Russian GP: A penalty, a lead and a victory

Valtteri Bottas revelled in his ninth victory in F1, but the question of whether the Finn can actually challenge Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight remains.

Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas celebrates on the podium after winning the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi.   -  Reuters

Michael Schumacher’s record stands for another day — or a few weeks at most, maybe as little as two. That’s when Lewis Hamilton will take a second stab at equalling the German great’s all-time mark of 91 wins at the highest level of motor racing.

As Sportstar columnist Karun Chandhok said in commentary during the 2020 Russian Grand Prix, Hamilton is the only one who can beat himself this Formula One season. It’s either that or team errors, like when Mercedes called the British champion in for a change of tyres when the pit lane entry was closed at the Italian Grand Prix, or plain, old schoolboy mistakes, like the one that cost him victory in Sochi.

Fast lap out of a hat

Valtteri Bottas was the quickest of the 20 drivers in the first and second practice sessions for the Russian GP. But as he had done in earlier races this year, Hamilton amped up his pace when he needed to. He was fastest in the third practice session, but an hour later teammate Bottas was comfortably ahead by a third of a second in the first qualifying session after Hamilton had a lap time deleted.

With just over two minutes to go in Q2, Sebastian Vettel brought out the red flag by crashing his Ferrari at turn four, leaving Hamilton, who’d had a lap time deleted for track limit infringements, in the drop zone.

READ | Bottas wins Russian Grand Prix, Hamilton misses record

When the session resumed, the six-time world champion, now on the quickest tyres, began his hot lap with less than two seconds to spare and made it through to Q3, his ability to get the most out of his car on a single run coming to the fore.

Hamilton broke the Sochi Autodrom lap record on his first flying lap in Q3 and improved on it on his second outing, but Max Verstappen put his Red Bull between the two Mercedes cars with a scorching fast lap, albeit half a second down on the pole sitter.

What were Hamilton and Mercedes thinking?

When making his way out of the garage to the grid, Hamilton asked his race engineer Pete Bonnington if he could go to the end of the pit wall to carry out a practice start. He was told he could.

Article 36.1 of the F1 regulations states that drivers need to “use constant throttle and constant speed in the pit exit.” That means Hamilton couldn’t, and the Mercedes driver faced an investigation by stewards even before the race began.

When the lights went green at Sochi, Hamilton fended off a fast-starting Bottas, who took second place off Verstappen before turn one. But the safety car was called out before the lap ended as McLaren’s Carlos Sainz Jr clipped the bollards when trying to rejoin the track and Racing Point’s Lance Stroll spun into the wall after being nudged from behind by Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.

READ | I may not always get it right, says Hamilton

In the intermission, Hamilton was told he’d been given two five-second time penalties — the first was for the practice start outside the designated area, the second for failing to maintain “constant” speed on the pit exit.

Racing resumed on lap seven with Hamilton leading Bottas ahead of Verstappen, the Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon, and Sergio Perez in the Racing Point. But Hamilton’s race had been compromised by more than just the time penalties — he’d started the race on the soft tyres he’d used in Q2, while Bottas and Verstappen were on the medium compound, allowing them to go much deeper in the race before coming in for a change of rubber.

Hamilton pitted on lap 17 and rejoined in 11th spot. The next of the front-running trio to come in was Verstappen a full nine laps later, followed by Bottas on lap 27 of 53 as he looked to avoid an undercut by the Red Bull driver.

Mixed emotions for Mercedes

Bottas revelled in his ninth victory in F1, issuing a cuss word for his detractors on the team radio after crossing the finish line. But the question of whether the Finn can actually challenge his teammate in a straight fight remains. Bottas has beaten Hamilton in only three of the 10 races so far this season. Bottas won the opening round in Austria from pole, while Hamilton missed out on a podium because of a five-second time penalty. Hamilton then won five of the next six races (Verstappen won the sixth).

Then came Italy, where none of the three top drivers finished on the podium. Hamilton came seventh after coming through the field from the back of the grid, where he’d landed because of a penalty for entering the pit lane when it was closed. Bottas crossed the line in fifth after spending most of the race in that position and failing to make up places.

At Sochi, it was another penalty that effectively gave Bottas the lead and the win. Whether the Finn’s strategy of starting the race on the medium-compound tyres would have given him victory over Hamilton — as Verstappen did at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone on August 9 — we’ll never know.

READ | Schumacher, Shwartzman and Ilott handed F1 practice slots

Hamilton claimed after the race that he’d never been penalised before for practice starts further down the pit lane at other tracks and that the FIA, motorsports’ world ruling body, was “out to stop” him, but F1 race director Michael Masi said the stewards were simply following the rulebook.

“The practice start location is obviously very circuit specific and detailed in the event notes. So at every other event Lewis has, along with all the other drivers, complied with the requirements of where they perform a practice start in accordance with the race director instructions,” Masi said.

Two penalty points were also added to Hamilton’s Super License for the infractions, giving him to a total of 10 and bringing him within two points of a race ban (A driver is given a one-race ban if he collects 12 penalty points in a rolling 12-month period, and none of Hamilton’s eight existing penalty points expire till November). But this was later rescinded and Mercedes was instead handed a €25,000 fine.

A matter of time

The story of the coronavirus-affected 2020 F1 season has been Hamilton and Mercedes’ relentless pursuit of record-breaking wins.

Sochi was the 96th time Hamilton had started on pole; Schumacher did so in 68 races, Ayrton Senna in 65. Vettel, fourth on the all-time list and second among the current lot, is on 57.

Hamilton’s next race win will match Schumacher’s all-time record, once considered unbreakable. But the German needed 308 race entries to reach 91 wins. Hamilton is one victory behind after just 260 races.

Hamilton should not need more than a race or two to break that record, but that the six-time world champion will be crowned a seventh time this year, matching Schumacher’s titles in 1994-95 and 2000-04, is as much of a formality.

READ | Russian Grand Prix: Fans return but F1 still a long way from normal 

After 10 races of the 2020 season, Hamilton is on 205 points to Bottas’ 161, with Verstappen a further 33 behind. Norris is the best of the rest on 65, but a total of just eight points separate him, Red Bull’s Alex Albon, Ricciardo, Leclerc, Stroll and Perez in the midfield.

In the race for the constructors’ title, Mercedes with 366 points has nearly twice that of Red Bull, which is on 192 in a lonely second place, while McLaren (106), Racing Point (104) and Renault (99) are now seemingly clear of Ferrari (74) in their fight for third.