Silverstone, Northamptonshire - Sebastian Vettel has spoken out against 'unnecessary' Formula One grid penalties, saying drivers were now being penalised for incidents that were once considered a normal part of racing. He accepted, however, that drivers should carry some of the blame for complaining in the past of inconsistencies in stewards' decisions which had led to a more rigid approach.
"In my point of view motorsport is not black and white," said Vettel, who collected a three-place grid penalty in Austria last weekend for impeding Renault's Carlos Sainz in the second phase of qualifying, told reporters at the British Grand Prix. "Not every decision can be the same, and I don't see the necessity to decide every time. But that's what the sport has developed into. Every incident needs to be looked at, so-called racing incidents for some reason are not allowed to happen any more.
"So we end up with a massive rule book which I think could have the header 'We're not allowed to race', because that's sometimes how it feels."
The Austrian penalty was imposed despite both Vettel and Sainz progressing to the final phase of qualifying without any difficulty. Vettel said the Sainz had completely understood what had happened, was relaxed about it and said it was no problem, but the stewards still felt the need to act. Their published ruling emphasised that they had reviewed all alleged impeding incidents since the beginning of 2016 and their decision was consistent.
Vettel said the decision had "sucked on the day, it probably will suck for somebody else at some point in the season".
"I just think all these things are unnecessary, because sometimes... it's not that you lose your mind or you do something crazy because you intend to, but you try to push the limits and sometimes you might make a mistake."
He leads fellow four times world champion Lewis Hamilton, winner for the past four years at Silverstone, by a point ahead of the 10th round of the season.
'Mercedes spirit stronger than ever'
Hamilton, meanwhile, said recent strategy errors and mechanical failures had only made Mercedes stronger as a team, with the world champion heavily fancied to take back the overall lead this weekend after losing it to Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel in Austria last Sunday.
Hamilton suffered his first race retirement since 2016 at Spielberg, ending a record run of 33 successive races in the points. Before being sidelined by a fuel pressure problem, he had already dropped from first to fourth when Mercedes failed to bring him in for an immediate pitstop after the virtual safety car had been deployed.
"The spirit within the team is stronger than it’s ever been," Hamilton said. "These experiences we’ve been having, and how we’ve been handling them, have really united us more than any other year. There’s a great energy within the team. So, while it was a painful experience, it actually brought us closer. I think it made us stronger."
Hamilton said the team had come up with some "fixes" immediately after the race, when team mate Valtteri Bottas retired early with a hydraulics problem. Neither driver is expected to incur any starting grid penalties in Sunday's race at Silverstone as a result of the mechanical problems in Austria.
"The team was super on it and I’m confident we’ve done everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again," said Hamilton. Chief strategist James Vowles made a public apology to Hamilton over the radio during last Sunday's race.
"I really do feel like I have the best strategist team behind me," Hamilton said on Thursday. "Look at how many wins I’ve had within this team. We’ve had far, far more success than we’ve had failures and nobody is perfect. It’s just the way the sport is."
"We really do win and lose as a team," added the Briton, who is out of contract at the end of the year but expected to agree a highly lucrative new deal, although Mercedes said there would be no contract announcement this weekend.
'I think we are years away'
McLaren may talked before the start of the Formula One season about fighting for podiums and possible wins but team boss Zak Brown recognises that it could be years before that happens. The once-dominant team has not won a race since 2012 or stood on the podium since 2014. The upheaval continued this week when racing director Eric Boullier, a Frenchman who joined from Lotus in 2014, resigned, after technical head Tim Goss was moved aside in April.
McLaren ended a three-year partnership with Honda in 2017 but has also under-performed with the same Renault engines that have taken Red Bull to three victories in nine races.
"We've had a tough time for many years now, even really before Eric joined," Brown said before the team's home British Grand Prix, describing the situation as uncompetitive and unacceptable. It was going to take some time to contend for titles, he conceded, saying: "I think we are years away. I don’t know if that’s two or 10, or somewhere in-between.
"Probably more like somewhere in-between, but I don’t want to get into predictions. I think we have to be very honest with ourselves and our fans that this is going to be a journey. I think everyone needs to recognise that."
McLaren is sixth in the Constructors' standings and in danger of slipping to seventh, with Force India - financially strapped and operating on a fraction of the budget - only two points behind. McLaren had said in 2017, when Honda took much of the flak, that it had one of the best chassis but Brown recognised on Thursday that had not been the case.
"No, definitely not," he said, adding that this year's was no better: "We know we have less downforce this year than last year."
McLaren driver Fernando Alonso told reporters separately that he trusted Brown 100 percent, although he had also had the same faith in Boullier. Alonso denied he was calling the shots at McLaren, with his former race engineer Andrea Stella promoted to performance director and Brazilian Gil de Ferran, an Indy 500 winner with whom Alonso worked at Indianapolis in 2017, brought in as sporting director.
"I just drive the cars," said Alonso. "With Zak obviously we have a very close relationship even if it's a short time that we met... He's a racer, he understands racing commitment and spirit and I think he's going to be a good leader for the future at McLaren."