At the end of Sunday's United States Grand Prix, Max Verstappen, eager to finish on the podium, elbowed his way past Kimi Räikkönen with an overtake that cut inside the Finnish driver. As all four of Verstappen's wheels were inside the apex of the corner, the motorsports governing body handed down a five-second time penalty, demoting Verstappen back down to fourth place, and off the podium. It is without question that Max bent the sport's rules to the breaking point in the hopes of a better finish, but post-race analyses by some of Verstappen's fans point not only to inconsistent penalty application during the USGP weekend, but to the disproportionate number of penalties given to Max by one FIA steward in particular: Garry Connelly.
Examples of the former, including inconsistent apathy toward drivers violating track limits, were posted by incensed Verstappen forms across various forms of media, highlighting the disparate attention given to Verstappen's rule breaks and those by other drivers.
Verstappen himself pointed to FIA race steward Garry Connelly as a source of his woes, calling him an "idiot" after the USGP penalty. Data on Verstappen's penalties, compiled by a commenter on F1 Today, which examined stewarding decision documentation starting with the 2015 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, suggests that Max Verstappen may indeed be a persona non grata to Connelly.
In Max Verstappen's 39 Grands Prix since the last race of 2015, he has received eight penalties due to on-track actions, and of these eight penalties, five were handed down during races in which Connelly was part of the steward team, which include Abu Dhabi 2015, Mexico 2016, Hungary 2017, and the USGP this past weekend.
This proportion alone does not suggest that Connelly is exercising his wrath upon Max, but comparing the ratio of races stewarded by Connelly to those not reveals data suggesting something's amiss. Connelly has only stewarded 11 races of this 39-race period, and in that period, he gave Max five penalties over a four-race period, against three penalties applied over 28 races without Connelly's input.
Further analysis shows that races with Connelly on the steward team typically have approximately double the number of penalties, three on average, than the races with Connelly absent, which hover around one and a half. Connelly, then, can be interpreted as a stricter enforcer of the rules, but at that rate, Verstappen should only have two penalties over this same period. The variation from what the stats predict could be chalked up as a simple anomaly, but an incident from the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix serves as evidence for a more unsavory hypothesis, in which Connelly has a bias against Verstappen.
At last year's race in Suzuka, Verstappen made a questionable defense against an approaching Lewis Hamilton, forcing the Mercedes driver onto the escape road to prevent an overtake.
According to a story published during the race's aftermath by Autobild, Connelly, overruled by the rest of the stewarding team, preferring to live and let live, stormed into the Mercedes motorhome after the race, urging Mercedes staff to file a protest against the stewards' ruling. Missing the audience of Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda, both of whom were already on a flight out of Japan, he instead convinced Ron Meadows and Paddy Lowe to complain on behalf of the team. When Wolff received word of the incident, he made a few calls to retract the team's complaint, as he and Hamilton were in agreement: Verstappen's move was acceptable. An article by Autosport corroborates both the filing and withdrawal of Mercedes' complaint.
None of this is to say Max Verstappen is undeserving of the penalties he receives. Since his first season in 2015, his aggressive racecraft and use of the track has been called into question repeatedly. His habit of moving to defend position under braking garnered a rule in his name, forbidding the practice, though the FIA rescinded the rule prior to this season.
The fact is, though, that Verstappen isn't the only one pushing, or even breaking the rules surrounding behavior during scraps for position or respect for track limits. The data at hand, though, suggests he may be disproportionately punished for the same offenses for which other drivers would escape criticism or penalty.
It all comes back to one of the major problems with modern Formula 1: Inconsistent penalty decisions by the stewards. If Liberty Media wants its new darling to avoid controversies such as this one, which only serve to bitter fans' views of the sport, it must pressure the FIA to figure out a system in which penalties will be applied with greater consistency. In the short term, it may mean irritating drivers for a few weekends in a row, with penalties for actions they would have otherwise escaped from scot-free, but in the long game, drivers will simply learn to avoid incurring the wrath of the stewards and drive clean.
If they know where the line is drawn, they will avoid crossing it, but when it is fuzzy and scuffed, you can't help but run afoul of it now and then, at no fault of your own.