The Trouble With the Supercars Penalty System

Supercars needs to fix its penalty system. At the very least it needs to be explained better. Over the last few rounds, teams have claimed that penalties received for driving infringements have been inconsistent, and drivers and the media have labelled redresses as dangerous. The fans can't agree about whats fair, but most don't like the redress. At different times, drive through, time, points and grid position penalties have been used. At other times, position redresses have been used. This has led to a situation where teams, drivers and fans are constantly arguing over whether a penalty is fair or not. When you look at each incident though, the penalties do seem to be reasonably consistent. The real problems are the redress and a lack of understanding.

The aftermath of the incident that ignited the debate

The aftermath of the incident that ignited the debate

Penalty Grades

The rules as stated in the operations manual are a bit ill-defined, and only give a vague outline of the three different penalty grades. A list of penalties that can be applied is also included in the operations manual. This leads to the occasional inconsistency, but generally a redress is the first option for a grade one or two driving infringement, but if that cannot happen, a 10 second penalty is applied for grade one and 15 seconds for grade two. If post-race a time penalty is deemed to have no effect on the outcome, a points penalty is applied.

Below are the three penalty grades as described in the judicial rules component of the operations manual, last updated in July 2016:

Grade One -  Careless Driving 

Departing from the Standard of a competent Driver.

Grade Two -  Reckless Driving

Any unintentional action by a Driver which creates serious risk to others.

Grade Three - Dangerous Driving

Any intentional action by a Driver which creates serious risk to others. 

The key difference between grades one and two is the serious risk part of the description. If a driver makes a reasonable overtaking manoeuvre that a professional racing driver should be capable of, but fails to complete it safely, they will receive a grade one penalty. If a driver is overly ambitious and makes a high risk manoeuvre, they will receive a grade two penalty. This means that the penalty grade can vary occasionally according to the location and outcome, and the decision is highly subjective. It also wouldn't hurt to expand on the descriptions provided and maybe give some examples to better define the line between grades one and two.

Recent Incidents

There are seven recent incidents that need discussing here. Below is a brief description of each incident in the order they occured

Incident one: James Moffat on Shane van Gisbergen, Sydney Motorsport Park

Moffat dived down the inside of van Gisbergen from too far back and turned him around. Van Gisbergen lost one position and Moffat received a drive through penalty

Incident two: Shane van Gisbergen on Fabian Coulthard, Sandown

Shane van Gisbergen overtook Fabian Coulthard at turn one but pushed him wide onto the grass on the exit losing multiple positions. Van Gisbergen was ordered to redress. 

Incident three: Rick Kelly on Chris Pither, Bathurst

Rick Kelly experienced a brake lock up and pushed Chris Pither wide coming into turn one. Kelly was ordered to redress, but he had no radio communication. He was given a 10 second penalty at the next pit stop instead.

Incident four: Jamie Whincup on Scott McLaughlin, Bathurst

This was a big and controversial one. Scott McLaughlin got a bad run out of Forrests Elbow and Jamie Whincup saw that as an opportunity at the Chase. Whincup dived down the inside, and McLaughlin gave him room, but not enough room for a mildly out of control Whincup. Whincup missed the apex and pushed McLaughlin off the track. Whincup was directed by his engineer to redress immediately, which he did on the racing line, holding up bystander Garth Tander. Meanwhile, McLaughlin had failed to slow down and made an unsafe rejoin and hit Tander, putting Tander out of the race and himself in 15th. Whincup's actions were deemed a grade two infringement and he was given a 15 second penalty, putting him back in 11th place.

Incident five: James Courtney on Todd Kelly, Bathurst

James Courtney pushed Todd Kelly off the track on lap 158 at the Chase, prematurely ending the race for Kelly and Matt Campbell. Courtney was given a 25 point penalty following a post-race investigation.

Incident six: Garth Tander on Fabian Coulthard, Gold Coast

Coming down the main straight Tander was gaining on Coulthard. Coulthard moved to block Tander, who then went to the left and gained a slight overlap, which Coulthard would not have been aware of. Tander was on the outside as they approached fast right hand turn and gave Coulthard enough of a nudge to turn him around as he moved over to take the corner. Tander didn't have enough of an overlap and was given a drive through penalty and a 10 place grid penalty for Sunday's race. 

Incident seven: Jamie Whincup on Shane van Gisbergen, Pukekohe

Van Gisbergen had been battling with understeer while fending off Whincup. This meant that he had to take a alternate line through some of the corners, leaving him vulnerable to Whincup. Whincup took an opportunity from too far back, locked his rear brakes and speared into van Gisbergen, turning him around. Van Gisbergen rejoined in 8th place, while Whincup was given a drive through penalty and finished the race a lap down in 25th.  

