As if Sebastian Vettel didn’t have enough of a mountain to climb at the Circuit of The Americas to prevent Lewis Hamilton from being crowned a five-time world champion, the Ferrari driver now also has a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow down sufficiently under red-flag conditions in Friday’s Free Practice 1 session.
The red flags came out following Charles Leclerc’s spin in Turn 9, with the Sauber driver having pulled gravel back onto the racing line after the off.
Video footage of the incident showed Vettel slowing as soon as the flags came out, but he was called to the stewards at the end of the session, accused of not taking off enough speed to meet the strict timing deltas the drivers must adhere to.
Following similar incidents for Esteban Ocon in Suzuka two weeks ago and for Daniel Ricciardo in Australia, the stewards, ‘to be consistent with previous decisions’, handed Vettel the grid drop plus two penalty points on his Super License.
It was a resigned-looking Vettel that faced the media after his visit to the stewards.
“I think I saw the red flag, I slowed down, had a look around [to see] where was the car potentially stuck in the wall,” said Vettel, “if there was one around Turn 9 and 10 and then slowed down significantly to comply with the rules. They found it took too long.
“I think it’s the first time we had [the target lap] in the wet and in the wet the target is a lot slower, so literally I have to stop to 30kph or 40, 50 kph, to bring down the delta, which probably I should do next time. In my opinion it’s not the right thing, [because] if there’s a car behind you, it might run into you, but more important that you don’t get a penalty.”
Vettel is well aware that he needs to finish second at the United States Grand Prix if Lewis Hamilton wins this weekend to keep his championship hopes alive. And with Hamilton already looking in fine form, having topped both of Friday's rain-affected sessions, a three-place penalty for Vettel might just have rendered the unlikely… impossible.
But Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted he would rather such factors did not come into play for Sunday's potential title showdown.
"It’s difficult because there was a decision that I thought was a bit harsh against Esteban last weekend and it sets a precedent," he commented before Vettel's penalty was confirmed.
"And for the championship, obviously it’s not good if Sebastian would get a penalty - we’d rather have him there and put on a great show."