Following his botched attempt to overtake Pascal Wehrlein at the 2017 F1 Monaco GP, the stewards handed Jenson Button a three-place grid penalty. Button is unlikely ever to serve this penalty as his participation was a one-off substitution for Fernando Alonso, who was competing in the Indy500.
It isn’t the juiciest of topics, but it’s worth noting that the F1 Sporting Regulations make no provision for any meaningful penalty in these situations.
Article 38.3 outlines the penalties available to stewards for incidents during the race. As Button had retired from the race, none of the time penalties (a drive through, stop/go or additional added time) were applicable. The stewards clearly felt that the incident deserved more than a reprimand, but not enough for disqualification from the event or suspension from another event (which would both have been irrelevant anyway). So, they opted for the three-place penalty, which is also consistent with penalties for similar incidents.
For incidents during the race, the regulations do not incorporate the imposition of a fine, nor do they allow the stewards to draw on any alternative penalties in the International Sporting Code. (The stewards may be able to refer to the ISC, but as this used to be specifically stated as an option and has been removed, I am assuming it is no longer an option.)
Teams are allowed to run four drivers over the course of a season, and each driver is considered distinct, scoring their own world championship points. This is logical, of course, because the WDC would become largely meaningless if points were contributed by multiple drivers.
But should penalties be different? On one hand, there is the argument that Button’s penalty is only a theoretical recognition of his gaffe and doesn’t have any genuine impact. This allows for the possibility that a team might substitute a driver in the crucial final races of a championship who could act as a support to their main contender without consequence. On the other hand, making Alonso take Button’s penalty seems somewhat unfair given he had no involvement in the incident. Imagine being a world championship contender and having to take a race out due to injury only to come back and find yourself relegated to the back of the grid or, worse, facing a race suspension because your substitute was an idiot on the track.
The best solution would be to create a provision in the regulations for this type of situation. In the event that a driver receives a penalty that he doesn’t take before the end of the season, perhaps a fine could be substituted. Alternatively, to dissuade teams from substituting drivers for the purposes of assisting their other driver, the penalty could convert to the loss of constructor points from the team or the team could be required to assign the penalty to one of the drivers of their choosing in the final race.
Although there is an aversion to docking constructor championship points for driver and race-related errors, likely due to the link between constructor points and revenue from the TV rights, it is not an outrageous suggestion. An unsafe release by the team during the race penalizes the driver for something over which they had no control. Further, although the idea of a driver suffering punishment due to the error of another might seem absurd on the face of it, drivers do sacrifice results for teammates, ultimately for the team. Direct team orders that hand victory to one driver over another are an example of this, as is Ferrari breaking the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox at the 2012 United States GP to promote his teammate (ironically Alonso) up the grid. Winning and losing as a team goes all ways.
In this instance the point may become moot. Although Button said this was his final race, with Alonso so clearly unhappy at McLaren and potentially looking at alternative racing series, it’s quite possible we will see Button again before the season is out. But F1 should be constantly evolving its regulations as it is component of the sport that once an otherwise unforseen situation arises, teams typically look to exploit the loophole.