Penalty points remained a controversial subject throughout last season as drivers complained they were issued too frequently and Lewis Hamilton briefly collected enough to be at serious risk of a race ban.
Heading into the 2021 F1 season, Hamilton is one of two drivers who will start the new championship with six penalty points left over from the previous season. That’s halfway towards the 12 which would trigger an automatic one-race ban. However his situation is better than it might be: He was issued two penalty points in Sochi last year which were subsequently rescinded after he spoke to the stewards.
The only other driver in a position as risky as Hamilton’s is the driver most likely to take his place if he did have to miss a race – George Russell, who substituted for the world champion when he was struck by Covid-19 ahead of last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix.
Only one driver ended the last season with more points than these two. Alexander Albon ended the year on seven, though he lost his Red Bull seat during the off-season.
The other three drivers who have left the grid all amassed significant penalty points tallies during their time in the sport. Daniil Kvyat racked up a total of 27 and got closer to a ban than anyone in the sport’s history, reaching a total of 10 during 2017. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen totalled 23 and 22 respectively.
Penalty points remain on a driver’s licence for 12 months. As Hamilton incurred four of his points at the first race weekend of last season, he will drop them at the earliest available opportunity this year. However because last year’s season started so late, that won’t happen until the ninth round of the season in July.
Russell will have to wait a little longer, until August, before deducting any of his points. Unusually, he accrued all of his through a pair of three-point infractions last year, both for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags.
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Three penalty points is the maximum which has ever been issued for a single incident in Formula 1. However one driver who is joining the grid this year was given more than that for causing a crash in Formula 2.
In 2019 Nikita Mazepin was given four penalty points (and a 15-place grid penalty) after being held responsible for a major crash at the start of a race in Sochi. Haas’s new driver continued to attract the attention of the stewards last year: One penalty cost him victory at Spa, and by the end of the season he had accumulated 11 superlicence points, one shy of an automatic one-race ban.
Luckily for him F2 superlicence points are not transferred to F1, so he starts the year on zero.
“The Formula 2 and Formula 3 regulations are structured in such a way that the penalty points [accumulate] over the championship rather than over a 12-month period like Formula 1 does,” explained F1 race director Michael Masi.
“We’re quite fortunate with the abundance of talent that’s joining us from FIA Formula 2 championship into Formula 1 next year. But it was always seen as a way to track within the respective category itself, and that’s, from my understanding, the way that it was designed.”
Fellow F2 graduates Mick Schumacher and Yuki Tsunoda also start the year with clean sheets. The same goes for returning two-times world champion Fernando Alonso. He had six points when he left the sport in 2018, three of which he collected in the final race after repeatedly cutting the chicanes at Yas Marina. These have all expired during his two-year absence.
Among the other drivers who go into 2021 with a clean sheet are Nicholas Latifi – who stayed out of trouble in his rookie campaign – Valtteri Bottas and Pierre Gasly. Two drivers who’ve been no strangers to the stewards in recent seasons, Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel, have also successfully reset their totals.
Last year several drivers complained stewards issued penalty points too often, and for incidents which were too minor to deserve them. In fact the 50 penalties which were issued last year amounted to the lowest figure since 2015. Even accounting for the shorter calendar, this was still less than three per race, lower than in 2016, 2017 or 2018.
A key area of concern for drivers was the issuing of penalty points for track limits violations. Masi indicated that practice will be reviewed ahead of the new season.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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