In a moment that people had been expecting all year, Whincup spun van Gisbergen, allowing Mark Winterbottom to take a 10 second victory. Van Gisbergen recovered to third

In a moment that people had been expecting all year, Whincup spun van Gisbergen, allowing Mark Winterbottom to take a 10 second victory. Van Gisbergen recovered to third

Historically every infringement was penalised by a drive through penalty, but that's now considered too harsh for incidents involving only one or two positions. And that's good, handing out drive through penalties every time a driver makes a minor error would ruin the racing. Today drive through penalties are largely reserved for turning other drivers around or deliberately pushing them off the track. This is what happened at SMP where Moffat tried to overtake van Gisbergen from too far out and ended up turning him around. It's also what happened at the Gold Coast and Pukekohe.

Van Gisbergen lost one position at SMP and seven at Pukekohe, and Coulthard was out of the race and missed Sunday qualifying. Moffat, Tander and Whincup received drive through penalties. Fair enough, same type of infringement, same penalty. In addition Tander received a 10 place grid penalty. This was entirely deserved, because a driver with Tander's experience should know that moves like that at street circuits carry severe consequences. These additional penalties are needed at street circuits to account for the additional risk. At Sandown, van Gisbergen pushed Coulthard off the track coming out of turn one and causing him to lose multiple positions. Van Gisbergen was ordered to redress. This could suggest that Moffat’s drive through penalty was too harsh, or van Gisbergen’s was too soft. Should pushing drivers onto the grass causing a loss of multiple positions also warrant a drive through? To answer that question, you have to look at circumstances that these sorts of incidents usually occur. Turning a driver around occurs on entry to a corner and usually results from approaching too fast and can be avoided. Pushing a driver wide happens on the exit and is harder to avoid. On that basis, turning a driver around should be an automatic grade three and a drive through penalty.

You could argue that the Gold Coast incident was partly Coulthard's fault, becuase it could be argued that he moved twice to block Tander. However, the second move was to return to the racing line for the corner, which is allowed, at least at a street circuit where the B pillar rule applies. The B pillar overlap rule applies at certain street circuit corners and states that if the front of the car overtaking has passed the B pillar of the car being overtaken, the car being overtaken must concede the position before the corner. If they haven't reached the B pillar they must concede themselves. This means that Tander, who was still behind the C pillar, had to concede. He didn't concede, so he was at fault. Had Tander made it past Coulthard's B pillar, Coulthard would have been required to concede the position. 

What about when the crime is seemingly the same but the punishment different? Rick Kelly and Whincup’s infringements were the same on paper, with both drivers momentarily losing control of their car, but Kelly received a grade one time penalty of 10 seconds and Whincup a grade two penalty of 15 seconds. Kelly's action was reasonable but went wrong because his brake buzzer had failed, so grade one is appropriate. Whincup was over-ambitious, overtaking from too far back at the Chase, and lost control. That is worthy of a grade two penalty. There is a further complication to the Whincup/McLaughlin/Tander incident. Whincup redressing on the racing line. Whincup can’t be blamed for McLaughlin’s unsafe re-join, and McLaughlin has been penalised for that, but he did block Tander while serving a penalty.

A grade three incident sometimes involves a post-race investigation resulting in a 25 second or point penalty. This is what has got Whincup supporters angry. James Courtney received a 25 point penalty for a grade three incident, while Whincup got effectively a 156 point penalty for a grade two. But Courtney was the last driver on the lead lap so a time or even drive through penalty would have done nothing, and if Whincup had got the 10 point penalty Triple 8 argued for he still would have won Bathurst and collected the most points. 10 points wouldn’t have been much of a penalty at all in that context.  If Whincup had received a 10 point penalty and won, he would have been the most unpopular Bathurst winner since Jim Richards in 1992.

Will Davsion and Jonothan Webb won Bathurst after Whincup's 15 second penalty

Will Davsion and Jonothan Webb won Bathurst after Whincup's 15 second penalty

So what is to be done? It's a difficult issue to resolve, because you have to punish poor driving but you don't want to discourage drivers from having a go. For a start, the Whincup/McLaughlin/Tander incident mounts a strong case for abandoning the redress and going straight for the time penalty at the next pit stop or post-race. Redresses are dangerous and allow drivers to hold up bystanders. Whincup was ordered by his team to redress immediately. He did this on the racing line, blocking Tander, who was then hit by McLaughlin.

The rules therefore should be re-written for greater clarity and to remove the redress. Specific penalties should be outlined for grades one and two, For s grade one incident,10 seconds post race, or 10 points if the next finisher is more than 10 seconds behind. For a grade two, 15 seconds/points. Grade three  infringements are more complicated because these incidents are often involve serious mechanical damage and post-race investigations. They can also lead to DNFs, and if there's still a race left in the round, the victim can miss the next qualifying or race. The current drive through or time/points penalty system is reasonable, and there should be further use of grid penalties. 

The penalties handed down recently are appropriate for the infringements under the current rules. The current rules however, need to be changed to replace redresses with time penalties. Until that happens, the risk of a repeat of what we saw at Bathurst remains.