The FIA Stewards did not punish Sebastian Vettel for stopping on track after qualifying because they believed Red Bull and Renault’s assertion that carrying on could have led to problems such as engine damage.
However the force majeure issue was a moot point as only 0.850 of the required litre for the fuel sample was left in the tank, so he was penalised for that instead – a little like getting Al Capone for tax evasion…
The Renault engineers had spotted dropping fuel pressure and, according to sources, the message to stop was passed to Vettel’s engineer after some 15 seconds.
After hearing the argument and seeing the data the stewards accepted as force majeure that the drop in fuel pressure could have caused problems as the last dregs of fuel went through the system.
However rivals teams are somewhat sceptical about that, and given the fact that cars are routinely run dry in testing without any concerns, it would seem to be an unusual argument.
The team also insisted that it believed that sufficient fuel was still in the car, but the FIA rules are simple – if it can’t be pumped out for any reason it doesn’t matter whether it’s there or not.
Even if he had stopped a few corners earlier and had a more than a litre in the tank the FIA would have decreed that he would not have had enough on board to get back to the pits under his own power and still have enough for the sample.
Such samples are taken at random, so there is a good possibility that had Vettel driven back and drawn attention to himself the FIA might never have discovered that he had so little in the tank.
One team told me today that they have a plan in place and if they are running low they would simply get the car back to the pits and argue about the sample size later, if indeed it comes under scrutiny at all.
That begs the question to what degree the decision to stop Vettel was influenced by concerns about the sample size, rather than any genuine technical worries – did the Renault engineer panic about the sample and flag it up as a reason to stop, thinking he was doing the right thing? And did it all happen so quickly that the team did not have time to think it through?
In other words had the team rolled the dice and not told him to stop, Vettel might still be starting from third…