When Jo Bauer, the FIA’s F1 technical delegate, made the crucial decision to refer Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc’s cars to the United States Grand Prix stewards due to non-compliant skids following an inspection of the floor and plank wear, it set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to their disqualifications.
This pivotal moment had significant implications for both the drivers and their respective teams, reshuffling the race order and introducing unexpected twists to the championship standings.
In this article, we will delve into the rule that was breached, investigate whether other drivers faced similar scrutiny, and examine the role of the sprint format in Mercedes and Ferrari’s rule violation.
Understanding the Rule Violation
The cars of Mercedes and Ferrari were found to be in breach of article 3.5.9 of the 2023 F1 technical regulations. This rule stipulates that “the thickness of the plank assembly measured normal to the lower surface must be 10mm ± 0.2mm and must be uniform when new.”
In addition, it allows a minimum thickness of 9mm due to wear, with conformity to this provision checked at the peripheries of the designated holes.
The introduction of the plank assembly dates back to the 1994 German Grand Prix, implemented as part of a series of safety-driven rule modifications following the tragic events at Imola that year, where Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives.
Concerns regarding the speed of F1 cars led to the inclusion of a 10mm wooden plank (in reality, a high-density wood laminate) on the underside of the cars. This change raised the ride height of the cars, resulting in reduced underfloor downforce.
The 1994 Belgian Grand Prix offers an intriguing parallel, as within a month of the plank’s introduction, Michael Schumacher lost his victory due to excess plank wear on his Benetton. This unexpected turn of events handed the win to Williams and Damon Hill.
The similarities to the 2023 Austin situation include the team’s struggles to maintain ride heights, largely due to limited running resulting from wet conditions during the weekend.
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Scrutiny of Other Cars
While four cars were subjected to floor and plank wear inspections in Austin, only the cars of Leclerc and Hamilton were found to be in breach of the regulations.
Lando Norris’s McLaren and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull also underwent inspection but remained within compliance.
Why Only Four Cars Were Checked
The FIA conducts extensive legality checks in post-race scrutineering but is unable to scrutinize every aspect of all cars due to practical limitations. Four cars were selected for inspection, with one from each of the top four teams chosen.
The FIA publicly publishes a comprehensive list of items checked in post-race scrutineering, which was expanded to four pages after the United States GP. No provisions exist for sister cars to be checked once an infringement has been found.
Assessing the Performance Impact
The exact impact of ride height violations on performance remains uncertain due to various factors at play. Running a car with lower ride height can enhance ground effect floor performance and generate more downforce.
However, at a bumpy track like COTA, specific sections of the circuit or contact with curbs may lead to excessive wear.
Running the car too low and experiencing ground contact could negatively affect performance, so it is challenging to definitively assess performance gains or losses.
Teams typically exercise caution when it comes to plank wear since a violation results in instant disqualification. Thus, taking risks for performance gains is highly unlikely.
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Influence of Mercedes’ Upgrade
While it is possible that Mercedes’ upgrades affected the ground effect floor’s performance, the changes introduced were not substantial enough to account for the rule violation.
More likely, external conditions and limited setup time played a more significant role in the excess wear observed in both Mercedes and Ferrari.
The Impact of the Sprint Weekend
It is reasonable to argue that neither Mercedes nor Ferrari would have encountered rule violations on a standard race weekend with three free practice sessions.
The condensed setup process during a sprint weekend, offering only one hour of free practice, presents significant challenges, particularly on a bumpy circuit like COTA.
The cars’ setups are locked into parc ferme conditions at the start of Friday afternoon qualifying, leaving no room for subsequent changes.
While this format presents limitations, both teams and the stewards emphasize that ensuring the car’s legality is the responsibility of the teams. In certain instances, teams have even broken parc ferme conditions during sprint weekends due to concerns related to plank wear.
In conclusion, the rule violation that led to Hamilton and Leclerc’s disqualifications at the United States Grand Prix was rooted in the non-compliance with article 3.5.9 of the 2023 F1 technical regulations, specifically concerning the thickness of the plank assembly.
The circumstances surrounding this violation included a lack of setup time, wet conditions, and a heightened reliance on a single practice session during the sprint weekend.