• Belgian Grand Prix comment

Paying the penalty

Chris Medland September 3, 2012
Romain Grosjean came perilously close to Fernando Alonso's head during the incident © Sutton Images

Despite Spa having one of the shortest runs to turn one on the calendar, plenty can happen between lights out and La Source. In GP2, Josef Kral went from fifth to a comfortable first before the field even reached the braking zone - and nobody had stalled.

Unfortunately, in the grand prix itself it took even less distance for Romain Grosjean to drift across in to Lewis Hamilton and set off a chain of events that could have had disastrous consequences. Grosjean's resulting one-race suspension was, finally, a statement of intent from the FIA.

Let me first put on record that I like Grosjean; I was massively impressed with him in GP2 last year, he's good with the media and after pre-season testing I was predicting he would give Kimi Raikkonen a real run for his money.

Now to the crux of the problem: He isn't learning.

On Friday, defending his record in races compared to Raikkonen, Grosjean said: "It's true that in the races Kimi is in front, but we always forget that this is my first year. I have been making mistakes … I think I made mistakes, I was not lucky a few times and that has been making the difference. But I'm still learning a lot of things, and I think now we are ready to get the second half of the season better than the first one."

After qualifying I asked Grosjean if his numerous first-lap incidents this year would play on his mind seeing as he was starting from the middle of the pack. His response? "I was not thinking about it until you spoke about it, so no."

Grosjean's early issues

  • Australia: Contact with Maldonado on the second lap battling for sixth place which ended his race
    Verdict: Could have backed out

    Malaysia: Tapped Michael Schumacher in to a spin on lap one before sliding out in treacherous conditions two laps later
    Verdict: Understandably caught out by conditions

    Spain: Damaged front wing hitting Sergio Perez in turn two, leaving the Sauber with a puncture
    Verdict: Should have lifted

    Monaco: Hit Schumacher again before turn one, breaking his rear suspension
    Verdict: Unlucky trying to avoid Alonso. Blameless

    Great Britain: Similar to Spain, broke his front wing clipping Paul di Resta at turn four, sending the Force India spinning off with a puncture
    Verdict: Small error, but should have known where his front wing was

    Germany: Contact leads to puncture and poor result
    Verdict Should have learnt after Silverstone first lap

    Belgium: Needless contact with Hamilton sends both cars ploughing through the field at La Source, taking out Alonso and Perez
    Verdict: Senseless error - though small - nearly had dire consequences. Dangerous

But he needs to be thinking about it.

The contact with Hamilton was minor, but it led to both cars losing control and Grosjean's Lotus flying across Fernando Alonso's Ferrari perilously close to Alonso's head. A small mistake can have dire consequences at these speeds.

It was Grosjean's seventh incident at the start of races in twelve grands prix, and a grid penalty would never be enough. That would have allowed him the opportunity to forget about what happened and move on seven days later - albeit from a lower starting position - when the odds show he's more likely to have another incident than not.

Dwell on it is exactly what Grosjean needs to do, because it's only by luck that Alonso was not seriously injured; and Sergio Perez for that matter, whose Sauber was used as a launching ramp by Grosjean's Lotus. With one of his drivers involved in the accident, Martin Whitmarsh had strong but valid views after he admitted he had feared for Alonso's safety.

"It just reminds us how flashes of that - I think we've become slightly nonchalant," Whitmarsh said. "We see so many big, enormous shunts and we're just used to the driver hopping out - and fortunately on this occasion [Alonso] did - but in fact you realise that you're a couple of inches away from not hopping out of the car. So it's very fortunate for him and fortunate for the sport that we got away with a big accident."

Drivers ought to have learnt about the dangers of motorsport by the time they reach Formula One; GP2's Nigel Melker and Richard Cregan in GP3 certainly should have after both required hospital visits following big crashes at Spa this weekend. If they don't learn once they're in the big league, then the punishments need to be more severe.

Pastor Maldonado is another case in point. A grand prix winner, he can be exciting to watch and has undoubted raw talent, but the mistakes are too frequent. His jump-start was blatant, but not dangerous. His tangle with Timo Glock; careless and clumsy. However, that's now 12 penalties this year (yes, an average of one per round), and that too means he's not learning.

Maldonado was making serious errors early in his career, being banned for nine races after hitting and severely injuring a marshal at Monaco in World Series by Renault in 2005 (reports claimed he was initially banned from racing in Monaco for life, although there's still some doubt whether that was the case). That's a big punishment, but proved to be an ineffective as he had no problem securing a seat in the same category for the following year and was able to continue bankrolling his way up the ladder regardless.

In the statement regarding Grosjean one reason the FIA gave for the punishment was the incident "eliminated leading championship contenders from the Race". Just because Maldonado hit a Marussia should not - in the case of a comparable incident - mean his punishment should be less. As Whitmarsh pointed out, Alonso was very lucky. By all accounts, that means a driver in a less spectacular incident can become very unlucky, and the FIA should be doing all it can to prevent that occurring when the warning signs have been there all year.