Lewis Hamilton’s 23-spot grid penalty for this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix has once again brought into question the FIA’s definition of what constitutes a ‘force majeure’ or ‘superior force’. Certainly over the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend there was much discussion over this matter on whether the event itself could be held given the State’s unstable political climate. Based on the inadequacy of phrases such as “an act of God” (unless we are referring to B. Ecclestone) or “beyond the control of both parties”, a more detailed set of hypothetical criteria may need to be drafted.
McLaren’s sporting director, Sam Michael stated that Hamilton’s car stopped on the circuit for reasons of force majeure; that “a team member had put an insufficient quantity of fuel into the car, thereby resulting in the car having to be stopped on the circuit in order to be able to provide the required amount for sampling purposes”. In 2009, Felipe Massa lost positions in Spain because Ferrari believed he had insufficient fuel to finish the race. In this case the numbers the team was reading was incorrect and Massa’s subsequent slowing down proved to be penalty in itself.
In Hamilton’s instance the FIA is clear: “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… If they (the stewards) are not satisfied that the reasons were beyond the control of the driver or team, and feel that this has been done deliberately to gain a competitive advantage, appropriate action will be taken.”
So we are assuming that in this case, the ‘superior force’ is the team. Whilst Charlie Whiting and the stewards must be conscious of not having the wool pulled over their eyes, I’d suggest that human fallibility (as outlined in the Massa case) hardly constitutes a superior force. A ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ methodology may be more appropriate here to ensure the team in question followed all processes available to them to ensure the car had enough fuel to return to the pits.
Nevertheless, the decision has been made to penalise Hamilton. I’d suggest given McLaren’s similar indiscretion in Canada 2010 (where Hamilton ran out of fuel after securing pole), a harder line has been taken. However, given the incident took place during Q3, bumping Hamilton back to 10th might have been more appropriate given that if malice was involved, the only beneficiaries were McLaren – unlike Schumacher’s 2006 manoeuvre at Rascasse which influenced the entire field’s lap times.
Consistency in inconsistency appears to have won out again.