Lewis Hamilton battles back brilliantly from penalty in Brazil sprint


Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty ImagesLewis Hamilton’s Formula One world championship hopes lie in tatters after he was disqualified from qualifying at the Brazilian Grand Prix. The world champion faces a herculean task at Interlagos even to come close to his title rival Max Verstappen, who is in every position to open a lead in Brazil that is all but insurmountable.

F1 has scrupulously followed its own rules but it is impossible to ignore the sense of disappointment and deflation that accompany the likelihood that the most exciting title fight for years has been ultimately decided in the steward’s room rather than on track.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team were found to have breached a technical regulation during qualifying on Friday that decided the grid for Saturday’s sprint race. Hamilton took pole in the session but his punishment means he will have to start from the back for the sprint. Fatally for his title ambitions, the punishment will be compounded by a grid penalty he had already incurred this weekend when Mercedes gave their driver a new engine beyond the three allowed for the season.

Lewis Hamilton looks concerned before his fate was known.Mercedes have confirmed they will not appeal against the FIA ruling, stating: “We want to win these World Championships on the race track.”

Hamilton trails Verstappen by 19 points with four rounds, including Brazil, remaining and 107 points available. The sprint, which decides the grid for Sunday’s GP, is a 100km dash lasting approximately 30 minutes. However mighty Hamilton’s charge, and making it to the top 10 would be impressive, he will then drop five further places on the grid from wherever he finishes.

Verstappen, in contrast, will start the sprint from pole and thus almost certainly at very least start the GP on the front row. Just scoring a win would be enough to ensure he could finish second to Hamilton in the three remaining meetings and still take his first title. However, with Hamilton’s penalties he is likely to open a chasm to the world champion.

Lewis Hamilton’s pit crew work on his car. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian Lewis Hamilton’s pit crew work on his car. Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty ImagesHamilton’s car was deemed to have broken the regulations regarding his drag reduction system (DRS) during qualifying and, after an enormously drawn-out process, his punishment was finally confirmed on Saturday afternoon. Verstappen, too, had been drawn into a protracted steward’s inquiry and was fined €50,000 for touching Hamilton’s car after qualifying.

For Mercedes it was a technical infringement that it is impossible to imagine was deliberate. The rear wing is understood to have passed the FIA test before qualifying but failed to do so afterwards.

The stewards confirmed they believed there had been no deliberate rule breaking, reporting that the DRS “meets the intent of the regulation” and that there was “no question of any intent to exceed the maximum dimension either by action or design”. However, damningly for Mercedes, they did identify that the issue was likely caused by a play in parts, a fault with the mechanism or incorrect assembly.

Their mechanical failure has proved probably the most costly of the team’s rare errors since they returned to the sport in 2010. Since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014 they have been dominant and performed operationally and mechanically to an exceptionally high standard. That they have been found wanting at such a critical juncture and with such weighty consequences will be a body blow to the team.

Technical regulations tend to be viewed as a largely black-and-white area by the stewards, with exceptions being granted rarely indeed. In 2014 both Red Bull cars were disqualified from qualifying in Abu Dhabi after their front wings failed deflection tests.

The sequence of events had begun after qualifying finished on Friday at 2pm in Brazil and only concluded 19 hours later. With Hamilton having secured pole for the sprint race with a dominant performance, four-tenths up on Verstappen, Mercedes were summoned to the stewards after the FIA technical delegate, Jo Bauer, had inspected and found an infringement with the DRS on the rear wing of the world champion’s car.

The DRS opens a flap in the wing, reducing drag and allowing the car to go faster in a straight line. The gap is mandated to be no more than 85mm and the FIA has a specific tool to measure it. Hamilton’s car was found to have breached the regulation.

The stewards investigated and Mercedes put their case. It was initially believed to be based on arguments that the wing had undergone some form of failure causing the discrepancy in the DRS opening height. However, the intrigue then ratcheted up when Verstappen and Red Bull were also summoned to a meeting with the stewards on Saturday morning.

They were called to explain an alleged breach of the parc fermé rules that forbid the touching or checking of cars once qualifying is complete. Footage filmed by a fan had emerged of Verstappen inspecting and touching the rear wing of his car and then Hamilton’s under parc fermé conditions. It appears likely that Mercedes will have brought this to the attention of the stewards and used it as part of their own case for mitigation.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates taking pole position for the sprint race – but he was later disqualified. Photograph: Lars Baron/AFP/Getty Images© Provided by The Guardian Lewis Hamilton celebrates taking pole position for the sprint race – but he was later disqualified. Photograph: Lars Baron/AFP/Getty ImagesWith both title rivals now under investigation at 10.30pm in Brazil the process was brought to a halt. The Mercedes rear wing assembly was impounded, with the hearings to begin again the next day.

Verstappen was first, with the Mercedes representatives following and spending more than an hour with the stewards. Verstappen was fined with the stewards noting there was “insignificant force when Verstappen touched the wing”, ruling out any suggestion his actions had played a part in Mercedes’ downfall.

Yet the championship still hung in the balance and the wait ground on, so much so that the final practice session went ahead without a decision. Mercedes were given permission to run a replacement rear wing while the offending item remained under the watchful eye of the stewards. It was ultimately returned but only along with the decision that crushed Hamilton’s hopes.

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