Azerbaijan GP first practice cancelled after loose drain cover destroys Williams car

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- The first practice session for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was cut short in rather farcical circumstances on Friday after George Russell's Williams was damaged by a loose drain cover.

Bits of the Williams' floor were torn apart as the cover came loose and punctured a hole in the bottom of the car. To make matters worse, the recovery vehicle that picked up the wrecked car hit a bridge over the circuit while returning to the pit-lane. With safety checks needed on all of the circuit's drain covers, the session was cancelled altogether.

"I just hit it, the biggest shock went through my body," Russell said. "The whole engine just turned off, it's ruined the floor.

"It was just on the normal racing line and has ruined my session."

The 6.003 km (3.73 mi) circuit has over 300 manhole covers on it, and although the problem is believed to be isolated to the single drain cover that failed, all of them will undergo further checks before the second practice session. Formula 2's qualifying session did not start as scheduled at 3pm local time, but second practice is still due to go ahead after the necessary checks have taken place.

When Russell's car was eventually recovered to the pit-lane and lowered back to the race track, the extensive damage to the floor of the car was clear to see. It is a huge blow to the struggling Williams team, which has been short of spare parts since the start of the year, when it missed the opening two and a half days of testing due to late completion of its 2019 car.

Team boss Claire Williams said she expected better from motor racing's premier category.

"The circuit needs to make sure that their drain covers are bolted down properly," she told the BBC. "That's just not acceptable. The damage that that can do could put us out this afternoon.

"We have another chassis that we might need to bring in. And that's not what Formula One tracks should be."

Similar incidents have happened before at street circuits, including a pit lane drain cover damaging Valtteri Bottas' Williams in Baku in 2016. In 2017, a loose drain cover at the Malaysian Grand Prix caused £500,000 of damage to one of Haas' F1 cars, which the American team successfully claimed in compensation via the Sepang circuit's insurance policy.

Williams later confirmed Russell's car would undergo a chassis change, meaning it will not be able to return to the track until FP3 on Saturday morning at the earliest.

After the recovery vehicle struck the bridge, the world feed showed several Williams mechanics shaking their heads in the pit-lane. It also showed Red Bull driver Max Verstappen and the team's advisor Helmut Marko laughing in disbelief at the images.

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton also saw the lighter side of the incident, saying the cancelled session gave him more time to catch up on Game of Thrones, which he has recently been binge-watching in time for the series finale.

Neither Hamilton or Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas had recorded a lap before the incident, which occured after 13 minutes of the 90 allocated for the session. The only drivers to set a timed lap were Ferrari pair Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel.

Playing on the Baku City Circuit's promotional slogan from its first race in 2016, Daniel Ricciardo posted a sarcastic tweet as the repairs took place on track.