Why was Alonso penalised, and will it hurt his Mercedes chances?

MELBOURNE, Australia — Fernando Alonso‘s controversial penalty at the Australian Grand Prix, a result of the piece of driving that riled the Mercedes team he is a strong candidate to join in 2025, seemed like a classically bad bit of timing from the two-time world champion.

Alonso was being chased by potential future teammate George Russell on the penultimate lap when the Mercedes driver lost control of his car and crashed at Turn 6. Although there was no contact between the two, the stewards immediately opted to look at how Alonso had applied the brakes on the approach to that corner.

The penalty he eventually received, for “potentially dangerous driving,” dropped Alonso from sixth to eighth and has split opinion across Formula One. To some, it was akin to a professional foul in a football match, to others an unfairly penalised piece of defensive driving aimed at keeping a faster car behind.

Making the discourse more irresistible is Alonso’s standing as one of the favourites to replace Ferrari-bound Lewis Hamilton in 2025 and finally get the Mercedes seat he has long coveted. As such, the incident has all the hallmarks of a legitimate controversy.

Why was Alonso penalised?

The charge levelled at Alonso was simple in terms of wording: He had slowed dangerously and uncharacteristically at that part of the track, which had triggered Russell’s accident behind.

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The initial concern was for Russell’s safety. His W15 had come to rest askew, beached atop its own wheels and broken suspension, stranded in the middle of the track with its underside exposed to oncoming traffic.

Once he was out of the car, attention turned to the stewards’ decision to look into the incident more closely. Russell spoke to the media before he went to that hearing, meaning his quotes do not reflect the final verdict.

“My take is I’ve gone off and that’s on me, but I was half a second behind Fernando 100 metres before the corner, and suddenly he came towards me extremely quick and I was right in his gearbox,” Russell said.

When asked whether it had been a “brake test,” the term used for a driver deliberately and aggressively hitting the brakes to affect the driver behind, Russell stopped short of agreeing directly with that phrasing.

“Well it’s clear that he braked 100 metres before the corner and then … back on the throttle again and took the corner normally,” he said. “We’ve already seen the data of that, so I’m not going to accuse him of anything until we’ve seen further, but I was right behind him for many, many laps. I was half a second behind him approaching the corner and then suddenly he slowed up very dramatically and gone back on the power.

“I just wasn’t expecting it and it caught me by surprise. That part’s on me, but it’s interesting that we’ve been called to the stewards, so [I’m] intrigued what they have to say.”

Mercedes team principal and CEO Toto Wolff, who is weighing up whether Alonso or one of a handful of other drivers should replace Hamilton in the team next year, said: “I don’t want to accuse Fernando of anything because I have only looked at a few laps, but there was a braking. The previous five laps or so that I’ve seen, there was no braking. And this one lap, there was a brake.”

Even before he knew the matter had been referred to the stewards, who have access to every bit of car data right down to radio messages between team and driver, Alonso was talking about an apparent problem with the car.

“Problems on the throttle,” Alonso told Aston Martin over the radio moments after the incident. “Something’s stuck. I am pressing the maximum of my strength!”

Was this legitimate feedback or Oscar-worthy acting from a man worried he had just done something wrong?

Alonso never mentioned the throttle issue again, either to the media or to the stewards. It would not be the first time a driver has said one thing in the heat of the moment over the radio and then something different once the adrenaline had subsided, but multiple sources told ESPN they were skeptical about the legitimacy of Alonso’s immediate radio messages.

When he spoke to broadcasters shortly after the race, the Spaniard had changed his story, saying there was “something with the battery” he was dealing with for the final 15 or 16 laps. Onboards from his car suggested his engine was stuttering as he crossed the line. As with the throttle claim, Alonso did not repeat his suspicion of a faulty Energy Recovery System (ERS) when called to explain himself to the stewards.

He did not mention any car issue when he tweeted about the penalty Sunday night.

Mercedes was never convinced there was anything wrong with his car. As suppliers of the engine in Alonso’s AMR24, the former world champions had all the data the stewards would also look over.

