Formula 1 canceled the first practice session for the Las Vegas Grand Prix less than 20 minutes after it began.
The session was halted after Carlos Sainz sucked up a drain cover from the track surface that jostled his car so hard that it forced him to stop. The session was red-flagged after Sainz stopped on the track and the FIA said it would not be resumed as Sainz’s car was being transported back to the garage.
The FIA later released a statement explaining it was the concrete frame around the drain cover that failed and it would have to check all other covers on the track:
"Following inspection, it was the concrete frame around a manhole cover that has failed. We now need to check all of the other manhole covers which will take some time."
It’s an inauspicious debut for the race weekend after its much-hyped arrival on the F1 calendar. The drain cover came up while Sainz was driving down Las Vegas Boulevard. The Las Vegas Strip serves as the backstretch for the track and was open to traffic on Thursday before the race weekend began.
The downforce F1 cars create can lift objects from a track surface if they are not secured. It’s not too uncommon for an incident like this to happen at a temporary street track.
The practice TV feed showed significant damage to the floor of Sainz’s car and other drivers also reportedly had issues with drain covers. Sainz had lifted off the gas for a yellow flag right before you could hear the impact on his car.
— Chris Medland (@ChrisMedlandF1) November 17, 2023
The second practice session was delayed from 3 a.m. ET to 5:30 a.m. ET and extended to 90 minutes because the first practice session was canceled. Sainz's Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc posted the fastest lap just under 1:41 before the first session was stopped.
After practice, Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur was understandably upset about the circumstances that led to Sainz's damage and said that Ferrari was facing an expensive fix.
Sainz given 10-place grid penalty
Sainz’s unfortunate luck didn’t stop with the drain cover. Since the cover damaged so much of Sainz’s car, Ferrari needs to replace multiple power unit elements. And F1 is not letting those changes go unpenalized.
Sainz is now facing a 10-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race because the team is putting the season’s third Energy Store unit on the car. Teams are limited to two Energy Stores per season and exceeding the limit results in a 10-place drop.
Ferrari asked to be excepted from the rule given the unusual nature of the incident. But the FIA didn’t oblige.
“The stewards determine that notwithstanding the fact that the damage was caused by highly unusual external circumstances, Article 2.1 of the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations obliges all officials, including the Stewards, to apply the regulations as they are written.”
Ferrari fast in Practice 2
The second practice session was extended because the first one was cut short and Leclerc and Sainz were the fastest drivers on track. Leclerc posted a lap of 1:35.265 and was just over a half-second ahead of Sainz.
Max Verstappen posted the sixth-fastest time and was behind his Red Bull Racing teammate Sergio Perez. We’d encourage you to not read too much into practice speeds until Friday night given that teams were spending most of Thursday night into Friday morning simply getting acclimated to the track.