Austrian Grand Prix: Sebastian Vettel handed suspended fine over driver briefing walkout

Austrian Grand Prix: Sebastian Vettel handed suspended fine over driver briefing walkout
Sebastian Vettel
Vettel sits 13th in the drivers’ standings with 15 points

Sebastian Vettel has been handed a suspended 25,000 euros (£21,000) fine for walking out of the drivers’ briefing at the Austrian Grand Prix.

The four-time champion was one of a number of drivers at Friday’s meeting who asked for explanations for inconsistent decision-making by officials.

Race stewards said Vettel “left without permission and expressed frustration”.

Insiders have told BBC Sport Vettel made a reference to the fact that he had been having such discussions for “15 years” and said he was “sick” of it, before walking out.

Vettel later apologised to and “had a very constructive conversation covering the topics in the meeting and more” with the race director Niels Wittich, race stewards said in their verdict following an investigation into the incident.

The stewards’ statement said: “Drivers are not free to leave [the briefing] when they want, this being a breach of the requirement to attend.

“Drivers at this level are role models for every driver around the world and in the opinion of the Stewards Vettel failed to live up to that standard in this case.”

The Aston Martin driver’s fine was suspended for the remainder of the 2022 season, subject to a similar breach of the rules.

Alpine’s Fernando Alonso was also outspoken in the meeting in his criticism of decisions being made by officials in judging racing incidents this year, sources have said.

The meeting was said by a source to have been “uncomfortable” for Wittich, who chairs it.

In F1, race stewards make decisions on whether drivers should be penalised for on-track incidents, although the race director can choose to refer incidents to them, which it is said Wittich tends to do as a matter of course.

Vettel’s comments come in the context of ongoing frustration among the drivers at officiating this year.

They believe stewards are not making consistent judgements on racing matters. They have also had concerns about decisions being made in other matters, including safety and a row earlier this season about underwear and jewellery.

What was the row about?

Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc
This battle between Lewis Hamilton, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc at Silverstone was under discussion during Friday’s driver briefing

The debate on Friday came as drivers were discussing officiating at last weekend’s British Grand Prix.

At the top of the list of incidents of concern was one in which Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc both went off track during a late-race battle.

Perez cut the chicane at Vale before passing Leclerc as the Ferrari ran wide on the exit of the corner, and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton passed both. The Mexican then re-passed Hamilton three corners later to secure second place.

The stewards took no action after reviewing the incidents.

Mercedes driver George Russell – who, like Vettel, is a director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association – said: “There have been a lot of borderline decisions or manoeuvres this season, whether it’s defending, whether it’s track limits in a racing scenario like last week in Silverstone.

“We don’t want to be dishing out penalties left, right and centre but there needs to be an element of consistency somewhere.”

What would the drivers like changed?

Russell highlighted two main concerns on the topic.

One was the fact that there are two race directors this year. This is a new development that was introduced in the wake of the removal of the previous race director Michael Masi following his controversial handling of last year’s title-deciding race in Abu Dhabi, when the Australian failed to apply the rules correctly during a late-race safety car period.

The other was the layout of circuits. Russell said that incidents such as the Perez one at Silverstone are more likely when drivers can run off track without risking damaging their race than when there is a penalty for going off, such as a gravel run-off or a wall.

Russell said: “I do agree we need to stick with one race director and we need to have a bit more consistency with the stewarding.

“You know, we come to the following event and often the stewards from the previous event are not there so there is no accountability and no explanation of decisions.

“We ask questions and it’s difficult to get an answer because almost the blame is being put on to somebody else who isn’t there. It’s tricky. Everyone has their own interpretations.”

He added: “We need to look at the root cause of the issues. And with these track-limit offences the root cause of issue is the circuit, and we’re never going to solve this issue, until you solve the circuit.

“Turn Four in Austria, you will never have that issue. But you compare that with Turn One here or Silverstone last week, you will always have the issue.”

Sergio Perez
Red Bull’s Perez has again been at the centre of some contentious decisions by the stewards in Austria

Russell said he accepted that the new cars introduced this year had made the officials’ jobs even more difficult, because their design has promoted closer racing.

He said: “There has been a slight change of dynamic with the new cars and the promising and the cars running close to the ground. It has by no means an easy job., I don’t envy them, but we just want consistency.

“There is black and white what you can and can’t do [in overtaking guidelines issued by the FIA] but there is never a black and white when you race because every incident is different.

“It can’t be black and white because there are such fine margins. It is so difficult for everyone involved but it is getting a bit out of hand.”

The sharing of the race director’s job between two people – German Wittich and Portuguese Eduardo Freitas – was one of a number of changes made to officiating for this season.

These were made because Abu Dhabi was the final straw after a series of controversies last year over the policing of racing incidents.

Among the novelties is a virtual race control office to assist officials making their decisions.

And yet there have been a series of controversies this year – including on Friday in Austria, when officials missed Perez twice exceeding track limits during qualifying and allowed him to progress into the final session, only to delete his lap times following a subsequent investigation.

Russell said: “We do feel listened to but they can’t just change the rules week in, week out when one driver pipes up and says: ‘I think this, I think that.’

“They do need to stick to their guns. But it just needs to be enforced consistently. It needs to be clear to all of us. The penalties need to be a bit more consistent. And that will only come if there’s consistency from the people policing the regulations.”

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