Lewis Hamilton’s commanding victory in Sunday’s United States Grand Prix may have put him on the brink of a fourth drivers’ championship, but as he crossed the line he wasn’t the dominant story coming out of Austin.
Indeed, an intense battle behind him had caught the eye of the world feed, as Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen went wheel-to-wheel for third place on the final lap.
The world feed’s quick cutaway back to Hamilton taking the checkered flag left the Verstappen/Raikkonen battle a cliffhanger, only picked up at the exit of Turn 19 once Verstappen’s Red Bull had cleared Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
So Verstappen had sent the crowd wild with his bold, ballsy move past Raikkonen through the long, sweeping right-hander in the final sector, the kind his three-year F1 career has frequently been built on.
Wild celebrations occurred in the Red Bull garage and below the podium, only for the stewards to swiftly put an end to them by handing Verstappen a five-second time penalty for going off-track and gaining an advantage, having crossed a kerb when passing Raikkonen.
Verstappen was handed the news in the cool-down room, forcing him to trudge away just as he did in Mexico last year when the stewards – one of whom also presided over his Austin penalty – gave him a late penalty.
The decision sparked outcry through the F1 community. Verstappen called out an “idiot steward” but didn’t refer to said steward, Garry Connolly, by name and even went as far as saying he hoped fans would not return next year at Austin in protest. Red Bull F1 chief Christian Horner labeled it “appalling,” while Mercedes’ Niki Lauda said the call was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
In the day where Twitter sees all, many a video and screenshot of Verstappen’s pass was sent back and forth as fans and pundits alike debated the decision.
The definition of track limits was a hot topic, as it often as it Circuit of The Americas (F1 is not immune to the phenomenon here as sports car races also see track limits in the crosshairs) with the ‘good old days’ gang saying how a proper track would have grass, gravel or a wall there, not a kerb.
And so to enter the discourse…
The stewards were absolutely right to hand Max Verstappen a penalty for his move on Kimi Raikkonen.
As bold as it was, it was illegal. He placed all four wheels across the white line, technically going off the circuit. He cut a corner to gain an advantage that he retained to the checkered flag. Looking at the footage, you can clearly see he puts all four wheels off the track.
This should not detract from the bravado of the move. Verstappen sensed an opportunity and threw himself into it, capping off what looked set to be a stunning fightback from P16 to P3. It’s the kind of move few drivers would dare to pull off, again setting the 20-year-old out from his peers.
The biggest issue here is not the stewards’ decision; it’s how they handled it, and how they handled the other possible breaches of track limits throughout the race weekend, of which there were many.
Track limits have been hotly discussed throughout motorsport for some time, particularly at tracks such as COTA, Silverstone and the Red Bull Ring in Austria where there is a vast amount of run-off in lieu of grass or gravel for safety reasons.
The FIA has previously clamped down on track limits with a zero-tolerance approach in qualifying and a three-strike rule in the race, preventing drivers from gaining an advantage.
However, it was quickly made clear at COTA that no such stance would be taken as drivers continually ran wide at Turn 19 through practice and qualifying, carrying speed out of the fast left-hander and running over the kerb.
No mention was made of Turn 19 in race director Charlie Whiting’s notes to all teams and drivers ahead of the weekend, suggesting that it was deemed no advantage would be gained by running wide there.
Sebastian Vettel would agree with that summation, having lost the chance to jump Lewis Hamilton after running wide when trying to get the undercut, yet others appeared to make use of their added speed, not losing much momentum.
The advantage gained by exceeding track limits is greater in the race due to the presence of other cars, with a number of battles early on seeing drivers cross the white line through the first sector.
Valtteri Bottas was forced wide at Turn 1 by Daniel Ricciardo early, but was able to keep his foot in and stay ahead. Bottas also ran wide at Turn 12 when trying to defend from Verstappen later in the race, exceeding track limits.
In neither case was any action taken. The stewards did note the Bottas-Ricciardo fight – one of the highlights of the race as they duked back and forth through the esses – but did not dish out any penalties.
This is the kind of inconsistency that makes the decision to penalize Verstappen difficult to accept entirely. Verstappen’s breach was more severe given the context of his battle with Raikkonen and the timing, being on the last lap, but it should have been handled in a similar fashion.
Six minutes passed between the stewards confirming they would be investigating the Bottas-Ricciardo fight on Lap 2 and deciding to take no action. Less time was taken to decide Verstappen’s fate, such was the desperation to ensure the wrong driver did not appear on the podium, as ultimately happened in Mexico last year.
In the context of the fight, though, and the importance of setting a final result, more time should have been taken to make a proper, fair decision.
Verstappen was fairly penalized – but on that basis, it was a mistake that Bottas was not penalized for his off-track runs. It was also a mistake that a harder stance was not taken on drivers running wide at Turn 19.
The inconsistency from the stewards at COTA will bring their policing into the spotlight once again, with Niki Lauda saying it will be discussed by F1 team bosses at the next Strategy Group meeting.
Would a permanent body resolve things? Perhaps not. Mistakes are human after all – but the reaction to them is how improvements are made. F1 has done well in recent months to admit to its own shortcomings through the past. How the FIA-appointed stewards now respond to the events at COTA will be fascinating.
As for Verstappen? His “idiot steward” quote aimed at Garry Connelly was uncalled for, and may see him get a wrap on the knuckles for not respecting the rule-makers much as Vettel did in Mexico last year with his tirade against Charlie Whiting.
However, the Dutchman did offer a mature, sensible answer when talking to NBCSN after the race, proving himself once again to be ahead of his years both on- and off-track.
“At the end of the day, just be clear about it,” Verstappen said. “If you say, ‘OK, that’s fine’, we’ll do what we like. If you say ‘stay within the white lines’, then we’ll stay within the white lines. It’s very simple.
“We need more consistency. At the end of the day, let us race. It was five centimeters and everyone was loving it. It was a great show.
“Just be consistent. If it wasn’t allowed, OK, that’s fine, I finished fourth. But don’t say everyone else, you can run off the track anywhere you like, and never give any penalties, then I do it, and you give me a penalty…”