Kovalainen, Hamilton penalized

McLaren drivers Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton were penalized by the stewards after the qualifying session at the Malaysian Grand Prix, and each will lose five grid positions for the start of tomorrow's Formula One race at the Sepang Circuit.

Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren Mercedes, MP4-23.
Photo by xpb.cc.
With the teams watching the gathering storm clouds, most of the top drivers went out for their final qualifying runs a few minutes earlier than usual, and then, as normal, cruised back to the pits at low speed to conserve the precious fuel for tomorrow.

However, BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld and Renault's Fernando Alonso left their qualifying runs as late as possible, and as a result, encountered a number of cars dawdling around the track after their qualifying attempts, posing an additional challenge for the two drivers.

"I was on my last lap, my first lap on the option tyres, which was the quickest and should have been even quicker," Heidfeld recounted after qualifying. "If not for the two McLarens driving in the middle of the racing line at 80 or less km/h, while I was doing 289. It was not really normal, and that just caused me some laptime."

While the McLaren team and the two drivers felt that they had not blocked the cars on a hot lap, the stewards saw things otherwise and applied a five-position penalty, dropping Kovalainen from third to eighth and Hamilton from fourth to ninth grid position.

"Where could I have gone," Kovalainen wondered. "We cam to the braking zone, and I knew there were cars behind us at 300 km/h. I was told over the radio to stay to the left -- and I think it would have been much more dangerous to switch to the right."

In the end, Kovalainen was assigned the penalty for impeding Alonso, while Hamilton was penalized for blocking Heidfeld. Heidfeld and Alonso now move up to fifth and seventh grid positions, respectively.

"We accept the stewards' decisions," said McLaren CEO Martin Whitmarsh after the penalty was announced. "But I would like to add that neither Lewis nor Heikki impeded any of their competitors deliberately."

Williams' Kazuki Nakajima was also penalized because of an incident in the Australian Grand Prix last weekend, and will start from the final grid position.