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Page last updated at 18:19 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 19:19 UK

Hamilton finds little support

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton received a 25-second penalty for cutting a corner at the Belgian Grand Prix. It cost him his victory, leading to his team McLaren appealing the decision

By Andrew Benson
BBC Sport at Monza

If Lewis Hamilton was hoping for sympathy from his fellow Formula One drivers over his penalty at last weekend's Belgian Grand Prix, he was to be disappointed when he arrived in Monza on Thursday.

Hamilton's peers spoke almost as one in agreeing that the McLaren driver had broken the rules while racing with Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen at Spa.

And while most agree that the penalty for doing so - being stripped of victory - was over the top, sympathy for the 23-year-old was not exactly overflowing.

"Yes, the penalty is quite harsh, but that's the way it is. The rule is quite clear," said Toyota driver Jarno Trulli, echoing most of his colleagues.

And, echoing a view that Hamilton could have handled the situation with a bit more savvy, Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais pointed out that Hamilton has previous with this offence.

"He did it in Magny-Cours [at the French Grand Prix] and he did it in Spa"

Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais

"He has made the same mistake twice," the Frenchman said. "He did it in Magny-Cours [at the French Grand Prix] and he did it in Spa. I don't understand why the big mess about it. The penalty is rough, but there you are."

The latest controversy in which F1 finds itself has come about because of a rule that says drivers are not allowed to gain an advantage from running off the track.

In Hamilton's case, there is no doubt he cut the Bus Stop chicane as he pulled out of a passing attempt on Raikkonen at the end of the 42nd lap of the Belgian Grand Prix.

And there is no doubt he gained an advantage from it - he came out of the corner ahead of the Ferrari.

But, this being F1, it is not quite as straightforward as that.

A convention has developed over the last few years that, as long as a driver committing this offence surrenders his advantage and gives the place back, he will not be punished. And drivers have to not only surrender the advantage - but be seen to surrender it.

Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton of McLaren dispute the lead during the Belgian Grand Prix
Hamilton re-passed Raikkonen right after giving him the lead back

This is not stipulated in the rulebook, but it is the way race officials have dealt with this sort of offence.

Hamilton believes he fulfilled that requirement by letting Raikkonen back past him as they headed down the pit straight, before immediately overtaking him into the La Source hairpin.

And McLaren say they asked race director Charlie Whiting a number of times whether they were OK, and he said they were.

But there are a number of problems with that position.

Firstly, Whiting is responsible for the safe running of the race, a lot was going on at that time, he had not had a chance to see a replay and, in any case, is understood only to have said that he thought it was OK.

Secondly, it is not Whiting's decision, as McLaren boss Ron Dennis admitted at Spa. It is that of the official stewards.

In any case, not many of Hamilton's fellow drivers agree that he did fully surrender his advantage.

Had Hamilton followed behind Raikkonen through the chicane on the racing line, they say, he was unlikely to have been close enough to try a passing move into the next corner.

Nor is there much sympathy for Hamilton's view that he had no choice but to cut the chicane.

Firstly, he was only half alongside Raikkonen as they turned into the second part of the right-left chicane.

Andrew Benson - BBC Sport

And, as Trulli put it: "These corners with space give you more chance to attack as you don't end up on the wall or the gravel."

Another driver, who preferred not to be named, was more direct, saying Hamilton could easily have braked, pulled out of the move and followed Raikkonen through the corner. But, because there is no barrier there, "mentally, as he starts the move, he knows he's got options - he can cut the chicane".

It has to be said that only the drivers are so apparently of one mind.

Leading engineers Pat Symonds of Renault and Mike Gascoyne of Force India both think Hamilton did nothing wrong - that, having let Raikkonen back past, he had fulfilled his obligation.

But what has given this controversy legs is not so much whether Hamilton got a penalty as that the penalty so manifestly did not fit the offence.

Even in F1, everyone seems to agree Hamilton would have won the race anyway, so for him to be stripped of the victory has offended people's sense of natural justice.

And it is made worse by the fact that the penalty cut Hamilton's lead in the championship over Raikkonen's team-mate Felipe Massa, who inherited the win, from eight points to two.

The problem is that the stewards in Spa had no choice but to punish Hamilton in the way they did once they had concluded he had committed an offence.

If a driver is found guilty of this offence, they can choose one of two penalties - to drive through the pits, where there is a speed limit, without stopping, or a 10-second stop-go penalty in the pits.

And if one of those penalties is deemed appropriate, and the offence is committed in the last five laps of the race, the rules give only one option - 25 seconds must be added to the drivers' race time.

A source close to governing body the FIA said on Thursday that some scope for greater flexibility when it comes to defining a penalty would be useful.

But, at least so far, it seems that a change in the rules is unlikely, not least because it is a relatively rare occurrence for this sort of thing to happen so close to the end of the race, when the pressure to make an instant decision is so intense.

One thing does seem certain, though - that this controversy will spark at least some analysis of what this incident means for F1.

We have to believe that they (FIA) are impartial, the sport would not exist if we didn't believe that

Pat Symonds of Renault

As Symonds puts it: "It raises lots of interesting questions, and I am not talking about 'Are the FIA on the side of Ferrari?'

"We have to believe that they are impartial, the sport would not exist if we didn't believe that.

"But I think it does call into question [the sport's] philosophy, because everyone is saying we need more overtaking in Formula One, we need more excitement, and we need more personalities.

"And yet it seems to me that everything that actually happens seems to be against that.

"Here we had a great race with people really challenging each other and for why? If it's taken away, then why take that risk?"

And for now at least some good has probably come out of Hamilton's loss.

A similar situation is likely to happen again on Sunday - it often does at Monza, with its numerous chicanes. But at least now the teams and drivers know where they stand.

From now on, anyone who find themselves in the position Hamilton did last Sunday will have no doubt that they need to give the place back, and make sure they do it properly, as well.

As for Hamilton, despite his obvious disappointment, he seems to be taking it pretty well.

He found time to have a cheeky pop at Raikkonen, claiming that he had been able to overtake the Ferrari at the hairpin at Spa not because his McLaren had more grip, but because he was braver (Raikkonen, inevitably, would not rise to the bait).

And with rain forecast for the weekend and Monza expected to suit his McLaren more than the Ferrari, Hamilton might well have more reasons to smile come Sunday afternoon.

see also
Hamilton puts Spa saga behind him
11 Sep 08 |  Formula One
McLaren lodge Belgian GP appeal
10 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton passed too soon - Massa
09 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton stripped of Belgian win
07 Sep 08 |  Formula One
As it happened - Belgian Grand Prix
07 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Belgian Grand Prix photos
07 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton feeling heat of F1 fight
18 Jun 08 |  Formula One
Crash penalty is harsh - Hamilton
10 Jun 08 |  Formula One
Super Hamilton takes Belgian pole
06 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Donington submits new track plans
06 Sep 08 |  Formula One
Hamilton takes cautious approach
27 Aug 08 |  Formula One
Massa closes on Hamilton with win
24 Aug 08 |  Formula One

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