The Russian Grand Prix was Lewis Hamilton’s first attempt to equal Michael Schumacher’s ninety-one wins, however, it turned into a nightmare for the six-time champion. The results an impact leading to confusion and giving his teammate Valtteri Bottas his second win of the season.
Ahead of the race, the six-times champion completed two practice starts on route to the grid in the wrong place, going against race director Michael Masi’s pre-race instructions. This seemed a bit bizarre, and I’ve never heard of a penalty being given for something a driver had done before the start of the race.
It appears looking now at the case with the facts, the stewards got it wrong and it appears to me it was the team who misunderstood the race directors’ notes. Hamilton was awarded two five-second penalties, dropping him out of the points.
There was a u-turn after the race with the full evidence, there will be questions from some about whether the penalty for Hamilton hindered his race. Hamilton’s engineer Peter Bonnington said he could, but with no TV coverage of his exit from the pitlane, the team did not spot how far beyond the usual area he had travelled.
Lewis Hamilton: “It’s all rubber here, can I go further out?”
Peter Bonnington: “Affirm.”
Hamilton: “To the end of the pit wall?”
Bonnington: “Yeah, copy. Try and leave enough room for cars to get past.”
Hamilton then moved further down the pit lane, breaking the notes issued by Masi which said, “drivers should have made their practice starts as ‘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).’”
This came on an overall difficult weekend for Hamilton, in qualifying he was placed in danger of dropping out of qualifying in Q2. Hamilton lost his fastest lap in Q2 after exceeding track limits on his first timed lap, he then had to go back out for Sebastian Vettel to crash.
With only enough time to get the out lap in before the chequered flag, it left Hamilton with a make or break lap to get through to Q2. Like always the Englishman managed to get one of the great final laps in the session, and that was very important in his weekend.
That final lap in Q2 had to be done on the soft tyre, this put Hamilton at a disadvantage given he needed to start on the softs meant he needed to stop earlier and manage his hard tyres longer. The cost of making two stops in Sochi makes no sense as the time loss is more costly than managing the tyres.
Speaking on Wednesday, Hamilton said he felt that both he and Mercedes had to go through the rulebook to avoid any further sanctions, having fallen foul of minor infringements at two of the last three races.
The world champion did, however, bounce back, to finish fourth, his equal worst result in Sochi. Billed as the record-equalling weekend as he went after Michael Schumacher’s ninety-one wins. Watching Hamilton over the years, I often see him coming back stronger at the next race.
It is hard to say whether the penalty cost Hamilton victory, but looking at the data it is possible that he was going to be able to go after Bottas. The two five-second penalties when commentating I thought was harsh, but it proved important in the race.
Reflecting on the race, taking out the penalty Hamilton would have joined four seconds behind Bottas, if that was the case you would have believed it would have been possible to close the gap. The penalty dropped Hamilton into traffic, but six seconds behind Verstappen.
In theory without the penalty, I think the gap would have been closer. Does that pose the question, were we not able to see the fight between Hamilton and Bottas? I believe that if we did have a race without the penalty, Hamilton would have been in the fight with Bottas and Verstappen, most likely he would have come out on top.
It was a perfect storm, every driver has an off weekend which isn’t always there, it just so happened that Hamilton came in Sochi. The way the Englishman comes back, as we saw at Mugello him come through the chaos to take victory, it was the same in Spielberg and Barcelona.
Hamilton went on to accuse the FIA of ‘making it harder for him’ to win the title. I believe that isn’t true, although as a six times should know the rules and be held to higher standards. As we head into the Autumn, Hamilton remains the favourite.
The other question posed by Sochi, does Bottas’s championship reignite? I still however believe that this championship is still Hamilton’s to loses unless there are more mistakes. Bottas admitted in mid-August, that he could already “see the championship drifting away”.
If this race had been at Spa, I think we would be in a different position or was Sochi the ‘defining race’ of the season? Bottas has now, in theory, put himself in contention, if Hamilton doesn’t score at the Nürburgring and Portimao Bottas could lead the championship.
However, Hamilton has been very strong in October and November, normally at this time of year. But going to new circuits until the first of the ‘flyway races’ in Istanbul in mid-November, could this turn into a repeat of 2016? If we see Mugello as Budapest the midway point in the season….