Inconsistent steering leaves Hamilton with rough justice

The credibility of F1 is being stretched as race stewards fail to make punishment fit the crime – or lack of it. David Tremayne reports

Coming so soon after the decision by stewards in Valencia not to penalise Felipe Massa for a pit lane transgression, Lewis Hamilton's demotion from victory to third place in Belgium over the weekend left a sour taste in most mouths. Even Ferrari admitted that they had not protested over the result, as McLaren's Hamilton crossed the line first after vanquishing their champion, Kimi Raikkonen.

A year ago, under the direction of Jean Todt, that would have been an automatic reflex. Under the management of Stefano Domenicali, however, the win-at-any-cost mentality has been toned down. That makes it all the more regrettable that the stewards Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatti and Yves Bacqueline should not have emulated the common sense judgement exercised by Graham Stoker, Enzo Spano and Manuel Vidal in Spain. This was a crucial race for the beleaguered Raikkonen, who has not won since Spain in May and more often than not has trailed his team-mate Felipe Massa, the man who was declared the winner on Sunday. Raikkonen has been accused of cruising as he repeatedly excused poor qualifying performances by saying he could not generate sufficient temperature in his Bridgestone tyres over one very quick lap.

He put all that behind him on Sunday as he forced his way past Massa on the opening lap – nearly putting him into the wall in the process – and then taking the lead when Hamilton spun at the still-slippery La Source corner on the second lap. Thereafter he had the race in his pocket until the rain came in the closing stages and turned Spa into a skating rink. In the course of one lap he made a mistake in letting Hamilton challenge him at the chicane at the end of lap 42, let the Englishman overtake him at La Source at the start of the next lap, spun at Pouhon after retaking the lead, and then crashed out further round the circuit. Just as it seemed his performance had reconfirmed his commitment, this rash of forced errors opened up questions over his future all over again.

The biggest bone of contention about the stewards' decision to penalise Hamilton, and to drop him from first to third place, is that he manifestly did not secure an advantage by missing part of the chicane in his battle with Raikkonen.

It was clear he backed off and let the Finn retake the lead. But Raikkonen not only gained an advantage by running on to the high-friction run-off area on the exit to La Source on the opening lap, but did likewise at Pouhon on the 43rd, before he spun. At no stage did the stewards propose a penalty for those actions.

This inconsistency opens up the debate about a permanent steward all over again. In 2006 the sport's ruling body, the FIA, employed a lawyer, Tony Scott Andrews, in that capacity, and his cool-headed, fair judgement was evident when he put Michael Schumacher to the back of the grid in Monte Carlo after his unsporting attempt to block the track, and Fernando Alonso's best lap, during qualifying for the Monaco Grand Prix. Scott Andrews, however, parted company with the FIA at the end of last year.

The lack of consistency in decision making was highlighted when Bruno Senna was given a drive through penalty by the stewards in Belgium for precisely the same transgression that earned Massa only a €10,000 (£8,000) fine in Valencia. For the credibility of a cash-strapped sport that has already been through the mill with the Mosley affair this year, that situation can no longer be tolerated.