The penalty row that could decide the WRC title

David Evans
This article first appeared on autosport.com

The 2018 World Rally Championship title battle took a major turn last week, but in an FIA court appeal rather than at round six in Portugal.

At Rally Mexico in March reigning WRC champion Sebastien Ogier was stripped of his four powerstage bonus points after he hit a chicane on the final stage.

He was one of six drivers to hit the barrier, but the only one penalised.

Amid what is becoming the tightest WRC title fight in years, insiders are concerned that the FIA decision has exposed shortcomings in the regulations and set a potentially troublesome precedent – with Hyundai’s Dani Sordo and Toyota man Esapekka Lappi penalised under the same rule in Portugal.

Autosport has obtained key evidence from the appeal that raises further questions over the decisions taken following events in Mexico.

The incident

The Las Minas stage ran twice on the final day of Rally Mexico, as SS21 and then the bonus-points SS22 powerstage.

After watching Thierry Neuville’s Hyundai collide with all three parts of the chicane, M-Sport Ford contacted the event organisers for clarification of the consequences of hitting the barriers there.

An email reply, sent to all teams, said the matter would be referred to the stewards.

Ogier hit the first two elements of the chicane on SS22, was referred to the stewards and had 10 seconds added to his time for the stage.

He dropped from second fastest to seventh and therefore went from four powerstage bonus points to zero.

M-Sport appealed that decision but the FIA International Court of Appeal upheld the stewards’ judgement.

Making the chicanes

The FIA’s Rally Safety Guidelines advises chicanes should be made from straw bales, water tanks, a wall of connected tyres or a concrete barrier.

The Las Minas chicane was made of plastic so light M-Sport presented evidence of a child pushing one of the barriers along the ground.

M-Sport also provided data from Ogier’s Fiesta (above) showing that the car’s speed through the 70 metres of the stage featuring the chicane was virtually identical from SS21 – when he didn’t touch the barriers – to SS22 when he did.

The SS21/SS22 discrepancy

Ogier contravened sporting regulation 14.2, which stipulates crews must follow the route as laid out in the roadbook, in Mexico.

But key WRC figures are questioning why Neuville wasn’t penalised in the same fashion after he hit the chicane on SS21.

Deviation from the route

M-Sport directed the appeal to a stewards’ decision from the 2014 Rally Poland, when Andreas Mikkelsen was found guilty of deviating from the route – a contravention of the same regulation that Ogier fell foul of.

Mikkelsen was caught cutting a corner with all four wheels on the grass, a shorter and faster route. He was handed a €5000 fine and no time penalty.

M-Sport offered evidence to demonstrate Ogier’s route through the chicane in Mexico could not have offered an advantage of more than a tenth of a second.

Not all barriers are equal

Sebastien Loeb, Jari-Matti Latvala, Dani Sordo and the powerstage winner Ott Tanak all made contact with one or more elements of the chicane on SS22.

According to the ICA, the important aspect of their collision is that they hit the second and third barriers.

The FIA ICA outlined the reasons it felt the first barrier was more important than the other two, stating: “The court finds that this makes an essential difference between the other competitors’ case and the case of the appellant’s car #1, as the first set of elements of a chicane has the most important impact when it comes to: (i) adapting the car’s path, (ii) reducing the car’s speed and (iii) meeting the safety objectives of a chicane.””

In its evidence to the appeal, the FIA stated Ogier, “did not merely touch the elements of the chicane but completely displaced the first element and was the only one to do so.”

Reaction

M-Sport team principal Malcolm Wilson told Autosport his squad was “very disappointed with the decision. We felt – and we still feel – we have a very strong case here. We’re very interested to see where we go from here.”

One of the primary concerns about the decision is the precedent it sets.

“What now?” said one senior service park source. “Every time a driver clips a corner, hits a chicane or touches a tyre barrier, do we expect the stewards to step in?

“In Mexico these were lightweight plastic barriers that were very, very easily displaced.

“We had somebody in the stage watching this section and when Neuville destroyed the chicane, the barriers weren’t put back in exactly the same place they were before he hit them. How could they be when there were no markings on the road to say where they had to be?

“Look at the difference between Ogier and Tanak coming through in SS22. For Tanak, the grey barrier is nearest the car whereas when Ogier [in-car shot above] went through it was the orange barrier – which is wider at the base. This is because the barriers were put back wrong.”

Pictures of those barriers assembled in a different order – and showing an apparently tighter line for Ogier than Tanak in SS2 – are available from M-Sport’s evidence here.

The FIA judgement is also available here.

Autosport says…

One of the things this decision appears to expose is a lack of consistency, not only in the structure and placement of chicanes but also in the approach from the powers that be.

We got another example last Saturday night with a stewards’ decision that left Sordo (and, after the finish on Sunday, Lappi too) hit with a 10s penalty for not going around the tyres in Rally of Portugal’s Porto street stage.

