car has not been driven back to the pits under its own power, it will be required to supply the above mentioned sample plus the amount of fuel that would have been consumed to drive back to the pits. The additional amount of fuel will be determined by the FIA."
In other words, if you stop halfway round your in-lap after qualifying, the FIA will calculate how much fuel you saved by doing so, and thus how much you would have had in the tank if you'd driven round. If the result is less than a litre, you are in trouble.
That rule is not applied to the race itself, as the consensus is that in the hybrid era and with fuel so tight it would not have been right for a driver to lose a win through a lack of sample if he could have parked on the in-lap and kept enough in the tank.
It's not written in the rules as such, but if any car does stop on the in-lap, for whatever reason, the FIA takes note – and Bauer ensures that it is checked. And that's exactly what happened with Vettel.
Hungary is a race where fuel is often critical. Winner Esteban Ocon had to fuel save during the race, and fourth-placed Carlos Sainz Jr talked about how much doing so had compromised him.
Chasing Ocon for the whole distance, and with Lewis Hamilton catching him, Vettel didn't have much time to cruise, and indeed on the very last lap his engineer informed him "we will have some fuel save." The team knew he was going to be marginal.
Tracking Ocon throughout the race, Vettel didn't have much opportunity to save fuel
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Independently of the need to supply the litre, running close to the edge on fuel also potentially compromises a team on the overall weight limit. Drivers are often told by their teams to run over marbles on their in-laps in order to add extra weight to via their tyres.
That's what happened with Vettel after he crossed the line, with his engineer saying: "Lots of pick-up on the way in, lots of pick-up. Super slow on the way in. Save fuel, save fuel."
Nothing more was said as he cruised round, but just before the end of the lap he was told to stop in a safe place – obliging him to make his way to the podium by foot.
His was not the only car to be parked at trackside. Williams drivers George Russell and Nicholas Latifi also received urgent calls to stop, and both did so just after crossing the line.
Then winner Ocon missed the pit entry at the end of his celebratory lap and went sailing past the pits a second time. He soon stopped, and returned to the podium on foot.
As ever, Bauer was taking note. The cars of Vettel, Russell and Latifi were all immediately earmarked for fuel sample checks on the basis that because they stopped on track, they might be marginal on that crucial litre.
Bauer was not concerned about Ocon – the Frenchman had completed his in-lap and by mistake a little more too, and hadn't been given the telltale urgent call from the team to stop first time round.
The sampling procedure involves the fuel being pumped out, with the help of the team, in the FIA scrutineering garage. The cars of Russell and Latifi provided the all-important litre, but Vettel's did not – only 30% of the required amount could be retrieved, despite the best efforts of the mechanics.
Stopping his car on the inlap meant Vettel had to return on foot - catching the attention of FIA policeman Bauer
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
At 8.02pm Bauer issued a report to the stewards: "After the race it was checked on car number 05 whether a 1.0 litre sample of fuel could be taken from the car. It was possible to take only a 0.3 litre sample following the procedures laid out in Article 6.6.4 of the 2021 Formula One technical regulations."
Such post-scrutineering reports are rare, because obviously most of the time cars are fully legal and pass all the relevant checks. So when one arrives you take note – because Bauer is invariably in the right when he flags something.
His reference to Article 6.6.4 is significant. In the past, teams caught in such a situation would try everything they could to draw the last vital drops of fuel out, taking systems apart, squeezing bag tanks, and looking in every last pipe. In the hybrid era, that is no longer allowed.
The aforementioned rule says: "The sampling procedure must not necessitate starting the engine or the removal of bodywork (other than the nosebox assembly and the cover over any refuelling connector)."
So teams can't take things apart – they can't even remove the engine cover. All they can do is put the car on stands of differing heights and tip it back and forwards in an effort to dislodge some fuel.
An added complication for Aston Martin on Sunday was that like other British teams, most personnel were on a tight travel schedule, and the red flag delay had made things even worse. The engineers left to catch their charter shortly after the flag, as did sporting director Andy Stevenson, the man responsible for dealing with the FIA on such matters.
Along with the mechanics and motorhome crew, the one man who was still on site was team principal Otmar Szafnauer, purely because he was scheduled to fly on Monday.
Once the sampling issue was flagged, Szafnauer found himself at the centre of the storm and had to personally deal with the stewards, Bauer and FIA technical chief Nikolas Tombazis, which would not normally be the case for a team boss.
Szafnauer had to negotiate with the FIA on his team's behalf, with senior engineers at the airport
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
There was a flurry of urgent messages to and from the team members at the airport, just before they got on their flight, and to staff back in the UK. Rules were checked and re-checked, every option explored.
A team can calculate how much fuel is left because it knows how much it put in before the start, and because the FIA fuel flow meter [FFM] provides an accurate official record of what was used during the race.
Szafnauer was adamant that there should have been 1.74 litres of fuel still in the car, and given that the FIA only found 0.3, the missing 1.44 should be in there somewhere. His assertion was that the car's lift pump had failed, and that's why the last dregs could not be removed. That was a key element of the debate with the FIA – should the team be allowed to fit a fresh pump to help look for the missing fuel?
