By Alan Baldwin
SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) - Former world champion Mario Andretti has criticised Formula one stewards for hitting Ferrari's title contender Sebastian Vettel with a three-place grid penalty for a qualifying incident at the Austrian Grand Prix.
Vettel, 14 points behind Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in the battle of four times champions chasing a fifth crown, starts sixth at the Red Bull Ring, with his British rival lining up on the front row.
The German was handed the demotion for impeding Renault's Carlos Sainz in the second phase of qualifying, with both drivers going through to the final 10-car shootout.
"Dear stewards, a penalty that could effect a championship should not be imposed unless it’s flagrant. In this case it clearly was NOT! #shame," Andretti, the 1978 champion with Lotus, commented on his Twitter account.
The American former Ferrari driver's comment triggered a debate on social media about the application of the rules and whether those in the title fight should be treated any differently to others.
The stewards, one of them being former F1 racer Derek Warwick, said in a statement on Saturday that they had reviewed all alleged impeding incidents since the beginning of 2016 before making their ruling.
"The penalty of a drop of three grid positions is consistent with all other similar incidents," they said.
Vettel had said he was unable to see Sainz in his mirrors and Ferrari had not warned him of the Spaniard's approach.
However, the stewards felt Vettel should not have been going so slowly on the racing line after completing his quick lap, given his awareness of the problem with his mirrors.
"I’m sorry for Carlos," Vettel said later on the Ferrari website. "It was never my intention to ruin his lap."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Hugh Lawson)