Toto Wolff initially thought Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion from qualifying for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix was nothing more than a bad joke.
But it turned out to be anything but funny for Mercedes as the seven-time World Champion’s P1 on the grid for the sprint was turned into P20 by the stewards.
FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer identified an issue with the rear wing of Hamilton’s car after qualifying, specifically too large a gap on one side of the DRS flap was it was activated.
The matter was carried over from Friday to Saturday by the stewards and when their decision was finally announced, just a few hours before the sprint, it was confirmed that Hamilton was being excluded from the qualifying results after setting the fastest time by 0.438sec.
He therefore started the sprint right at the back of the grid but undid much of the damage with a storming drive through the field all the way up to fifth.
STILL. WE. RISE. pic.twitter.com/cRY4mnLgFF
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) November 13, 2021
It means the 36-year-old Briton starts the grand prix 10th having already been given a five-place grid penalty for taking his fifth internal combustion engine of the season.
Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, revealed the precise area on the wing that had failed the tests and said he thought the World Champions’ sporting director, Ron Meadows, had been joking when he messaged with news of the disqualification.
“I honestly couldn’t believe we got disqualified. I thought Ron Meadows was making a joke on WhatsApp, so strange things happen,” Wolff told Sky F1.
Remarkably, considering Hamilton’s blistering pace in qualifying, Wolff said the issue had been detrimental to the car’s performance.
“Until late afternoon we believed it was okay because the wing was damaged,” he added. “One side was okay. The middle was okay. The right side of the wing was not okay. It means we had a performance disadvantage.
“And we thought in consideration of all these aspects, the FIA would say ‘there was damage’ and therefore we weren’t in breach of the regulations. They also said there was nothing that happened with intent from our side.”
The sprint, however, unfolded more positively than Mercedes could have expected.
From P2, Valtteri Bottas won from Max Verstappen, which means the Dutchman holds a 21-point Drivers’ World Championship lead over Hamilton, while Mercedes have edged two ahead of Red Bull in the Constructors’ as Carlos Sainz held off Sergio Perez for third.
“We have to take it on the chin and the last 60 minutes of motor racing from Valtteri and Lewis brought all the enjoyment back after all the frustrations before,” added Wolff.