Lewis Hamilton Says There Were More Illegal Formula 1 Cars At The USGP, But They Weren't Checked

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes preapres to drive on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of United States at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2023 in Austin, Texas
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes preapres to drive on the grid prior to the F1 Grand Prix of United States at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2023 in Austin, Texas

After Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc were disqualified from the 2023 United States Grand Prix over excessive plank wear, the Formula 1 world has been embroiled in a fierce debate about rules and regulations. Now, during a press conference ahead of the Mexico Grand Prix, Hamilton has fired back: He claims there were far more F1 cars bearing excessive plank wear at the USGP, but those cars simply weren’t tested.

Let’s rewind a little bit. The underside Formula 1 cars are all equipped with a 10-millimeter thick glass-reinforced plastic plank. This plank monitors ride height; if an F1 car is bottoming out on the track, the plank will wear away. If that plank is worn away by even a smidge more than the regulations allow, race officials can disqualify a driver. These planks were mandated after Ayrton Senna’s fatal crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, where the excessive bottoming out of his car resulted in Senna losing control and crashing on a high speed corner.

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Hamilton isn’t necessarily incorrect; motorsport in general is a game of minutiae. If race stewards scrutinized every single car using every page of the FIA rulebook, then there’s a good chance those F1 cars would still be sitting in parc fermé in Austin, being poked and prodded until the end of time. Due to the compact nature of the schedule — teams packed up their supplies in Austin on Sunday night in order to fly to Mexico City the very next day — there simply isn’t time to check every car. A selection are chosen and scrutinized; the cars that aren’t chosen will simply be packed up.

Hamilton is also correct in stating that the enforcement of regulations should be improved. If half of the tested cars exhibit irregularities, then there’s a very good chance that a good portion of the USGP’s 11 other finishers likely also exhibited irregularities — especially the sister cars of Hamilton and Leclerc.

That leaves a few final questions: Why was plank wear only a problem in Austin? Why haven’t we heard about similar problems at other tracks this season? Three-time World Champion Max Verstappen had an answer for the media.

“I don’t think anyone does that on purpose,” Verstappen said, referring to the illegal cars of his competitors. “It’s more because of this Sprint format, where you only have one practice session where you try to nail everything. Once you are in the wrong, there’s nothing you can do.”

Verstappen is, of course, referring to the new concept of a “Sprint” weekend, where drivers have one single Free Practice session in a weekend as opposed to the traditional three. Issues that may have presented themselves in a later practice session — such as excessive plank wear — are not allowed to be fixed in any non-practice session on track. Once cars qualify and/or race, teams cannot make any additional changes. So, if Mercedes were to notice their cars bottoming out on COTA’s bumpy surface in the middle of qualifying for Saturday’s Sprint race, the team wouldn’t be able to do anything to fix it. It would just have to hope the race officials wouldn’t test its cars.

The double disqualification in Austin has highlighted one of the most pressing concerns in F1 these past few years: inconsistent enforcement of the rules. If the sport intends to keep growing, it’ll need to find better ways of balancing a strict set of rules with the ability to set up a car to follow them.

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