The contentious situation arising from Hamilton and Leclerc's disqualifications at the F1 US Grand Prix has brought a multitude of issues to the forefront.
The disqualification of Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc from the 2023 United States Grand Prix due to their unlawful cars highlights the shortcomings of Formula 1's rigorous inspection procedures.Following their elimination for using overly worn floor planks, Mercedes driver Hamilton and sixth-place finisher Leclerc, who had fallen just 2.2 seconds behind Austin race winner Max Verstappen, were disqualified.
The FIA Technical Regulations, which stipulate that the plank assembly measured at designated holes can only wear by 1mm down to 9mm over the course of a weekend, had been broken by them.
Their back skids were declared unlawful, and they were subject to the usual exclusion penalty for a technical violation.The customary process
Post-race inspections are a standard feature of motorsports, starting at the local level. Numerous temperature, torque, software, fuel, and component inspections are done following an F1 race.
However, this isn't the case for all 20 cars. Technical delegate Jo Bauer is authorized by the sporting regulations to conduct "any checks to verify the compliance of the cars entered in the competition, at his discretion."
As a result, no vehicles had their floors inspected after the Japanese Grand Prix, one was examined after the sprint race in Qatar, and three cars were evaluated just after the Qatar Grand Prix.
Four Austin vehicles were examined. Vertappen's RB19 and the McLaren of runner-up Lando Norris (disqualifications applied) were examined and found to be legal alongside the Mercedes and Ferrari.
Why Leclerc and Hamilton were exposed
Based on a number of indicators, the FIA can determine which cars to specifically target for more examination.
A battered titanium skid plate emits a distinctive odor that can raise suspicions among the pitwall in the event of a damaged floor. The onboard video provides a clearer read, and the FIA will watch it to see if drivers' heads are nodding from bottoming out over bumps.
In an effort to protect drivers against vibrations, the FIA has started measuring the vertical oscillations in cars, a move that comes after the controversial return of porpoising in conjunction with the adoption of ground effects for 2022.
If an automobile draws notice for these unusual motions, the technical delegate will likely look into it more.
Additionally, Bauer is not restricted to one vehicle per team, so if there were reason to believe that either the Mercedes or the Ferrari were running dangerously low, he could have also ordered spot checks for Carlos Sainz and George Russell.
The fact that the two were left alone implies that, despite their onboard camera feeds and oscillatory data, they did not immediately jump out to the FIA. Therefore, based on their unique set-ups, it is possible that Hamilton and Leclerc broke the rules.
Wear on the rear skid plate indicates that the W14 and SF-23 are either running too softly at the back axle or too low of a ride height to allow the cars to kiss the asphalt when they bounce off of bumps.
Although it would be uncomfortable for the driver, Verstappen's passing scrutiny may indicate that the RB19 is operating stiffer to hold the ride height in place and prevent it from bottoming out.
Notably, in order to avoid grounding out at Spa earlier in the season, the Red Bulls had to rise through Eau Rouge.
The fact that Hamilton and Leclerc were contacted does not indicate a purposeful intent to break the law.
Rather, the sprint format caught them off guard, as it only permits one hour of practice prior to the implementation of parc ferme. Teams are very limited in what they can do to the car after that.
Due to the short window, some teams were unable to finish their heavy fuel runs before the Grand Prix. Because of this, they were unable to optimize the vehicle to handle the Circuit of the Americas bumps, which this year were considerably harsher even though Turns 12, 14, 15, and 16 had been resurfaced.
Additionally, until parc ferme takes hold, teams are able to remove the plank in order to measure wear accurately. After that, they can only make reasonably well-informed assumptions.
It seems that Mercedes and Ferrari just made mistakes with theirs.
Perfectionism against realism
Although the FIA can use oscillation data and onboard video to find possibly non-compliant vehicles, a possible problem is that 13 of the 17 finishers' cars' floors were not examined.
That essentially implies that there is a possibility—however slim—that one or more may have ended up with a plank that had been unlawfully worn excessively. They consequently scored points incorrectly after continuing to gain from Hamilton and Leclerc's exclusions.
Therefore, it would be ideal if each car went through a rigorous set of inspections. However, the FIA identifies real-world constraints that make this impossible.
If every check was performed for every car, the technical delegate would have too much work to do given the variety of checks at their disposal.
The issue was made worse during the US GP weekend. When a sprint weekend occurs, scrutineering takes place following the Friday qualifying, Saturday shootout, sprint, and entire GP.
The sprint race for this round was scheduled to take place in just 3 hours and 45 minutes following the conclusion of Saturday qualifying. Not included in that already constrained window are out-laps, grid preparation, and the pre-race build-up.
Then, after the Sunday afternoon Grand Prix, there are delays of one hour or more for teams to pack down and ultimately freight the car to the next race, which is this weekend in Mexico as part of a rapid-fire triple-header, while checks for all 20 competitors are finalized.
The regulatory board believes that speed must eventually take precedence over complete thoroughness.
Is it possible to dispute the race result?
Teams may legitimately request that those planks be evaluated to determine whether more disqualifications were necessary to improve their performance even further if they were dissatisfied with the FIA's degree of oversight and suspected that a competitor was running cars too low.
Teams can only appeal the outcome of the race during a 30-minute window that begins immediately after the chequered flag. This year, Aston Martin successfully used the track limitations controversy in Austria to have Sainz and Hamilton, Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly, and Alex Albon relegated.
After a 2 p.m. local start, Verstappen won the US Grand Prix in 1 hour 35 minutes and 21 seconds (plus the time required to do a formation lap). However, the floor checks report from the technical delegate wasn't released until 5:28 p.m. It was then too late to challenge the outcome of the race.
When parc ferme concluded and the cars not called in for scrutineering were released back to their teams, the games started. It would not have been feasible to recall the vehicles and accurately verify compliance once they were tampered with. As so, there was no way to contest the outcome.
Rival teams might have been extremely hesitant to formally contest the race outcome, even if the parc ferme and protest windows were much longer.
They may have been operating non-compliant cars without realizing it because the sprint race format prevented them from precisely measuring their own boards since Friday afternoon. These would also have been scrutinized, recognized, and discarded in response to objection. hence posing a significant risk.
Since the protest window has ended, Mercedes and Ferrari are the only parties with the ability to reopen the case in the event that they choose to challenge the disqualifications.
Nevertheless, whether on purpose or not, they violated the technical guidelines, and there is no room for interpretation that could lead to the decisions being reversed. That meant disqualification all along.
For instance, Sebastian Vettel's Aston Martin team failed to deliver the required one-liter fuel sample at the end of the race, costing him a podium position in the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Even if Aston Martin was able to demonstrate that the fuel leak was the cause of the issue rather than a fuelling mistake, the exclusion was still a foregone conclusion.
An appeal is thus very unlikely. The disqualifications of Hamilton and Leclerc will remain in effect as a result.