US Grand Prix bittersweet for Mercedes as Hamilton disqualification tarnishes progress

Lewis Hamilton runs Max Verstappen close before getting disqualified for an illegal undertray

Lewis Hamilton on the podium after finishing second at the United States Grand Prix, before the Mercedes driver was disqualified hours later. Getty
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Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team have been told to work hard and remain humble as they close in on a return to their glory days in Formula One.

The former champions suffered a rollercoaster United States Grand Prix on Sunday, coming within three seconds of winning only to be disqualified.

It was by far the best performance of the year for the seven-time champion as he hunted down race winner, and recently-crowned three-time drivers' champion, Max Verstappen over the final few laps as the Dutchman battled against brake and tyre issues.

Four hours after the finish, Hamilton was disqualified for an illegal undertray. Stewards ruled there was excessive wear on the skid plate beneath his Mercedes car.

Performance can be gained by getting the car closer to the ground and the skid plate is supposed to prevent that.

Mercedes told stewards the extra wear was "probably the result of the unique combination of the bumpy track and the [hectic] Sprint race schedule that minimised the time to set up and check the car before the race".

They weren’t the only ones to fall foul of officialdom. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was excluded for the same reason after running home sixth.

“We need to take the positives,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff immediately after the finish. “I hate losing races and the whole team is in pain but this is a circuit we wouldn’t have performed at a few races ago. Now we are going to a few tracks that should make the car happier.”

Among them is Interlagos in Brazil where George Russell picked up Mercedes's only victory last season.

Asked if they could close the gap to Verstappen before the end of the year, Wolff said: “I hope so. The trajectory is right and we have two more weekends to go now so we can be quick to make it better.

“We are beginning to see the car is there. We had pace and our car was the quickest one on track, clearly.

“That is the positive we need to take, to stay humble and not take this pace for granted.

“Right from the get-go in first practice Lewis said, ‘I can feel the rear now. I feel the downforce it’s more predictable, I have more confidence’.”

And both Mercedes drivers are confident victory may finally be within their grasp, notwithstanding the fact that Red Bull is still winning, even though they stopped developing their car in mid-season.

“I feel a race win is within our grasp,” said Russell. “Absolutely. I really do. I’m feeling motivated and excited for Mexico and Brazil.”

“Right now there is a 100 per cent focus on 2024 [and the car design] but we know the upcoming races will suit us more for qualifying than this weekend.”

F1 has plunged into the busiest period of the year with three races in different countries on successive weekends.

For Hamilton, the disqualification was doubly agonising because he was only fractions from ending the 686-day drought since the last of his 103 wins in Saudi Arabia in 2021.

“We’re right there now,” he said immediately after the race. “Finishing second is great. And, you know, to come in this weekend and actually have real strength and it's a solid second, it's not just making second. So I feel really positive because we still got a few races up ahead.

“If we get the strategy and get the pit stops right maybe we'll be right on their tails, and looking at some good racing. So I'm excited.

“'I feel positive as we're moving forward even if, reflecting on it, we could have won today. It is of course disappointing to be disqualified but that doesn't take away from the progress we've made.

“We’ve still got a huge amount of work to do, not only downforce and car performance but operations and to be a little bit more perfect.”

Mercedes lost time in the pit stops and were, it appeared, as surprised as their rivals by the sudden turn of pace.

Even Verstappen acknowledged he could have been beaten by a Mercedes for the first time this year if they had been braver with their strategy calls.

“For sure they are getting closer,” he said. “They could have won if they had a better strategy after the first stop.”

But one big question mark remains as Mercedes consider contesting their exclusion.

Coming into the race, the undertray was touted as the reason for their improved speed. Can they be equally competitive once it meets the regulations?

Updated: October 23, 2023, 7:04 AM