Lewis Hamilton has been excluded from Sao Paulo GP qualifying and will start Saturday night’s Sprint from the back of the field due to a rear-wing infringement on his pacesetting Mercedes car.
Following a dramatic Friday night and then Saturday day time in Brazil which saw both of F1’s title contenders placed under investigation, stewards confirmed that the DRS wing on Hamilton’s car had contravened the regulations and so the car had been excluded from the results.
Hamilton had topped qualifying ahead of Max Verstappen and was due to start from the head of the grid for Saturday’s 24-lap mini race that offers three points to the winner and sets the grid for Sunday’s 71-lap Grand Prix.
With a five-place grid penalty for an engine change already being applied for the main race, Hamilton’s title hopes have suffered a huge blow in Brazil.
Verstappen now inherits first place for the sprint. He already leads Hamilton by 19 points in the world championship with a maximum of 29 points up for grabs this weekend at Interlagos.
In a separate incident, Verstappen was investigated for touching Hamilton’s rear wing in parc ferme after qualifying in contravention of sporting regulations.
The Red Bull driver received a large fine of €50,000 for the incident but the Dutchman, crucially for his championship bid, faced no sporting sanction that impacts his weekend.
After reviewing video evidence, stewards ruled they were “fully satisfied” that Verstappen’s actions had not had any influence on Hamilton’s wing.
DRS drama: Why Hamilton’s car was disqualified
Hamilton had unexpectedly dominated Friday evening’s qualifying hour and, although he knew he would drop down the grid for the main race due to the team’s latest change of engine, the Mercedes driver had at least put himself in position to fight for the maximum three points on offer in the sprint and limit the damage of the looming sanction for Sunday.
But those hopes started to unravel just hours later.
Referring the matter to the stewards, F1’s technical delegate found that Hamilton’s Mercedes car did not fulfil the “maximum distance” required for DRS which with its movable flaps on the rear wing increases speed on the straights.
When DRS is activated, the moveable wing which raises the upper element to a flatter position to drop drag and increase straight-line speed, the gap must be between 10mm and 85mm.
But while the gauge used to measure the gap was found to pass through the outer section of the wing, it did not for the inner part.
Mercedes representatives were called to the stewards on Friday evening to explain the situation, with the case eventually adjourned until Saturday morning so further evidence could be gathered and examined.
In their explanation of how the investigation into the DRS wing unfolded, the stewards said they “heard, from both the team and the FIA that the same design has been tested many times during the season and uniformly passed.
“Further, the FIA has examined the design of the area of the car in question and are satisfied that the design meets the intent of the regulation. There is therefore no question in the minds of the Stewards that the test failure indicates any intent to exceed the maximum dimension either by action or design.
Hamilton and Verstappen’s qualifying saga: The timeline (GMT)
- Friday, 8pm: Lewis Hamilton tops qualifying ahead of Max Verstappen
- Friday, 9.28pm: Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes car summoned to Brazil stewards over alleged DRS breach
- Saturday, 1.20am: An alleged Max Verstappen parc ferme breach is reported by stewards
- Saturday, 12.30pm: Max Verstappen reports to stewards with Red Bull team manager Jonathan Wheatley
- Saturday, 1.30pm: A Mercedes team representative meets with stewards regarding Lewis Hamilton’s car
- Saturday, 4.33pm: Max Verstappen is handed a hefty fine but no grid penalty for touching Lewis Hamilton’s car
- Saturday, 5pm: Lewis Hamilton is disqualified from qualifying and will start last for F1 Sprint, with Verstappen now first
- Saturday, 7.30pm: The start time for the F1 Sprint
In their defence to the stewards, Mercedes said “that this is not a systemic breach, and is indeed unique. It was, rather, something gone wrong” and pointed out that it is normal practice for the FIA technical department to allow teams to make changes to their cars, even in parc-ferme conditions, to “fix minor problems that they find”.
Yet although the problem with the wing was not picked up by the team during qualifying, and stewards were “sympathetic” to this point, they did not believe there were mitigating circumstances in the case and delivered the verdict of exclusion.
Is this the defining moment in Hamilton vs Verstappen?
Nineteen points behind heading into this weekend, Hamilton’s hopes of winning a record eighth world title this year now appear in serious jeopardy.
One plus point for Interlagos is that Hamilton’s prodigious pace through the opening day of the Brazilian weekend – when he surprisingly outpaced Verstappen by 0.4s in qualifying – should bode well for making his way back through the field in Saturday’s short-form race on a track where overtaking is feasible.
"There was insignificant force when Verstappen touched the wing".
The full verdict and story on Max Verstappen escaping a grid penalty for tonight's Sprint
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) November 13, 2021
However, the existing engine penalty means that wherever he finishes on Saturday he will then drop back five positions for the start of Sunday’s big race.
The Sprint also only offers points to the top three finishers.
Should Verstappen fully capitalise on his front-running position on Saturday and Sunday, then Hamilton will require a herculean weekend performance to stay in relative touching distance of his Dutch rival heading into the season’s final three races over the following four weeks.