Fernando Alonso’s Australian GP penalty splits F1 driver opinion: ‘It’s ridiculous’

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SUZUKA, Japan — Fernando Alonso’s defensive move against George Russell at the Australian Grand Prix remains in the spotlight after the stewards’ penalty divided opinion among Formula One drivers.

While closing on Alonso for sixth place on the penultimate lap of the race in Melbourne, Russell crashed at Turn 6. His Mercedes bounced off the barrier and tipped up onto one side, ending up in the middle of the track and sparking panicked calls from the Briton for a red flag.

The telemetry from Alonso’s car showed that compared to his approach to the fast right-hander on every previous lap, he lifted off the accelerator 100 meters earlier, before braking and downshifting so much that he had to accelerate again to make the corner. That led to a big difference in closing speeds and created dirty air that reduced Russell’s downforce — a deliberate, tactical move the stewards deemed breached the regulations as “potentially dangerous driving.” They issued Alonso a 20-second penalty, dropping him from a P6 finish to P8.

Alonso and Aston Martin expressed surprise and disappointment in the decision, but did not plan any appeal or action to try and overturn the penalty, which dropped the Spaniard from sixth to eighth in the final classification.

But it remained a burning talking point through Thursday’s media day at Suzuka, as drivers shared thoughts on what precedent the penalty sets for future on-track battles.

‘A can of worms’

Russell admitted he was “totally caught by surprise” by Alonso’s move, looking up from a steering wheel switch change to then realize he was “in Fernando’s gearbox, and it was sort of too late. Then next thing I know, I’m in the wall.”

Had it not been penalized, Russell felt it “would have really opened up a can of worms,” particularly over the etiquette of defending a position. “Are you allowed to brake in a straight?” Russell pondered. “Are you allowed to slow down, change gear, accelerate, do something semi-erratic?”

Russell said it was “nothing personal” with Alonso, revealing they’d bumped into each other in a Monaco coffee shop after getting back from Australia and they didn’t discuss it. Sat alongside Russell in the press conference, Max Verstappen joked: “Did you brake test him there or not?”

Alonso was quite measured on the matter. He repeated his post-race line that it was “quite surprising” to be penalized, and said it would not prompt any change in his approach to racing. “There is no obligation to drive 57 laps in the same,” Alonso said. “We had one penalty, probably one off, that will never apply ever again. It was for us, we take it, we accept it.”

The stewards said in their bulletin handing Alonso the penalty they had “not considered the consequences of the crash” when handing down the sanction, but Alonso had doubts: If it had been a track with lots of run-off area, such as Abu Dhabi, Russell would have rejoined the track and tried to overtake again the next lap, rather than having his race ended. “It will not be any problem,” Alonso said.

His final thought on the penalty was that its harshness — a drive-through converted into a 20-second time penalty — was “strange” before his press officer asked to move on from the topic.

Drawing the line

Alonso’s Aston Martin teammate, Lance Stroll, had more direct views, calling the penalty “ridiculous” given the lack of contact between the cars. “Where do you draw that line between driving unnecessarily slowly and just being tactical?” said Stroll, who actually benefited from the penalty, moving from P7 to P6. “I think there’s been instances in the past where guys have slowed down to try and get DRS, or try and avoid DRS, and those guys weren’t given penalties and stuff.”

Drivers practice the art of defending from their earliest days in go-karting, learning where to place their car and what corners are best for attacking or easing off. A perfect example of tactical defense came in Singapore last year, when Carlos Sainz deliberately slowed to give Lando Norris DRS and help fend off the closing Mercedes cars behind. To defend well is not to simply push flat out as much as possible.

Norris was clear in his view that Alonso did not deserve a penalty. Although he said it was “odd” and “so extreme” to slow as he did, he did not think it was “even close to be regarded as a brake test” and felt the onus was on the driver behind to react to what the car ahead is doing.

“If George was a lot closer and then suddenly you’re in the middle of a straight, and Fernando lifts off, and George has to suddenly swerve or whatever, I guess it’s a bit more of a question,” Norris said. “George didn’t have to do anything but brake five meters earlier, and it would have been a different outcome. That’s also down to George. When you’re a driver, you have to react to everything around you.”

Mercedes' British driver George Russell crashes during during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne on March 24, 2024. (Photo by Paul Crock / AFP) / -- IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE -- (Photo by PAUL CROCK/AFP via Getty Images)

Russell’s car ended up stranded on the track after his late-race crash (PAUL CROCK/AFP via Getty Images)

Throughout his long, successful F1 career, Alonso has forged a reputation for the unconventional in bids to catch out the opposition. Norris summed this up as being “Fernando being Fernando”, a feeling echoed by Daniel Ricciardo: “That’s Fernando. He is crafty, so it’s all good.”

What constitutes crossing a line when defending is quite subjective, particularly with different stewards at each race. Norris felt it had been clear to drivers what they could or couldn’t do before, but “now it’s not.”

Charles Leclerc disagreed, saying that although those kinds of tactics are “something that we do as drivers”, Alonso’s actions were “too much and had to be penalized.”

“I think it’s clear what we can and can’t do,” Leclerc said. “You can always try and write it in a better way for it to be even clearer. However I really believe that common sense is the way forwards.

“We will never be able to write in the rules every possible scenario of every situation, and there might be situations where it is clear for everybody, and especially the drivers, that someone deserves a penalty, even if this particular scenario is not written in the rules. Common sense needs to be used in certain cases, and that was one of them.”

Haas driver Nico Hülkenberg said he “wasn’t very impressed” by Alonso’s move, not because of what he did, but where he did it. Turn 6 at Melbourne is a blind corner that drivers will take at upwards of 165 mph, meaning it’s difficult for any drivers approaching quickly to react to anything in front of them.

“It’s a blind exit, and if for whatever reason the flag system or someone is late and one of us would have t-boned George,” Hülkenberg said.

“Whilst that tactic is quite a common one in Formula One, at that particular corner, with that speed, and the blind exit, is the wrong corner to do it, and it produced quite a dangerous situation.”

The Turn 6 debate

One thing a number of drivers agreed on was the need to look at the layout of Turn 6 at Albert Park, particularly the placement of the barrier on the left-hand side of the track. Russell’s was the third incident in two years where a car had bounced back onto the circuit after crashing, following similar incidents involving Alex Albon last year and Dennis Hauger in this year’s Formula Two race.

The matter is set to be discussed in the drivers’ briefing on Friday after second practice. The divisions through the grid make it inevitable it will be a lengthy chat — which Stroll joked he was dreading.

“They’re already too long,” he said. “But I’m sure there’ll be a whole, long list of explanations.”

As for Alonso? He’s happy to move on, preferring to focus on the upgrades coming to Aston Martin’s car at Suzuka.

“We have a lot of work on Friday night,” he said. “I will not be in the drivers’ briefing more than necessary.”

(Lead photo of Fernando Alonso and George Russell: Paul Crock/AFP via Getty Images)

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