The three-place grid penalty that cost Red Bull Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen pole position in Mexico was one of the big talking points of the weekend, not least because the FIA appeared to be a little tardy in announcing that the Dutchman was being called to see the stewards.
Indeed many assumed that the matter was only pursued after the FIA was alerted to controversial comments that he had made in the post-session press conference.
Under questioning by the media Verstappen had nonchalantly admitted that he hadn’t slowed despite seeing the crashed car of Valtteri Bottas, with the Dutchman expecting only to lose his fastest lap – which would’ve still kept him on pole.
FIA race director Michael Masi insists that the comments did not play a role, and various factors contributed to the way the timeline unfolded – including the fact that the crashing Mercedes of Bottas had put the marshalling system out of commission at that corner.
“All the traditional flags of single yellow, double yellow, green flag, white flag, slippery surface red and yellow are all operated by the marshal operator at that point,” Masi explains. “They each have a panel, they press a button, and bang, that activates it.
“The safety car, red flag, VSC, is all operated from race control. So effectively those that have to go out simultaneously to all points are operated by us in race control.
“Valtteri’s impact severed the cord from the guy pressing the button, so he could have pressed it as many times as he wanted.”
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG W10, crashes heavily at the end of Qualifying
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
With the light panel not triggered yellows did not automatically appear on Verstappen’s dash or within the timing system, as should have been the case. And a specific side effect of that was his potential speeding offence was not automatically flagged up for investigation.
“If the yellow light panel would go on, it does flag it in the software for us, absolutely,” says Masi. “But if a car hits the wall and cuts the cable…”
The electronic system was out of action, but crucially a marshal did manually display a single yellow flag – there was no time for a double. And come what may, Verstappen was obliged to obey it.
“The marshal put out a yellow straight away,” says Masi. “It would have been a double yellow. I think in the time frame that they had, the fact that they actually got a flag out there, credit to them, with the speed that they did it.”
Masi insists that there was no time for race control to use a red flag. “If you have a look at the time gap from when the incident happened to when Max was past the incident, it wasn’t that long. The chequered flag had already been displayed.”
One of the key reasons why there was a time lag in the investigation was that Masi had his hands full dealing with the aftermath of the Bottas crash, and specifically overseeing the rebuilding of the TecPro barrier that he’d hit. F1 action may have been over for the day, but there was a Porsche Supercup race to be run.
“We were actually looking into it straight away. But with the sequence of what happened, the primary thing was Valtteri’s health, getting the medical car out there, making sure that he was OK.
“Second part, once that happened, was getting the car back to the team, the third element was repairing the circuit for the next activity, so it was part of my role as the safety delegate I went out there to make sure everything was back in position.
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes AMG F1 getting into the medical car after crashing in qualifying
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
“I got back to the office and started working through the various bits of data that existed, and had a look at all three cars that were after Valtteri’s incident, which was Lewis, Sebastian and Max, and reviewed all three of them.
“Once I did that and had a look at all the video evidence, had a look then at the data, Lewis’s one was quite easy, there was no yellow flag.
“Even though the marshal did an amazing job at that point and showed the yellow flag relatively quickly, there was none for Lewis, but for Sebastian and Max there was. Sebastian lifted absolutely, Hamilton was not in a yellow flag sector.”
There was also a reason why there was no alert on the timing screens that the incident was being investigated. Shortly after the session the F1 timing page disappeared. “It was at the very end of the sessions. The screen clicks over to the next event, the next event being Porsche.”
One of the first things that was looked by Masi and the stewards at was the mini timing sectors – and at the point of the yellow flag Verstappen did not set his fastest sector of the session. That initially suggested that he had slowed, but on further investigation the throttle trace showed that he hadn’t lifted.
“Looking at all the picture, the mini sectors, looking at the data, looking at the vision, piecing that whole puzzle together. It’s not just one piece of information. You start digging like with anything. What he said was irrelevant to me, because I was already in motion.”
Masi is adamant that Verstappen’s comments to the media did not influence the decision to call him: “Hundred percent. By the time I’d referred it to the stewards, and told the stewards that the matter was to be looked at, it was after that that the comments came to light.”
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Pole Sitter Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari in Parc Ferme
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
An added complication was that the stewards were busy with another matter. Daniil Kvyat had been reported for an unsafe release in front of Daniel Ricciardo, and a hearing about that commenced 15 minutes after the end of qualifying. While the stewards were tied up they could not pursue the Verstappen case.
“The stewards were then in the middle of a hearing with Toro Rosso and Renault, about the alleged unsafe release, so they can’t issue a summons to attend a hearing, which is the formal notification.
“So as soon as that hearing concluded, they wrote up the summons. I effectively reported the incident to them at that point, once there was an incident to report.
“Anything that happens during qualifying we always summons them after the session without just handing penalties out. It’s just the custom and practice, the way we always have done it.”
Verstappen’s comment in the press conference made it clear that he expected any penalty to be deletion of his final laptime, which would have still have left him on pole with his first run. Some were surprised then he subsequently received a three-place grid penalty, but that is standard in the circumstances.
“The penalty in the stewards’ guidelines is three grid spots. And has been for a long time – for a single yellow,” Masi explained. “And the penalty in the stewards’ guidelines for a double yellow is five grid spots.”
Asked if F1 has an antiquated system compared to other sports where decisions are taken quickly, Masi was adamant that getting the right verdicts is the priority.
“It’s also a complicated sport in comparison. You have to look at all the available information that you have to establish, had a driver breached the rules or not? And in this case it was determined that one of them had.
“It’s the nature of the sport that we are to have to look at everything in totality, and then compare that with the various texts in the regulations.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s antiquated, it’s giving everyone their fair day in hearing it as is required to be done. It was unfortunate that we had another hearing that was happening at the same time. But those things occasionally do happen.”