AUSTIN, Texas – When representatives of Mercedes and Ferrari were summoned to see the FIA stewards after Sunday’s United States Grand Prix, they knew their fate was sealed.
The cars of Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc failed a post-race inspection, with officials finding that the wood panels on both bodies had corroded so much that they were in breach of technical regulations.
In an era where teams meticulously inspect their cars throughout the weekend to ensure compliance, exclusion from the final results due to a technical infringement is rare: since Romain Grosjean’s disqualification from the Italian Grand Prix in 2018, not a driver has been disqualified from a race for such an issue.
Hamilton and Leclerc shared a joint post on Instagram on Monday morning, showing them sitting together during Friday’s FIA press conference, looking bored and emotional. The caption came simply: “Mood.”
It was a painful end to both weekends. But how were two cars from two different teams disqualified for the same rule violation on Sunday in Austin?
How is the auditing process done?
Hamilton and Leclerc’s cars violated Article 3.5.9e) of the FIA Technical Regulations. This rule specifies the required thickness and dimensions of panels found under cars. This means “10mm ± 0.2mm” before the race, while “at least 9mm thickness due to corrosion” will be accepted in the race. Similar design constraints govern all parts of Formula 1 cars.
The panel on the underside of the Formula 1 car is made of a composite material called gabbroke, a type of reinforced beech wood. Its primary purpose is safety, preventing cars from bottoming out in the circuit.
The goal of the shingle wear rule is to ensure teams do not run their cars too close to the ground. This can provide a performance benefit by increasing the downforce generated by the floors, which is particularly strong under current ‘ground effect’ regulations.
After each race, the FIA carries out an extensive audit to examine different aspects of all the cars. This information is detailed in a post-race report by FIA Technical Delegate, Joe Power, which is sent to all competitors and made available to the media.
All 20 cars are weighed and checked for things like tire pressure, fuel samples, torque control and oil consumption. A number of cars are also randomly selected for additional technical checks. After the race in Austin, the cars of Sergio Perez, Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda were selected to inspect the aerodynamic components and bodywork to ensure compliance with technical regulations, covering a total of 19 areas including the front wings, rear wings and side skirts.
These tests were separate from the wear checks on floors and wood panels, which are routine at races – most recently in Singapore – and were carried out this weekend on four cars: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, McLaren Norris, Mercedes Hamilton and Leclerc’s Ferrari. They were again randomly selected. It so happened that two of the four were in breach.
If the FIA had not examined the wood panels in Hamilton and Leclerc’s cars, both would have escaped detection and disqualification.
Team representatives usually go to the hearings with the stewards armed with all possible arguments to escape punishment. On this occasion, there was little Mercedes or Ferrari could do. The document confirming the disqualification stated that both teams “acknowledged that the measurement carried out by the FIA technical team was correct.”
Ferrari’s sporting director, Diego Ioferno, explained that Leclerc’s car was only “a few tenths” outside the requirements. “The law does not allow anything other than disqualification in this case,” he said. It’s a black and white rule, and they were on the wrong side of it.
Why was wearing a plank a problem?
Two main factors contributed to the high levels of panel wear on both cars at Austin: the fast weekend format and the roughness of the track.
As teams make adjustments to setups over the race weekend, they will inspect and examine the wood panels on their cars to measure wear levels using sensors. This will help let them know how far the car has bottomed out, which is becoming an increasing problem under updated technical regulations from 2022.
But the fast weekend format only provided one hour-long practice session for the teams to improve their cars before locking in their setups. Since the start of qualifying on Friday, it has not been possible to change car settings without having to pit lane, a major drawback especially for teams starting high on the grid. On a normal weekend, both Mercedes and Ferrari may have realized that wear levels were too high on the wood panels and increased the ride height accordingly.
Ioverno explained that Ferrari raised the height of its cars during the first practice sessions in response to the bumpy roads at the Circuit of the Americas, something that has been a recurring problem over the years. After the race, Verstappen said the COTA system was a “better fit for a rally car” and needed to be resurfaced to make it smoother for drivers.
“In the past, everyone failed in one way or another with the suspension, they failed with the chassis,” Ioverno said. “We knew it was going to be difficult, that’s why we raised the car throughout the first practice session. From our perspective, it should have been fine. It turned out that we were, in any case, very marginal.”
This means that while Hamilton and Leclerc’s cars dealt with bumps during the 56-lap race, using heavier fuel and dealing with higher winds than earlier in the weekend, which also affected the car’s drivability, wear levels far exceeded the permissible amount. .
Formula One teams will always try to push the technical regulations to the limits in an attempt to outpace their rivals. But on this occasion, factors combined to push Hamilton and Leclerc’s cars further.
“In hindsight, we may have raised the car more,” Yuverno said. “But we would have missed the performance. We are always here to try to improve our performance.”
(Main image of Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
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