The fight for the 2020 Formula 1 championship, which has been a one-sided affair so far, closed up at the Russian Grand Prix.Valtteri Bottas was fortunate to reduce Lewis Hamilton’s championship lead by 11 points to 44.
Pre-race error leads to penalty
As race day dawned we had the rare prospect of a genuinely close fight between the Mercedes drivers. Hamilton had taken pole position, for the fifth race in a row. But following various problems in Q2, had to start the race on the soft tyre, which was widely expected to put him at a strategic disadvantage.
Bottas lined up directly behind him on mediums. Max Verstappen, having split the two Mercedes with another of his inspired qualifying laps, was also on the more durable rubber. Hamilton would inevitably have to pit considerably earlier than both these drivers. Would he be able to recover from that deficit?
We never got the chance to find out, as by the time he got to his mandatory pit stop Hamilton had incurred a 10-second time penalty. This was, in fact, two five-second penalties, one for each of the practice starts he performed at the far end of the pit lane exit, which the stewards deemed a violation of the rules.
Hamilton had asked Mercedes if he could practice his start further down from the usual location. They told him he could, but did not realise he meant to drive as far away as he did, as they did not see his first practice start. “When we saw the second one we thought ‘they’re not going to like that’,” said trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
The reason for Hamilton’s eagerness to practice his starts on a different part of the track was that he wanted to get a better feel for the grip levels at the track. At Sochi the racing line, where Hamilton lined up, offered much more grip than the opposite side of the track, as the venue is little-used between Russian Grands Prix.
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By dint of being out-qualified by Verstappen, Bottas probably bagged himself the best starting position on the grid. When the race began he immediately drew clear of the Red Bull, and caught a perfect slipstream from his team mate through the flat-out turn one.
He was nosing ahead as they reached the first braking point but a momentary distraction when something hit his visor – a “massive bee”, he suggested – prompted him to run fractionally wide, allowing Hamilton to keep his lead.
“Anything to slow me down”
Within a few corners Hamilton caught a break: The Safety Car was deployed due to a pair of incidents further back. This gave him the opportunity to extend his first stint on the soft tyres, potentially reducing the advantage of those on the medium rubber.
Hamilton held his lead at the restart, and not long afterwards came the confirmation of his penalties. “Lewis we have a 10-second penalty for those start infringements,” race engineer Peter Bonnington informed him.
“What happened?” asked Hamilton, repeating the question as he waited for an answer. “Those starts going to the grid, five second penalty for each, out of position,” Bonnington replied. “That’s bullshit,” fumed Hamilton.
“Where’s that in the rule book?” he continued. “We’ll have to have that chat later, Lewis,” said Bonnington. “Anything to slow me down,” Hamilton added. “But it’s OK, I can take it.”
Hamilton didn’t need anyone to slow him down at this stage: He was already driving well within the car’s capabilities to nurse his soft tyres, backing off notably around the long turn three left-hander where the right-front takes a pounding.
But on lap 14, advised his pit stop would be soon, he increased his pace by a second. Hamilton urged the team not to bring him in early, and was fractionally quicker on his next lap. Finally the call to pit came. “Tyres are still OK,” said Hamilton. “Copy,” Bonnington replied. “Box, box.” He came in.
At Monza Hamilton had been given a 10-second stop-go penalty, which required a visit to the pits at which no work on the car can be performed. This was a different sanction: A 10-second time penalty, which had to be served at his next pit stop, though his team were still able to change his tyres.
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“This is just ridiculous,” Hamilton fumed on his way out of the pits, adding halfway around his out-lap: “Why did you have to serve it then, why does it not just add on at the end of the race?”
“We have to serve it when we change the tyres,” Bonnington answered. “Let’s just focus.”
Bottas collects win
Bottas was able to stay out 10 laps longer on his medium tyres. He didn’t even need to cover Verstappen, who came in on lap 25 having been nine seconds behind the Mercedes. Still, Mercedes brought him in the next time around, from where he cruised home, allowing Verstappen to bring his lead down to five seconds before firing off the fastest lap of the race to grab the bonus point.
After two non-finishes, Verstappen was merely glad to see the chequered flag, particularly as it was the first time Red Bull had reached the podium at Sochi, a track where they haven’t excelled in the past. Hamilton never got within range and had to settle for third.
The midfield fight was less intense than usual, partly due to the first-lap crashes, but mainly because Sochi’s simple, repetitive configuration challenges neither the cars nor the drivers. Predictably, it served up the latest in a long line of dreary processions.
Lap one victims Carlos Sainz Jnr and Lance Stroll both made poor initial starts off the racing line. Stroll used the Racing Point’s straight-line speed to great effect on the run to turn two, diving down the inside of several rivals.
He went into turn four side-by-side with Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari driver claimed he understeered wide in Sergio Perez’s slipstream. Whatever the cause he knocked Stroll sideways, spinning him into a wall. The stewards were strangely uninterested in this collision, not even bothering to investigate the clearly avoidable contact which ended Stroll’s race.
