Lewis Hamilton’s championship dreams are hanging by a thread as he was facing the prospect of being thrown to the back of the grid for Saturday’s sprint race at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Two hours and 15 minutes after qualifying fastest at Interlagos, Hamilton’s Mercedes team were summoned to see the stewards following an alleged infringement on the rear wing of their driver’s car.
It was claimed by Formula One’s technical delegate, Jo Bauer, that Hamilton’s Drag Reduction System on the back of his Mercedes was operating at a bigger gap than is permitted, allowing him to produce a greater top speed.
If Hamilton’s car is adjudged to be illegal, the seven-time world champion could be excluded from qualifying – resulting in a pit-lane start for Saturday’s 24-lap dash at Interlagos – and a catastrophic dent in his bid to secure a record-breaking eighth title.
The winner of the sprint race is awarded three points, the runner-up two and third place one point.
The result also determines the grid for the grand prix on Sunday. Hamilton’s potential exclusion would mean Max Verstappen gains top spot on the grid.
Late on Friday night, Formula One’s governing body said its verdict would be delayed until Saturday.
In a statement, the FIA said: “The stewards have adjourned the hearing as they await further evidence that will not be available until the morning.”
Hamilton, who is 19 points behind Verstappen with just four rounds left, will already be demoted five places for Sunday’s grand prix after Mercedes changed his engine for a fifth time this season.
Only three engine changes are permitted under the rules.
Earlier, Hamilton had appeared to resurrect his fading hopes of beating Verstappen to the title after qualifying 0.438 seconds clear of his Red Bull rival.
Hamilton has been jeered by Verstappen’s travelling army at a number of venues this year but here in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, the British driver is the fans’ overwhelming favourite – his pole lap greeted with a deafening cheer.
His popularity was endorsed, too, by his choice of helmet design – a one-off nod to his childhood hero, the Brazilian triple world champion Ayrton Senna who is revered in this part of the world.
“Firstly I am so happy to be back here in Brazil,” said Hamilton before news of the investigation emerged.
“One of the marshals that works here said I should use the Senna flag and colours more often because that is my first pole in a long time. It is crazy because it has been such a long time, it feels like my first.
“It has been so hard coming from the last race in Mexico, the team have worked flat-out and the man hours they have put in are insane.
“But today, was a really good qualifying session and I am super-happy with it.
“We have got the penalty on Sunday but I will give it everything I have got. It is not easy to follow here. It is going to be hard to catch Max but I will do my best to come through the field.”
Verstappen added: “When they take on a new engine, naturally they have more power for the weekend so for me it is not a big shock, and I am just happy to be second.
“You always want to be closer but sometimes you have to be realistic and there was not much more in it today.
“There are not that many points to gain in the sprint race. I hope to have a good first lap and we will see from there. The most important race is Sunday.”
Pierre Gasly finished fifth for AlphaTauri. British driver Lando Norris took eighth in his McLaren.
George Russell was beaten by a Williams team-mate over one lap for the first time in his 56-race career with the British team.
Russell, who will join Hamilton at Mercedes next year, lines up in 18th, a place behind Nicholas Latifi in the sister car.