Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas took advantage of teammate Lewis Hamilton’s pre-race rules faux pas to claim victory at the 2020 Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom, famously on the site of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. It was Bottas’ third victory at the track, but only his second win of this season. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finished second, with Hamilton clawing his way back to third place.
Race stewards handed Lewis Hamilton a compound 10-second race penalty for performing two illegal pre-race practice starts outside the allowed area. The penalty not only dropped him out of contention but temporarily postponed his 91st victory to match Micheal Schumacher’s all-time total.
After roaring to pole position at the Sochi Autodrom, Hamilton had looked as the hands-down favourite to re-write the sport’s record book on Sunday.
With Hamilton out of the way, Bottas romped to a regulation victory, crossing the line 7.7 seconds clear of Verstappen. Bottas reduced Hamilton’s championship lead to 44 points after 10 of 17 rounds.
Each of Hamilton’s Sochi time penalties also came with a one-point penalty on his Super Licence, leaving the Brit just two points shy of 12 in 12 months. Hamilton would face an automatic one-race ban should he receive two further penalty points at any time during the next four grands prix.
Fortunately, in the calmer and more decisive atmosphere after the Grand Prix, the race stewards removed both penalty points after it was confirmed that Hamilton had been instructed to perform the two pre-race practice starts in the incorrect place by his Mercedes team.
Another record was tied at Sochi, as Kimi Raikkonen started his 322nd F1 race on Sunday, equalling Rubens Barrichello’s record.
Lewis Hamilton did what Lewis Hamilton does and claimed his 96th career pole position, though it was not without a few hiccups. The Brit made a mess of both Q1 and Q2 and only just crossed the start/finish line to complete a lap good enough to get him into Q3 after Sebastian Vettel’s crash brought out a red flag.
Hamilton found his form in Q3, beating Max Verstappen by over half a second and team-mate Valtteri Bottas by nearly 0.7s.
In his rush to set a competitive Q2 time, Hamilton had to use a set of soft tyres to get through to Q3. That meant he would have to start the Grand Prix with those tyres, while his two biggest rivals would start their race on the more favourable medium compound tyres.
Hamilton’s concern about tyre grip at the start led him to radio Mercedes race engineer Pete Bonnington to see if he could perform a practice start in the pit-lane exit. Bonnington answered that he could but the decision came back to bite the Brit and his team with the tactic not permitted in the rules. Hamilton immediately fell under investigation. Hamilton would learned of his fate on Lap
His breach of the rules? Article 36.1 requires drivers “to use constant throttle and constant speed in the pit exit other than in the place designated for practice starts in the Event Notes item 19.1., which is defined as the place “on the right-hand side” after the pit exit lights (and is not part of the track as defined by lines) which has been known to all competitors and used without exception.”
The stewards deemed that Hamilton was in breach of the rule by “performing his practice start near the end, but directly in the pit exit.”
His penalty? Two 5s penalties, one for each start. They would be served during the race. At his pitstop, Hamilton’s car would be stationary and untouched by his crew for 10-sec before servicing.
At the start, Hamilton held off Bottas as the Finn went straight up into second. With the help of the pack’s enormous aero tow, the Finn then went around the outside of Hamilton. Verstappen ran wide, putting Ocon’s Renault into third. Bottas ran too deep into Turn 2, got on the curbs and with a poor exit surrendered the lead to Hamilton at the long Turn 3.
Just behind, Carlos Sainz’ was forced wide at the start while Racing Point’s Lance Stroll and was hit from behind by Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari at Turn 2. Sainz’s McLaren had to go wide around directional bollards and simply slammed into the wall while streaking toward the exit. Meanwhile, Stroll’s race was finished on the spot. The Safety Car was called.
At the restart on Lap 6, Hamilton once again grabbed the lead, followed by Bottas and Verstappen. Hamilton receives word that he has been penalised. He served his penalty when he pitted for new rubber on Lap 16, dropping him to 11th, 36 seconds behind Bottas.
By Lap 23, Bottas led Verstappen by 7.5s, extending that to 9.9s when Verstappen pitted from second on Lap 26. The Dutchman returned just six seconds ahead of Hamilton. The trio then ran comfortably in that order to the finish.
Behind them, Perez’s Racing point was in a lonely but comfortable race of his own in fourth place, as was both Ricciardo’s rapid Renault and a determined Leclerc for Ferrari. Ocon was able to snag 7th just ahead on Daniil Kvyat’s AlphaTauri. Alex Albon’s Red Bull and Monza-winner Pierre Gasly diced with Lando Norris. In the end, Gasly held on to 9th, with Albon taking the final point.
After the race, Bottas reflected on having to follow team orders two years ago to let Hamilton take the win. He stated his victory was more than just luck. “Once I was in clean air, said Bottas, I felt that the pace was pretty awesome and that I could control everything”.
“Never give up. It’s a good day. It’s nice to get another win as it’s been a while and I now need to keep the momentum going”
The F1 circus will now journey to a much cooler and probably damp Nurburgring. Bottas will arrive an energised winner, while Hamilton’s reprieve will allow him to continue pushing in Germany as well as the rounds in Imola, Portimao and Istanbul.
Anything can still happen.