Sebastian Vettel has been slapped with a three-place grid penalty by United States Grand Prix stewards for speeding under red-flag conditions during free practice one, compounding an uncompetitive day of running for Ferrari.
Vettel is fighting to keep his extremely slim championship hopes alive this weekend, with only victory or second place guaranteeing him at least one more round against runaway title leader Lewis Hamilton, but his faint hopes were dealt a blow by yet another unforced error after a distant fifth place in FP1, admittedly in unrepresentative conditions.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc triggered the red flags with a brief off-track excursion that scattered stones across the circuit, necessitating a brief pause in the session for marshals to clean the track.
Drivers are given a delta time they must remain above as they travel back to the pits, expressed as the fastest time they’re allowed to set on their in-lap, but Vettel was found to have exceeded the delta when the red flags waved.
“The stewards found that Vettel did, in fact, fail to stay above the minimum time set by the FIA ECU in marshalling sectors 6 and 7,” the stewards judgement read.
“As the regulation states, article 31.6 was added this year to ensure that drivers reduce speed significantly during a red flag. Breach of this regulation is seen to be an extremely serious matter.”
Vettel was handed a three-place grid penalty in accordance with precedents set this year by Daniel Ricciardo at the Australian Grand Prix and Esteban Ocon at the previous round in Japan.
Speaking to Sky Sports, the German railed against the rigidity of the regulations.
“They were very specific, saying [I] took 27.7s to slow down,” he said. “They found it took too long.
“I saw the red flag and slowed down, had a look around to see if there was a car potentially stuck in the wall or if there was one around turn nine or 10 and then slowed down significantly to comply with the rules.
“I think I slowed down, I had a good look around.
“I think on top there might have been an issue with the timing, with the system. I was aware, I slowed down, and not much more to say.”
The Ferrari driver added that he felt there should have been some flexibility in the ruling given this was the first wet red-flag this season, which uses a slower delta time.
“I think there should be common sense with the rules that we have. Lining out 27.7 seconds precisely as an act of not complying with the rules, I think it’s wrong.”
“I think this is the first time we had this in the wet and in the wet the target is a lot slower, so you literally have to stop to 30 kilometres per hour or 40 kilometres per hour to bring down [to] the delta, which probably I should do next time.
“But in my opinion it’s not the right thing because if there is a car behind you, it might run into you — but it’s more important that you don’t get a penalty.”