Sainz was the victim of his own misjudgement and, to a lesser extent, the poor design of the turn two combination and its run-off area. He clipped a barrier while navigating the blocks, tearing the front-left wheel off his McLaren. Like Stroll, it was his second race-ending crash in as many events.
After the restart Esteban Ocon led the midfield having made the most of his starting position on the racing line. He dropped back quickly from Verstappen once the front runners upped their pace. After his pit stop he made way for team mate Daniel Ricciardo, and also lost a place to the late-stopping Leclerc, though he repelled Daniil Kvyat’s last-lap attack superbly.
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Ricciardo collected a five-second time penalty for failing to obey track limits at turn two when he passed Ocon, but was easily able to pull out enough of a lead over Leclerc to keep his eventual fifth place. He wasn’t able to catch Perez, however, who was passed by both Renaults at the start but jumped back ahead of them by pitting later than the pair, taking fourth.
Strategy compromises Gasly
Pierre Gasly paid the price of beating his team mate into Q3 and having to start on old tyres as a result. He pitted much earlier than Kvyat, who was able to jump ahead through the pits.
On lap 42 AlphaTauri tried to take advantage of a Virtual Safety Car period, pitting Gasly in the hope of getting him on fresh rubber at minimal cost. But the VSC period ended sooner than they expected, costing him positions to Lando Norris and Alexander Albon, though he was soon able to pass the pair of them on his fresher rubber on his way to ninth.
Gasly also made a bid for fastest lap at the end of the race, which nearly paid off. He ended up just two-tenths of a second slower than Bottas. “Thanks for letting me try,” he told his team on the radio.
Albon took the final point in 10th, the position he should have started in, before a gearbox change penalty relegated him to 15th. He still had to start on his old soft tyres from Q2, which he discarded during the initial Safety Car period, but struggled to make progress until he traded his hard tyres for medium rubber. Following the high of his Mugello podium, finishing almost a minute and a half behind his team mate was a bitter blow.
It was a tough day for Sebastian Vettel as well, who couldn’t break out of the midfield and took the chequered flag behind two Ferrari customer cars: Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo and Kevin Magnussen’s Haas. The latter made a terrific start, gaining nine places, six of which he kept by the time the chequered flag fell.
Norris went through the debris from his team mate’s crash at the start and had problems with his steering from then on. “I just had no feeling,” he said, “it was really inconsistent, it was making my life really difficult.” He finished 15th after taking a second pit stop, in McLaren’s first point-less finish of the year.
George Russell attempted to run a long final stint on medium tyres, but pitted two laps before the end, having already fallen to last place. He followed Romain Grosjean home, the Haas driver struggling with his car and smashing through the polystyrene blocks in the turn two run-off at one stage.
“To whom it may concern…”
Bottas was in triumphant mood after taking his overdue second win of the year. Reprising his words from last year’s Australian Grand Prix, and recalling recent criticism on social media, he declared on the radio: “To whom it may concern, fuck off.”
With the best will in the world, this latest victory of his wasn’t half as impressive as his Melbourne performance a year and a half ago. On that occasion Bottas passed Hamilton off the line and beat him in a straight fight; this was a non-event by comparison.
But, given the manner in which he had to surrender a likely win to Hamilton in Sochi two years earlier, it must have been tremendously satisfying.
It also keeps him in the championship hunt. For the second time in two races he’d trimmed Hamilton’s points lead thanks to his team mate falling foul of the rule book.
Hamilton made his displeasure with the outcome clear on the radio during the race and to the media after it, claiming the stewards were “trying to stop me” by cooking up spurious grounds for penalties. This followed another investigation 24 hours earlier, when he avoided a penalty over an error at turn 12, and the saga of the FIA’s response to the T-shirt he wore on the podium at Mugello.
His remarks about the penalty – much like his usual complaints during the race about the timing of his pit stop – smacked of Hamilton blowing off steam. Still, as far as his comments on the stewards are concerned, he would be wise to avoid giving anyone cause to accuse him of bringing the sport into disrepute.
Long after the chequered flag had fallen, the stewards reversed their decision to hand Hamilton two penalty points for his error. That brought his total down from a perilously high of 10 – two shy of an automatic one-race ban – to eight. That may go some way towards persuading Hamilton that no sinister forces are trying to keep him from what still looks like an inevitable seventh title.
2020 Russian Grand Prix
- Stroll surprised Leclerc avoided penalty for race-ending Sochi clash
- Despite F1 drivers’ concerns, stewards don’t give penalty points for “minor infringements”
- Sochi’s turn two is “not right” and should be changed for next year – Steiner
- 2020 Russian Grand Prix Star Performers
- “Slower” Ferrari only beat us because of Q3 tyre rule – Tost
2020 F1 race reviews
- Verstappen fires 2021 warning shot as Mercedes suffer surprise Abu Dhabi defeat
- Perez makes his case for 2021 chance with masterful recovery drive for first win
- Survival is also victory as Hamilton wins and Grosjean climbs out of an inferno
- How Hamilton made history in ‘a race he wasn’t supposed to win’
- Hamilton’s seventh title awaits after debris derails Bottas’s victory bid