In between the hearing and the verdict being read, one Mercedes team member showed ESPN data of Alonso’s throttle output. The graphs showed two clear applications of the brake when there would normally be one, and that he was 60 kph slower through the corner than usual. The graphs showed what the stewards eventually declared: Alonso had not driven like that at Turn 6 at any other point during the preceding 57 laps, and that was justification enough to be demoted down the order.

Was the penalty fair?

F1 penalties always divide opinion, but it is important to make the distinction that a penalty does not automatically mean a driver is being accused of a nefarious act. There is a clear difference between “potentially dangerous driving,” as the stewards came to find, and an implicit accusation of something malicious from Alonso toward Russell.

Alonso clearly felt the move had been a demonstration of his race craft, a defensive move aimed at helping him keep Russell’s Mercedes at bay. We’ve seen how good Alonso is at this before, something he referenced on Sunday night, and it is impossible to categorically state this wasn’t an attempt at that.

Alonso’s reference to Brazil 2023 in his tweet was one plenty of fans made on social media, too. Alonso was lauded in the aftermath of that race for keeping the much faster Red Bull of Sergio Pérez at bay for the final part of the race largely through a smart series of moves in the final corners. On that occasion, Alonso had started to take a different line through the uphill Juncao left-hander, effectively carrying less speed into the corner so he could carry more out of it and into the long start-finish straight, where Pérez would get the benefit of a speed boost from the Drag Reduction System (DRS).

That smart bit of driving, and his brilliance at wheel-to-wheel racing, was enough to earn Alonso a famous third place that day.

But comparing Brazil 2023 and Australia 2024 is like comparing apples and oranges. The Juncao corner at Interlagos is a much slower part of the race track than Turn 6 in Australia. Alex Albon‘s huge crash during Friday practice at almost exactly the same point showed that it is a part of the race track where drivers are close to the limit. One tiny mistake at any point through entry, apex or exit of the corner could lead to a big accident. The speed of the corner, and the impact one car’s wake of dirty air could have on a rival following behind became a key consideration in the penalty.

The stewards even made it clear that Alonso had the right to try a different line into the corner and that he should not necessarily be responsible for the turbulent air caused by his car, but the characteristics of that particular corner turned out to be the key mitigating circumstance.

“Did [Alonso] choose to do something, with whatever intent, that was extraordinary, i.e. lifting, braking, downshifting and all the other elements of the manoeuvre over 100m earlier than previously, and much greater than was needed to simply slow earlier for the corner? Yes,” the judgment read. “By his own account of the incident he did, and in the opinion of the stewards by doing these things, he drove in a manner that was at very least ‘potentially dangerous’ given the very high-speed nature of that point of the track.”

The penalty will raise an interesting question about the precedent it might set going forward. Expect the rights and wrongs of the verdict to dominate the media day ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix in two weeks, the first chance Alonso, Russell and their rivals will have to address it head on.

Has Alonso blown his shot with Mercedes?

As compelling a narrative as this might be, it feels farfetched. An interesting follow-up for Wolff when he too faces the media ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix will be what his verdict was having seen the footage and heard from the stewards. Unless he feels Alonso intentionally wanted to put Russell into the wall, it’s hard to imagine Wolff letting residual bad blood cloud his judgement about 2025.

Alonso’s career has been characterised by burned bridges at the various teams he has driven for, and it would feel on-brand if Sunday’s action had hindered a move he has coveted for almost a decade. The Mercedes ride might not be quite as attractive as it was a few years ago, but Alonso will no doubt relish the idea of taking Hamilton’s seat and winning races in his place in 2025.

The driving of another Spaniard might well be what denies Alonso that opportunity, though.

When news of Hamilton’s move to Ferrari was confirmed in late January, multiple sources told ESPN that Carlos Sainz was not on Wolff’s list to replace the seven-time world champion. Fast forward to Round 3 and, with an Australian Grand Prix win under his belt, Sainz appears to have moved to the front end of the queue for several of the teams with a seat to fill in 2025.

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