A pre-event bulletin from the organisers stated: “A penalty of 30s will be applied to any competitor who fails to follow the indicated route at any of these points.”

In their decision regarding Sordo’s infringement, the stewards justify a 10s penalty by saying: “Bulletin 1 sets a 30s time penalty to be applied to any competitor who fails to follow the route as indicated in the diagrams.

“However, the stewards consider that the penalty stated in Bulletin 1 is merely meant for cases where a driver fails to complete all necessary laps around each roundabout and not for cases where the bales are displaced by accident.”

The diagram shows the line around the tyres, it doesn’t show Sordo’s line through the tyres. Sordo, therefore, failed to go around the tyres. You can’t almost break the law…

The bulletin makes no mention of a penalty for hitting the tyres, but in Mexico there was no mention of a penalty for hitting the chicane. If hitting the tyres is following the route in Portugal; then hitting the chicane is following the route in Mexico.

Now more than ever the WRC needs strength of leadership, permanent stewards, a uniform approach and, above anything, concrete regulation.

At the Monza Rally, for example, crews know that if they hit a chicane it’s a five-second penalty. Ogier, Sordo, Lappi and co would certainly have given the barriers a wider berth in that circumstance. Let’s have the same in the WRC.

A few years ago, the FIA sought input on the best way to make chicanes, Rally Germany’s straw bales was seen as best practice and a regulation was expected to follow. But it’s still awaited..

Failure to address this will turn the teams in on themselves – as has already started – and cause a tit-for-tat approach that will cost time, money and credibility.

The Mexico punishment simply doesn’t fit the crime. All we can hope is that any championship battle involving Ogier is decided by a differential of more than four points.

Current WRC standings

Pos Driver Points
1 Thierry Neuville 0.119
2 Sebastien Ogier 0.1
3 Ott Tanak 0.072
4 Dani Sordo 0.06
5 Esapekka Lappi 0.055

Recent news

Column

Who I have my money on for the BTCC title

By Matt James

Rallying News

Citroen: Meeke was 'not under control'

Citroen World Rally team principal Pierre Budar felt Kris Meeke was out of control and left...

Karting: The secrets to PF International

As part of our special investigation into the world of karting, we got former karting star and...

Racing News

BTCC driver Moffat quits TCR UK

British Touring Car Championship driver Aiden Moffat has exited the TCR UK championship, with...

Rallying News

Citroen: C3 design saved Meeke in crash

Citroen team principal Pierre Budar believes the design of the manufacturer's C3 World Rally...

Rallying News

Triple ERC champion makes WRC2 move

Reigning three-time European Rally champion Kajetan Kajetanowicz will move into the World Rally...

Taking on the European karting scene

The international karting paddock has witnessed its fair share of talented British drivers in...

Column

Silverstone's rallycross adventure

By Matt James

Rallying News

Electric Mitsubishi rally car being developed

Swedish outfit Mpart has started developing an electric Mitsubishi rally car built around R5...

Rallying News

New WRC GB route a missed opportunity - Evans

Last year's Rally GB winner Elfyn Evans feels the revamped route for Wales' 2018 World Rally...

Rallying News

Rally seeding rules relaxed

Two-wheel drive and historic rally cars will be able to run first on the road on rally events...

Rallying News

MN Road Rally legends to attend Speed and Rally Show forum

Legends of the Motoring News Road Rally Championship will attend a forum at this weekend’s...

Rallying News

New push to get privateers back in WRC

World Rally Championship organisers are mounting a new push to get privateers back in the series'...

Rallying News

Toyota rules out team orders to boost Tanak

Toyota team principal Tommi Makinen has ruled out making Ott Tanak a clear number one and imposing...

Exploring karting's family tree

It’s commonly defined by professional racing drivers as the purest form of motorsport. It’s...

Rallying News

Kelly to make surprise Killarney return

Manus Kelly will make a surprise visit to the International Rally of the Lakes in Killarney...

Rallying News

Rally GB to unveil major route revamp

A significantly different route for Rally GB 2018, Britain's World Rally Championship round,...

Rallying News

Rovanpera hospitalised after Argentina crash

Kalle Rovanpera was hospitalised for checks after crashing out of the Rally Argentina WRC2 lead...

Rallying News

Ford sets out conditions for works RX return

Ford wants to see how the future of rallycross develops amid changes in America and plans for...

Racing News

Ingram takes victory in Donington Race 2

Tom Ingram became the first two-time winner in this season's British Touring Car Championship...

Racing News

Cook claims maiden BTCC victory

Josh Cook has broken his victory duck in the British Touring Car Championship, taking his Power...

Racing News

Cook takes first BTCC pole at Donington Park

Josh Cook has taken his maiden British Touring Car Championship pole position after heading...

1 2 3 52

More national news, in-depth race reports and analysis. Subscribe to the Motorsport News paper today.

What’s On

This weekend

No Events

Later

No Events

This weekend

No Events

Later

No Events

X