How Red Bull made the FIA give Hamilton a penalty

The drama in the Austrian GP began even before the race when the decision not to penalise Mercedes Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton for a yellow flag infringement in qualifying was reversed by the FIA stewards.

How Red Bull made the FIA give Hamilton a penalty

The about turn was formally notified just 41 minutes before the actual start, making it almost certainly the latest any grid penalty has been awarded.

Hamilton found himself starting from fifth place rather than second, and much of the race strategy work that his team had done since qualifying was out if the window. He knew that he was likely to find himself stuck behind Max Verstappen, the only top runner starting on the medium tyres.

The scenario was actually triggered by an official F1 tweet on Saturday evening that showed a clip of the incident in qualifying in which Valtteri Bottas went off in a cloud of dust, and Hamilton swept past to set his best time of the session – albeit one not quite good enough to beat his teammate to pole.

The video then switched from the regular coverage to a 360-degree onboard view, something that F1 has been experimenting with for a couple of years, but which hasn't really been fully exploited.

The editor knew what he was doing because when the shot showed Hamilton passing a yellow signal board he zoomed in and froze the frame.

The clip inevitably caused a stir on social media, as the yellow light panel appeared to be very obvious.

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It soon came to the attention of Red Bull Racing – the team with the most to gain if a penalty put third qualifier Max Verstappen onto the front row.

Red Bull team manager Jonathan Wheatley contacted the stewards and asked if they'd see the 360 degree video. Not only had they not seen it, they had not seen any onboard video of Hamilton passing the yellow flag scene.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"Quite simply, we didn't have onboard footage from Lewis's car," said race director Michael Masi. "And when we were made aware today quite late in the piece by Red Bull that there was a 360 [video], there was some additional new evidence available, is when it came to our attention.

"So we weren't actually aware that that existed, to be quite honest. It's not something that we knew was there. And obviously, we're quite fortunate that a couple of years ago now the right of review was included within the International Sporting Code."

The key requirement to review a decision is that of new element of evidence. Red Bull couldn't ask for a review just because it didn't agree with the decision. However, the 360 degree video that it brought to the attention of the stewards was clearly relevant.

There was a two-stage process. First the stewards had to look at that evidence and agree that it was new and "significant," and that a review was thus appropriate.

Then they had to consider the impact on their original decision to let Hamilton off the hook.

"We saw that [the review] got used last year to deem that what was raised was not a new and significant element," said Masi. "I think there's been some misquotation that it was a protest from Red Bull. It wasn't actually a protest.

"It was a question that they raised of, is this a new and significant element? Which is why there's actually two separate decisions. That's why the first decision is, is it a new and significant element?

"The stewards determined that yes, it was, and then obviously went into a hearing as a result of that, and determined that effectively if they had had that footage yesterday or last night, they would have come to the same decision that they did prior to the race."

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing in the press conference

Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing in the press conference

Photo by: FIA Pool

Perhaps the most surprising thing is the fact that the stewards didn't have access to the 360 video any earlier, and the unusual chain of events that led to Red Bull submitting it.

"It's actually something that we've been speaking this afternoon with FOM," said Masi. "It's not something that's available live due to bandwidth. Effectively it needs to be downloaded off the car, processed, etcetera.

"And as I said, the right of review is there, a new and significant element was raised, it was determined as such and as a result effectively a new hearing was commenced based on that and as we saw the outcome was that a penalty was applied consistent with what we have, which is a three grid spot penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags."

The late timing of the whole saga also made it highly unusual. The first official word that something was going on came with an FIA document timed at 1.33pm – just 97 minutes before the start.

This was a simple notification that the review was happening, and that Mercedes team manager Ron Meadows had been summoned to see the stewards.

In fact, the process was already well underway, as the stewards had studied the video. Shortly after that, in came the first evidence that a decision had been made.

As part of the COVID-19 protocols, teams begin the process of going to the grid half an hour earlier than usual – to minimise the chances of a human traffic jam at the pitlane gates – and Red Bull took its equipment to second place rather than third, while Mercedes went to the fifth spot.

In other words, the teams already knew that the order had changed long before the officially process of publishing a decision, and the revised final grid, had been completed.

"Generally, we try to publish the final starting grid an hour before the start of the formation lap," said Masi.

"In this case people may have seen on the grid that when the teams were lining up on the grid, which started about an hour before the start of the formation lap, Mercedes went straight to positions one and five.

"And from an administrative perspective, obviously the first part that needed to be raised was Mercedes had to have a hearing and due process and be heard on that front.

"So from a timing perspective, that decision was made and obviously needed to be reached and then published, and then subsequently, a new grid sheet has to be published as a result, because it may have gone the other way."

The actual formal decision came at 2.29pm. 

The whole process was cut a bit fine, and Red Bull was fortunate that the video was discovered in time to make a difference. In the end, justice was done, even if Hamilton and the Mercedes team were not very happy.

"I'd say that the cut-off point, the very latest would be when pitlane opens," said Masi. "I would suggest that for all of us we'd much prefer the right decision based on the evidence that we have, and the correct starting grid, rather than being held back by that side of it.

"So the stewards in my view made absolutely the right call to do what they did."

Cars on the grid

Cars on the grid

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

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