Why USGP was Lewis Hamilton's 'Michael Schumacher' moment
Why USGP was Lewis Hamilton's 'Michael Schumacher' moment
Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc’s controversial disqualification in Austin has raised eyebrows in the F1 paddock. Teams aim to avoid technical infringements at all costs, as they will always be excluded, destroying a weekend’s effort.
The offending issue for Hamilton and Leclerc, excessive wear of the skid block (also known as the rear plank) is a rare reason to be disqualified. So rare, in fact, that there has been only one other recorded incident.
Following the tragic death of Ayrton Senna at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, the FIA introduced a raft of changes aimed at improving safety.
The long underfloor wooden plank, sometimes revealed when the bottom of the car is exposed, was introduced at the 1994 German Grand Prix, designed to increase the car ride height, resulting in reduced downforce.
As in modern-day F1, wear is not permitted on the plank. A 10% wear tolerance was allowed in 1994, equating to just one millimetre. The teams had no margin for error, risking catastrophic sporting consequences if liberties were taken.
The impact of the plank was immediate, with Gerhard Berger spinning out at turn one during practice. His Ferrari suffered an engine failure, and he skidded off into the gravel on his own oil. Berger was the first of many to befall this fate since 1994.
Besides this, the plank’s introduction proved uneventful, unusual for an in-season technical regulation change. However, this proved to be the calm before the storm.
Schumacher’s controversial disqualification
Two races later in Belgium, Michael Schumacher and Benetton became the centre of controversy, not for the first time in 1994. Awaiting his appeal following disqualification at the British Grand Prix, he and the team needed to keep out of trouble in Belgium.
Typical weather at Spa Francorchamps ensured Schumacher and fellow title protagonist Damon Hill lost pole position to a young Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan. Still managing to line up P2 and P3 ahead of a dry race, all eyes were on the top two as they attempted to battle for victory.
Schumacher took the lead at the end of the Kemmel straight from Barrichello, resuming his then-customary place in P1. He never looked back, his Benetton B194 seemingly unbeatable at one of F1’s most legendary circuits.
Imperious as he had been all season, he had a quiet afternoon and won the race by thirteen seconds from Hill. Barring a mysterious spin on lap 19, it seemed another simple day at the office for the champion elect.
But in the following hours, Schumacher found himself disqualified. This handed the race result to title rival Hill. While the Briton picked up ten valuable championship points, Schumacher saw a huge chunk of his title lead suddenly disappear.
Excuses wearing thin
So why had Schumacher been disqualified? The FIA, as usual, had inspected all cars after the race to ensure they met post-race regulations. However, an issue had been found on Schumacher’s plank.
The Benetton’s skid block showed signs of excessive wear well beyond the one-millimetre tolerance and was now undersized. This meant the team had run the car too close to the ground, gaining a downforce advantage.
High downforce is critical at Spa’s fast-flowing corners, so the implications on the car’s performance were obvious. The Benetton, already one of F1’s all-time great cars, became illegally unbeatable.
Benetton attempted to explain that the wear was caused by Schumacher’s spin on lap 19. The stewards, however, swiftly dismissed this excuse. The wear patterns of the plank in their eyes did not match this explanation. In a scathing statement, they said: “The stewards concluded that not one of the defences offered is acceptable.”
To make matters worse, Schumacher’s appeal against his British Grand Prix disqualification failed. The FIA opted to make an example of the German, and he found himself on the sidelines for the next two races. He would go on to win the title by a single point in the year's final race in Adelaide, salvaging his championship.
History not repeating itself
It has taken almost thirty years for a plank disqualification to rear its head, which is remarkable. It is a testament to the attention to detail from all F1 teams since 1994.
Schumacher and Benetton attempted to explain away their disqualification by blaming a single dramatic spin. This was never going to work. The weekend format played out as normal for the era, with multiple practice sessions, two qualifying sessions and a morning warm-up before the race. Schumacher’s car would have been checked after every session.
Hamilton and Leclerc’s disqualification is different. They had raced on a bumpy track, with only one practice session to finalise set up due to the weekend’s sprint format. The stewards themselves admitted this in their statement.
A post-race disqualification is a disaster and cannot be sugar-coated. But Schumacher’s 1994 Belgian Grand Prix exclusion feels cheekier than Hamilton and Leclerc’s in Austin. While they suffered from excessive wear likely caused by the sprint format, Schumacher and Benetton's excuses wore too thin. For that reason, it will always be one of the most controversial exclusions in F1 history.
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