Szafnauer debated with Bauer and the stewards as the mechanics continued their efforts to find the fuel. Eventually the FIA decided that enough was enough, and that the team had had ample opportunity to locate it. Bauer reported that to the stewards, who posted their judgement at 10.02pm – Vettel was disqualified from second.
The verdict read: "After the race it was not possible to take a 1.0 litre sample of fuel from car 5. The team was given several opportunities to attempt to remove the required amount of fuel from the tank, however it was only possible to pump 0.3 litres out.
"During the hearing in presence of the FIA technical delegate [Bauer] and the FIA technical director [Tombazis] the team principal of Aston Martin stated that there must be 1.44 litres left in the tank, but they are not able to get it out. This figure is calculated using the FFM or injector model."
The stewards continued: "The procedure was followed, however the 1.0 litre sample of fuel was unable to be taken. The stewards determine to apply the standard penalty for technical infringements. Therefore they took into account that it shall be no defence to claim that no performance advantage was obtained."
The FIA's F1 Technical Delegate Jo Bauer, pictured in 2019, made the call to disqualify Vettel
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Not surprisingly, Szafnauer and his colleagues had already decided to appeal, or rather as the procedure dictates, file a notice of intention to appeal. That buys 96 hours during which a team can study its options and decide whether to formally proceed with the full appeal.
"I can confirm an intent to appeal," Szafnauer told Autosport just as the stewards' verdict came through. "So once we learn more, then if we have grounds we will appeal, and if not, we'll drop it. But we have 96 hours.
"By all of our calculations, there should still be 1.44 litres of fuel left in the car after the 300 millilitre sample was taken. And we just have to show the FIA that it was in there, and 300 millilitres is enough for their fuel sample. And that will be the basis of the of the appeal."
Szafnauer was adamant that the team's numbers showed that the fuel should be there.
"We measure the fuel that goes in," he said. "And the fuel flow meter that we have in the car, which is mandated by the FIA, measures how much fuel gets used.
"So the difference between what went in, and what's used, is what's left. And that's how we know there's 1.74 litres left.
"We have that, the FIA work to the fuel flow meter, they have all that data, we supply them with the data of how much fuel we put in, they have the ability to check that at any time. So all that data is available."
The complication here was the nature of the case, as it all rests on being able to eventually find that extra fuel.
Aston contends that a broken lift pump prevented the full reading
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
To go to the next step, Szafnauer thus had to agree to a highly unusual procedure – the FIA would impound the entire Aston Martin car and take possession of it, pending the appeal process.
Bauer learned a valuable lesson back in 1999 at the Malaysian GP, and the infamous Ferrari bargeboard case. He impounded the specific items, but divorced from the context of their location on the car, Ferrari subsequently found a grey area that it was able to exploit. This time he wanted to keep the whole car intact.
Transport was hastily arranged from Budapest to the FIA technical facility in France. Usually teams spend a few hours post race running through various routine tasks, readying their cars for travel, before loading the precious cargo onto trucks. In this case, the car was basically handed over as it had finished the race.
At least the timing was fortuitous. It takes a while for the FIA to put an appeal procedure together, and had F1 been in the middle of a back-to-back, the team would have lost Vettel's entire car, including its gearbox and power unit, for the following race. Even with a gap of one free weekend, it's unlikely that an appeal would have been arranged in time.
In theory, the team could have built up the spare chassis for Vettel, but that would have necessitated a gearbox penalty, for example, as well as new power unit elements being used earlier than planned.
However, Hungary precedes the summer break, with three clear weeks until Spa, so the decision to hand over the car was made a lot easier – although the team will still need it back in time in order to prepare it during the days before the Belgian GP, once the factory shutdown is over.
The crux of the matter on appeal is likely to be the use of any further efforts to extract the fuel under ongoing FIA supervision, and as noted earlier, specifically the opportunity or otherwise to fit a new lift pump. There is some provision in the rules for replacing damaged parts, like for like, in order to pass scrutineering checks, and that will likely be a key argument.
"We haven't taken it apart yet," said Szafnauer. "But for some reason the lift pumps wouldn't get the fuel out of the car."
Vettel's podium was only the Aston Martin's second in F1, after the four-time champion finished third in Baku
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
If the team decides in the next few days that it's not worth pursuing the appeal, or if it proceeds and loses, Vettel's superb second place and the associated 18 points will be lost.
The beneficiaries will be the teams that finished behind and stand to gain extra points should Vettel's exclusion be confirmed, namely Mercedes, Ferrari, Alpine, AlphaTauri (with two cars), Williams (also two), Red Bull and Alfa Romeo.
All of them will be watching the case with some interest, and in theory they also have the opportunity to argue against Aston being allowed to look for that extra fuel, via the fitting of a new pump, for example. The likelihood is that most won't be too sympathetic to Aston's cause...
The biggest loser will be Vettel, who put in a superb drive and stands to lose that result through no fault of his own, for what you might call a minor glitch rather than something that confers any sporting advantage.
But that doesn't matter in the eyes of the FIA – the rules are black and white, and the penalty is inevitable, as the stewards made clear.
Will Vettel have to part ways with his runners-up trophy?
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
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