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How a rule technicality enabled stewards to penalise Carlos Sainz

Carlos Sainz was handed a five-second penalty at the end of the Australian Grand Prix, after crashing into Fernando Alonso on Lap 57. But how did they penalise him when they did a count back to Lap 56 for the final order?

Carlos Sainz was heard begging with his team over the radio prior to the final Safety Car restart, after the stewards issued him a penalty for his crash with Fernando Alonso on Lap 57. The Ferrari driver outbraked himself into Turn 1 during the second restart and made contact with the rear of Alonso, spinning the Aston Martin driver around and out of the podium spots. At that stage the race was red flagged for a third and final time, with Max Verstappen crossing the start/finish line in the pits to start Lap 58 - the final lap. Even though the race restarted from the order in Lap 56 and effectively wiped the events of Lap 57 off the board, the stewards still investigated and penalised Sainz for his collision with Alonso. But how can they do it when the crash technically didn't happen?

Red flag count back rules

Under the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations, Article 58.15 states: "If the sprint session or the race cannot be resumed the results will be taken at the end of the penultimate lap before the lap during which the signal to suspend the sprint session or the race was given." As outlined by the regulation, the stewards re-established the order by taking it from Lap 56 prior to the red flag. While there was some debate over whether this could be done from Safety Car Line 2 at the start of Lap 57 - as protested by Haas post-race - Lap 56 was deemed the most credible by stewards. This meant a number of drivers that lost positions during the restart on Lap 57 were reinstated to their positions - including Alonso.

The count back technicality

Positions can often be awarded back to drivers who have crashed out following a red flag due to the count back rule. This was the case at the 2020 Formula 2 Sprint Race at Sochi, when both Jack Aitken and Luca Ghiotto were classified on the count back despite causing the race-ending red flag. However, it does not exempt drivers from being investigated for incidents on track. Article 54.1 of the F1 Sporting Regulations states: The Race Director may report any on-track incident or suspected breach of these Sporting Regulations or the Code (an “Incident”) to the stewards. After review it shall be at the discretion of the stewards to decide whether or not to proceed with an investigation. The key phrase is "any on-track incident" in the regulation. This is a technicality within the rulebook where stewards still consider the laps competed after the count back as part of the race distance, therefore subject to the same investigations and penalties if drivers are involved in on-track incidents. It is why Pierre Gasly was also investigated after the Grand Prix for his race-ending crash with teammate Esteban Ocon. Sainz felt he was harshly penalised given the five-second time penalty shunted him out of the points and down to 12th, capping off a disappointing weekend for Ferrari. But the saga shows the various different circumstances that drivers can get penalties, as this can also be the case for formation laps or the reconnaissance laps to the grid.

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