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How Lawson penalty highlights Super Formula rules flaw

OPINION: Whether or not you believe Super Formula rookie sensation Liam Lawson deserved a penalty in Sunday’s second Fuji race, the situation served to highlight the futility of the Japanese series’ current pit window rules

It’s easy to sympathise with Lawson’s viewpoint on his five-second penalty, awarded for driving too slowly behind the safety car and dropping him off the podium and down to fifth in the final classification. After all, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.

To recap, Lawson ran fifth behind the safety car, with his team-mate Tomoki Nojiri up in second. In order to allow Mugen to double-stack its cars without losing too much time, Lawson had to slow down to create a gap between himself and Nojiri.

However, in doing so, he violated the rule that states that the cars other than the leader “must maintain formation as much as possible” behind the safety car. Sena Sakaguchi, trying to create a gap to his Inging team-mate Sho Tsuboi, was picked up for the same offence.

It’s a rather vaguely written rule, and one that you could argue Lawson and Sakaguchi were unlucky to fall foul of by virtue of having to do something about being close behind their respective team-mates.

Even so, the drivers immediately behind Lawson and Sakaguchi were incensed. Ritomo Miyata screamed on his radio: “The Mugen car in front [Lawson] is deliberately making a gap! That’s bullshit! Surely he deserves a penalty…”

 

Meanwhile, Nirei Fukuzumi said of Sakaguchi: “That was terrible. Sakaguchi made a massive gap to the car ahead… we were at such a disadvantage.”

But why were 20 cars all streaming into the pits together in the first place? It’s because it just so happened the field was under caution when the pit window opened on lap 10.

The rule that you can’t serve your mandatory pitstop until lap 10 was ill-judged when it was first introduced late in the 2019 season. Now it serves almost no purpose at all, with the events of Sunday at Fuji only highlighting how it has the potential to ruin races.

First implemented for the penultimate round of 2019 at Okayama, back when refuelling and multiple tyre compounds were still part of the fabric of Super Formula races, the idea was to prevent people piling in the pits at the end of the first lap to get rid of the medium tyre, which was up to two seconds a lap slower than the soft.

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The powers that be didn’t like the idea of drivers having to save fuel to make it to the end after a very early stop, or the prospect of a driver down the grid starting on the medium, pitting and then cashing in on an early safety car period to grab the win, much as that year’s eventual champion Nick Cassidy did in the season opener at Suzuka.

Perhaps that way of thinking had some merit, but for 2020 the medium tyre that was so hated by drivers at the time was scrapped, eliminating the problem of drivers having their races compromised by virtue of starting on the ‘wrong’ tyre.

Shortly after that, amid the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the questionable decision to cut races to 180km sprints with no refuelling was made, rendering the pit window completely arbitrary as there would be no need to conserve fuel at all.

The only possible justification for having the pit window set at lap 10 is that safety car periods tend to occur more often in the early laps. But, as the events of Fuji showed, they can easily happen just before the window too, leaving the entire field with little choice but to all head for the pits in unison, at a stroke removing any strategic intrigue from a race.

 

If the main goal is to stop drivers from pitting behind the safety car and gaining an advantage, then one solution would be to simply close the pits under caution. That said, in the event of a late-race caution, this would all but ruin the races of those that had yet to stop, so it’s still hardly an ideal solution.

Bearing that in mind, it’s probably best to just leave the pits open and allow drivers to serve their mandatory pitstops when they want, lap one included.

In such a scenario, you probably would end up with a number of drivers heading down that path, but is that so much worse than half the field pitting on lap 10 when the window opens, as we’ve seen in recent years? Besides, with this year’s more degradable Yokohama tyres, drivers would still be faced with quite a tall order nursing their rubber to the end of the race if they opted to come into the pits early, as Toshiki Oyu can attest.

At the end of the day, safety car periods can fall at any time during a race and are by their very nature unpredictable. It’s impossible to have a system that is ‘fair’ to all drivers all of the time.

But what does seem more unfair than necessary is a situation like the one we had at Fuji, where Lawson and Sakaguchi were doomed to lose out just by virtue of where they were on the road in relation to their respective team-mates.

Motorsport.tv is showing all Super Formula qualifying sessions and races live in 2023. Click here for further information and to sign up today.

 

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