AUSTIN, Texas -- Sebastian Vettel has been dealt what could be the knock-out blow to his fading Formula One championship hopes after incurring a three-place grid penalty for the U.S. Grand Prix.
Vettel's season has unravelled due to a number of mistakes this season, and what had looked set to be a fight that went to the wire has swung across to Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in recent months. The German's latest could be decisive in ending the championship prematurely, as Hamilton can seal the title if he wins on Sunday and Vettel is third or lower.
The latest incident occurred in the opening 90-minute practice session after Vettel's future teammate Charles Leclerc, who is moving to Ferrari in 2019, dragged gravel onto the circuit with his Sauber car. That red-flagged the session, meaning all drivers were required to drive at a significantly reduced pace and return to the pits.
Vettel was called to see the race stewards after that session after being clocked at too high a speed, and the decision was handed down shortly after the conclusion of the day's second practice.
The ruling said: "The Stewards found that Vettel did, in fact, fail to stay above the minimum time set by the FIA ECU in marshalling sectors 6 and 7. As the regulation states, Art. 31.6 was added this year to ensure that drivers reduce speed significantly during a red flag. Breach of this regulation is seen to be an extremely serious matter. To be consistent with previous decisions on similar incidents this year, the Stewards assessed the penalty specified above."
The penalty follows recent precedent: Force India's Esteban Ocon was given an identical punishment for failing to slow sufficiently for red flags at the Japanese Gand Prix earlier this month. It means Vettel will start no higher than fourth this weekend on a weekend Mercedes is expected to have the advantage in terms of raw pace.
When asked what the stewards' explanation was, Vettel told reporters following second practice: "They were very specific, saying they took 27.7 seconds to slow down. I saw the red flag and slowed down, had a look around to see if there was a car potentially stuck in the wall or if there was one around Turn 9 or 10 and then slowed down significantly to comply with the rules. They found it took too long, and I think it's pretty straightforward. I think on top there might have been an issue with the timing, with the system. I was aware I slowed down, and not much more to say.''
The four-time champion has called for ''common sense'' moving forward, and he believes the current ruling is wrong.
"I think there should be common sense with the rules that we have,'' Vettel added. "Lining out 27.7s precisely as an act of not complying with the rules ... I think it's wrong, I think I slowed down, I had a good look around. I think the rules are clear, as well, so we know, but I think this is the first time we had this in the wet, and in the wet, the target is a lot slower so you literally have to stop to 30 kph or 40 kph to bring down the delta, which probably I should do next time. But in my opinion, it's not the right thing because if there is a car behind you, it might run into you, but it's more important that you don't get a penalty.