Carlos Sainz deliberately ceded positions to both Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris in the early stages of Formula 1’s United States Grand Prix, a double penalty for his brief excursion onto the Turn 12 runoff on the opening lap.
The Ferrari driver started fifth but slipped to sixth at the start thanks to losing time on the clutch release in the second phase of his launch. He repassed Ricciardo through the esses and held fifth on the run down the back straight, only to come under attack from the two McLarens – Ricciardo on the outside and Norris on the inside – approaching the Turn 12 left-hander at the end of the back straight.
Sainz took to the runoff in trying to hold off Norris, rejoining and consolidating his position approaching Turn 13 to hang onto fifth place. At the long Turn 16-18 right-hander, Sainz held the car a little wide in order to let Norris back past.
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A McLaren did indeed pass him on the inside of the corner, but it was Ricciardo having overtaken Norris at Turn 14. This meant Sainz had let the wrong orange car past, meaning that on lap seven race engineer Riccardo Adami informed him over the radio that “we have been instructed by race control to give the position to Lando for Turn 12 lap one, I’m afraid”.
Sainz remonstrated on the basis he gave the position to Ricciardo, saying “I already gave up one position to them, please”. But it was to no avail and he was told to let Norris pass him for sixth place on lap eight, which he complied with through Turn 7 in the esses on lap eight. He then reclaimed the position at Turn 12 with the assistance of the DRS on the same lap.
“Basically, I got a poor start off the line and this put me on the back foot,” said Sainz. “So instead of being on the attack on the soft tyre, I was actually defending from the McLarens.
“I actually managed to pass them back, then I went side by side with both of them into Turn 12, I was in the middle.
“Lando braked really late on the inside. Actually, all three nearly too Charles [Leclerc] with us in the attempt to stay ahead of each other!
“Just to give a bit of space to Lando, I decided to go wide to make sure we don’t crash. When I rejoined the track, I was ahead of Lando and Daniel in that order and exiting Turn 15 I took a conscious decision to let what I thought was Lando by during Turn 16 just to make sure that I didn’t get a penalty from the stewards.
“But what actually happened is during that battle Daniel overtook Lando. So, I actually led by Daniel not Lando, because Lando now was the third of the group. The stewards deemed I should give the position back to Lando even though it would cost me two positions which would be in my opinion unfair.
“That was it really, I had to give the position back to Lando then I overtook him and then I started chasing Daniel again.”
The way Sainz gave the position back, doing so shortly before the DRS detection point approaching Turn 11 that allowed him to open up the rear wing to facilitate the pass, was described by McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl as “clever” given it eliminated the intended benefit for Norris.
“From our point of view, it was clear that all of a sudden he got Lando back because he went off the track,” said Seidl of the lap one incident. “ So that’s why we could expect that he had to give a position back, which he had to do later on.
“But unfortunately, he did it in a clever way so that he could actually overtake Lando back in the next straight. So we couldn’t benefit from that.”
When asked by The Race if he felt that what Sainz did wasn’t in the spirit of giving back an advantage that had been gained illegally given the subsequent re-pass, Seidl agreed it wasn’t but stressed that the way the rules are applied, it was fair.
“It’s obviously not the idea of giving the position back,” said Seidl. “But let’s see; we need to analyse in detail, speak with Lando.
“And then I would say that as long as the rules are like they are, I have to say Carlos did it in a fair way.”
Race control had no concerns about what happened, and race director Michael Masi stressed that McLaren didn’t raise any concerns about the way Sainz gave up the place in a way that permitted him to immediately retake it.
“No and McLaren didn’t ask the question either,” said Masi when asked about Seidl’s comments by The Race.
“We did a similar thing with Valtteri and Pierre from Turn 1, exactly the same thing was done. We’ve always said on the first lap, those types of things will be looked at as quickly as possible and if we feel that that situation is there then give the opportunity for that position to be given back and then play on.”
One famous precedent for a driver being penalised despite briefly giving back a place they had gained by breaching track limits regulations was in the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton briefly overtook leader Kimi Raikkonen by cutting the final chicane, but eased off to let the Ferrari back past.
However, stewards deemed that Hamilton had failed to give back all of his advantage given he then overtook Raikkonen into the next corner, the La Source hairpin, and that without cutting the chicane he would have been further behind. The resulting post-race time penalty relegated Hamilton to third and handed Ferrari’s Felipe Massa the win.