Lewis Hamilton passed 15 cars in the space of just 24 laps in Formula 1 Sprint qualifying for the F1 Brazilian Grand Prix at the Interlagos Circuit on Saturday, but he yet still faces an uphill challenge at Sunday’s Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
A five-place grid penalty after a crazy qualifying effort leaves Hamilton to start Sunday’s race from 10th on the grid, eight spots behind title opponent Max Verstappen.
Getting there was half the fun on a crazy 24 hours at Interlagos that ended up with Valterri Bottas atop the grid for Sunday’s race after a win in the Sprint qualifying race.
Hamilton and Verstappen weren’t nearly so fortunate.
The FIA’s technical team undertook the usual checks after Friday’s qualifying session, in which Hamilton was fastest. Officials determined that the DRS on Hamilton’s Mercedes W12 exceeded the maximum 85 mm specified, and passed the case onto the stewards.
The DRS, known as Drag Reduction System, opens in two specified full-throttle sections of the circuit and allows drivers to reach a greater top speed. In races it is only permitted when a driver is within a second of a rival but in practice and qualifying they have free usage in the two zones.
The stewards summoned Mercedes’ representatives and they made their case during a meeting on Friday evening. But to heighten the situation even more the case was adjourned until Saturday morning as the parties awaited further evidence, prompting Hamilton’s rear wing to be impounded. That further evidence was linked to Hamilton’s title rival.
Here’s where it gets really fun…
Videos surfaced of Max Verstappen touching Hamilton’s rear wing after the cars pulled into the pit lane straight after the session. Verstappen was summoned and met with the stewards before Mercedes reconvened for their secondary hearing.
Verdicts on both cases were finally delivered prior to Sprint qualifying on Saturday.
First up was the verdict on Verstappen. He was hit with a $57,000 fine but escaped further sanction. Stewards determined that Verstappen did touch the rear wing of his and Hamilton’s cars but did so with “insignificant force and there was absolutely no movement of any of the wing elements” and that “no direct harm was caused.”
Stewards outlined that such conduct “has potential for serious consequences” and warned teams and drivers that different penalties may be incurred for future transgressions. Verstappen later said that he wanted to look at how much the rear wing was flexing and that his touch was unrelated to the DRS issue.
Next up was Hamilton – and the result was exclusion from qualifying for the Sprint race. The FIA’s technical department outlined that when the DRS was activated, and a test gauge of 85 mm was pushed against the gap under the maximum force of 10N, it fitted through. That meant the DRS was open too far. The test was carried out four times using two different gauges.
Stewards determined that the additional deflection was likely due to incorrect assembly or damage. They asserted that the same design had passed checks several times already this season and that there was no question that the design itself met the regulations, emphasizing that Mercedes had not cheated. The stewards also would have permitted the required fixes during qualifying had Mercedes picked up the issue during the session. The advantage for Hamilton, who was four-tenths faster, was negligible but that does not matter when it is black and white. Non-compliance with the technical regulations is a slam dunk exclusion.
But there was still frustration for Mercedes given the fine margins at play.
“We’re speaking 0.2 of a millimeter,” said Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff on the contravention. “Until late this afternoon we believed it was okay, because the [rear] wing was damaged, one side was okay, the middle was okay, the right side was not okay, that actually means we had a performance disadvantage, and we thought in consideration of all these aspects the FIA would say there was damage and therefore we weren’t in breach of regulations. They also said there was nothing that happened with intent from our side and we were disqualified, which honestly I couldn’t believe.
“I thought that [team manager] Ron Meadows was making a joke when I saw the WhatsApp [message].”
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