Minutes before the start of qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton was under investigation for two separate incidents which occured during the third free practice session. One, for allegedly failing to respect double waved yellow flags; and the other, for allegedly impeding Nikita Mazepin.
But by the time qualifying ended, Hamilton had been cleared of one infringement and received a minor sanction for the other. Cue a sigh of relief for the world champion, who headed qualifying and will start the race from pole position.
Coming just two weeks after his championship rival Max Verstappen received a five-place grid penalty for ignoring double waved yellows in qualifying, how did Hamilton avoid a potentially race-losing penalty not once, but twice?
In the case of the alleged ignoring double waved yellow flags, it was a straightforward decision from the stewards, if an unusual case.
As Hamilton began a flying lap around 20 minutes into the session, a warning signal was briefly triggered ahead of him. According to the official decision published by the stewards. “The double yellow flag warning on the FIA Marshalling System was activated at light panel number six accidentally, for less than one second.” The signal was shown on the outside of turn eight.
But as the stewards noted, it was not shown to Hamilton. “As the on-board video of car 44 [Hamilton] clearly shows, there was no yellow flag displayed, no yellow lights were displayed to that driver and the yellow warning light was not visible on the driver’s steering wheel.”
This made the situation quite different to Verstappen’s incident in Qatar, where a marshal was seen waving yellow flags as the Red Bull driver passed. On that occasion Pierre Gasly’s car has come to a halt off the racing line, and Verstappen was one of two drivers penalised for failing to back off, the other being Valtteri Bottas.
“Unlike other incidents this year, there was no yellow flag or yellow light displayed to the driver (the driver already being well into the marshalling sector when the system was briefly activated) hence no breach of the regulations has occurred,” the stewards noted.
It was, effectively, a false alarm, and a brief one, as no vehicles were stranded on track when Hamilton and Verstappen were negotiating this portion of the circuit.
As Hamilton’s onboard showed, a signal was being displayed to him at light panel six, but it was a white flag indicating the slower car of Yuki Tsunoda ahead.
“With the yellow flags, there was a white panel going through turn nine, but there was no yellows,” explained Hamilton. “There wasn’t a car stopped anywhere.” Hamilton subsequently passed Verstappen on approach to turn 13, the lightly-banked hairpin at the far end of the circuit.
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While Hamilton was cleared over that infringement, he came much closer to getting in trouble over the incident involving Nikita Mazepin. Indeed, he was penalised, through the reprimand he received will not affect his starting position.
Mazepin was forced to take evasive action in the turn eight run-off as he approached Hamilton at full speed while Hamilton was on a cool-down lap. For that, Mercedes were fined €25,000, and Hamilton his second reprimand of the season, leaving him one away from triggering an automatic 10-place grid penalty.
Race engineer Peter Bonnington was informing Hamilton that both Mazepin and his Haas team mate Mick Schumacher were approaching him at full speed, just as the incident unfolded. A startled Hamilton exclaimed: “Fuck, Bono, you didn’t tell me, man – I had no idea [Mazepin] was coming.”
“With Nikita, I was told that he is 10 seconds behind starting a lap,” explained Hamilton. As the stewards’ assessment noted, that was the last warning he received until Mazepin caught him.
“It’s such a difficult track,” said Hamilton. “You have to get the feedback all the way down to when they’re four seconds behind or something like that, three seconds, so you know when to get out of the way. And there was radio silence, so I had no idea where he was. Next thing I know he’s right behind me.”
“Yesterday in the driver’s briefing, I did say that there was a potential for this,” Hamilton added. “So we should probably keep a minimum speed everywhere. Like they did for [turns] 22 [through] 27.”
Race director Michael Masi, in a radio conversation that was broadcast on the world feed, noted that “there was no flags of any form shown through that sector for Nikita or Lewis.”
The stewards viewed Hamilton’s situation sympathetically, noting: “Due to a failure in communication by the team he was not given another warning until car nine [Mazepin] was alongside him.”
Unusually, the stewards took the unusually fast and winding confines of the Jeddah circuit in mitigation when assessing the incident.
“The stewards accept that this circuit presents challenges for drivers in relation to using their mirrors as the method of determining the approach of overtaking cars,” they ruled.
“Although it is the driver’s ultimate responsibility to avoid impeding, for this circuit the driver must depend upon the team to communicate efficiently. This did not happen in this case and accordingly the penalty for the competitor is imposed.”
“The stewards take this opportunity to emphasise that due to the nature of this circuit it is essential that teams communicate effectively and proactively with their drivers,” the stewarded added. “This is not to be taken as a precedent for other circuits.”
In this instance, the stewards felt more responsibility lay with the team than with the driver. Hamilton may very well have been fortunate to have only received a reprimand for running slowly on the racing line and forcing a driver to take evasive action, on an ultra-high speed circuit littered with blind corners.
Because the decision on the incident between Hamilton and Mazepin was issued after the start of qualifying, and new video was issued at the time, the FIA gave any teams considering an appeal an extra 30 minutes to do so. However Mercedes’ title rivals Red Bull chose not to take advantage of the opportunity.
Some may take the stance that the stewards were not willing to risk having the championship battle being influenced by a grid penalty. However Red Bull’s unwillingness to protest the decision indicates they were ultimately satisfied by it. Similar leniency was shown in qualifying, where Pierre Gasly was giving a warning for impeding Carlos Sainz Jnr, albeit at lower speeds and with neither driver on a fast lap.
However the officials laid down a marker for the grand prix in their verdict: “The stewards take this opportunity to stress to ALL TEAMS that due to the nature of this circuit, it is essential that efficient and timely radio communications be made to their drivers about cars that may be overtaking during the race (in the case of lapped cars).”
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2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
- Analysis: Is Jeddah circuit’s layout fit for F1 or a “recipe for disaster”?
- Hamilton closes on another Schumacher record with first ‘hat-trick’ of 2021
- How Hamilton and Verstappen’s roughest scrap yet played out on the radio
- Brawn defends Masi following criticism of Saudi Arabian GP decisions
- F1 drivers want safety changes to Jeddah’s “Suzuka with walls” layout