A “phantom debris caution” is what NASCAR fans call a late-race yellow that feels bogus, or for the sole purposes of entertainment when a field is spread out. But Lewis Hamilton must think NASCAR waltzed over and coughed on Formula One, because he accused his own series of calling phantom debris.
The problem is, almost nothing about F1’s call resembled NASCAR.
Phantom debris is how viewers describe a caution when it seems like race officials are the only ones who see something hazardous on the track. It’s also a concept that’s almost exclusively used to criticize NASCAR, which has a lot of, uh, issues with calling cautions.
But Lewis Hamilton, who ended up winning the Belgian Grand Prix from pole position over the weekend, was not thrilled with F1 race stewards after a call for debris in later portions of race. It came after contact between the mid-pack teammates who hate each other, Force India drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Pérez, that stewards felt scattered enough debris for a safety car to come out.
Hamilton had a comfortable two-second gap on championship leader Sebastian Vettel at the time, which was lap 29 of 44. There were about eight laps to go on the 4.4-mile Spa-Francorchamps circuit when the race restarted.
Hamilton still managed to win the race with a disadvantage on tires, but ESPN reports that he said the safety car was a “BS call” by race stewards:
“I felt like it was a bit like NASCAR where they keep putting out the safety cars for no reason,” Hamilton said. “The wing was clear after we’d slowed down, and they could have done a [virtual safety car] but I guess they wanted to see a race. That’s for sure the reason they did that, because there was hardly any debris, if at all because they’d cleaned it so well.”
“Before that it was obviously close. The Ferraris I think genuinely had the upper hand particularly on race pace throughout the weekend. It was very, very strong today, and I was towing him around everywhere, so they were getting a good tow down the straights. On the restart the safety car was driving so slow, it was I guess to let the other people catch up, so keeping tyre temperature, given I was on the harder tyre, was very, very difficult.”
Hamilton also said over the radio during the race that there was “no debris anywhere,” ESPN reports.
Sounding familiar? It shouldn’t, because there was definitely debris on track. On top of that, a true “phantom” debris caution would lead to a two-lap shootout on an oval course that’s half the length—or less—of this one in NASCAR, not with a fifth of the race length left to go on a long, winding circuit.
It makes total sense to be mad about a late-race caution period that bunches everyone up when you have a huge two-second lead, sure. But like all racing incidents, it’s better to go look at some photographic evidence first.
NASCAR calls legitimate debris cautions for water bottles sometimes, so calling a true safety car—instead of a virtual one, which also slows the field for a cleanup—for huge chunks of car on the track is understandable.
Regardless, good try, Lewis. Just remember that if you ever do run the Daytona 500, there will be a lot of safety cars and probably a phantom-debris caution called at the end—not 60 miles before the end. That’s just how we do things in the land of fenders and V8s.