2020 Russian Grand Prix Report: Bottas Wins as Hamilton Penalised
A tale of rule-breakers and risk-takers.
Valtteri Bottas finally took his second victory of the 2020 season at the Russian Grand Prix, as Lewis Hamilton suffered a weekend plagued by drama.
Things begun to unravel for the championship leader during Q2 on Saturday. He ran wide during his first lap, which led to his time being deleted, and was just about to complete his second attempt when a Sebastian Vettel crash brought out a red flag. That led to a mad dash as most of the field attempted to get round and start a final lap in the two minutes remaining.
Hamilton passed the line with one second to spare and scraped through into final qualifying. His pole lap was characteristically emphatic - over half a second clear of Verstappen and Bottas - but he was always aware he would now have a fight on his hands in the race, as he had been forced to set his Q2 lap on the lesser-fancied soft tyre.
His problems would worsen before the lights even went out, however.
He asked his team whether he was able to do his practice starts further down the pit lane as there was a lot of discarded rubber at the usual spot. The team confirmed - seemingly unaware of just how far down he meant - but the stewards saw it as an infringement and Hamilton was eventually given two five-second time penalties - one for each illegal practice start.
This, combined with his unfavourable tyre strategy, effectively removed him from the battle for the win and reduced the race at the front to a procession. Bottas didn't put a foot wrong and claimed a comfortable victory, slightly narrowing the gap to Hamilton in the championship standings. He repeated his 'open letter to his critics' from Australia 2019 over the radio after the chequered flag but, frankly, there is only so much you can boast about a weekend where you qualified seven tenths behind your team-mate and then profited from him receiving a penalty in the race.
Max Verstappen put two tough races in Italy behind him and resumed his M.O. this year of outperforming his Red Bull, miles clear of his team-mate, and occasionally picking off a faltering Mercedes when the opportunity presents itself. Hamilton was never able to close in on the Dutchman, as he nursed his hard tyres for almost 40 laps and had to settle for third.
MORE FIRST-LAP CHAOS
Picking up where Mugello left off, there were plenty of incidents during the opening lap at Sochi. Carlos Sainz suffered a quite embarrassing retirement as he drove clean into the wall whilst attempting to navigate the bollards on the outside of Turn Two, hampering his team-mate in the process as he bounced back onto the track. And a couple of corners later, Charles Leclerc clumsily understeered into Lance Stroll, pitching the Racing Point into the wall and out of the race. That brought out an early safety car.
Once the race was back underway, Sergio Pérez got himself into fourth with a bit of trademark tyre preservation and comfortably held that position to the flag. An ungainly piece of synchronised swimming between the Renaults resulted in Daniel Ricciardo picking up a five-second time penalty, but he had enough pace to extend a gap from Leclerc and hold onto fifth, whilst team-mate Esteban Ocon kept the fast-finishing Daniil Kvyat - on a contra strategy at his home race - at bay to complete a decent haul of points for the yellow cars.
It was another tough weekend for Alexander Albon. More than a second slower than Verstappen on Saturday - and seemingly flummoxed as to why - he qualified 10th, was then given a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change and ended up at the back of the pack after the first lap mêlée. Red Bull gambled on switching him to the hard tyres under the safety car but getting to the end on them was always going to be an impossible task and, after another stop, he would eventually recover to 10th and a single point, behind the AlphaTauri pair.
BREAKING THE RULES
So, is it more a case of drivers breaking the rules...or that the rules themselves are broken?
I feel like a broken record, having to speak about stewarding once again, but here we are. With controversy currently surrounding Hamilton, Leclerc, and the bollards at Turn Two, the Russian Grand Prix became a story of rules as much as racing.
The Sochi track has never been a popular one - neither amongst drivers nor fans - and Turn Two has become a particular point of contention. George Russell describes it as "one of the worst corners of the calendar" and even proposed an alteration to it in a drivers briefing earlier this year.
It is just a poorly-designed corner - it's as simple as that. It should be the main passing opportunity on a lap consisting mostly of dull 90-degree corners, but the way it narrows makes that difficult and, in past years, has led to much cutting of the kink which immediately follows. The attempts to counter that with strict measures such as time penalties is somehow worse, though.
It really does feel like the FIA has lost its way when it comes to stewarding. We are now in a situation where Ricciardo - and later Albon - can receive five-second penalties for a tiny mistake, running slightly wide and in the process actually losing time, but Leclerc can take another driver out of the race and get away scot-free because it is the first lap of the race.
The alternative for Ricciardo and Albon was to attempt to get over to the bollards that define the accepted re-entry to the track, but those were criminally close to the wall and arguably less safe than rejoining in the normal manner. Whilst it was an undeniably humiliating crash for Sainz, it was on the cards. If you totally abandoned the corner - à la Verstappen on the first lap - then navigating the bollards was easy enough. But if you genuinely attempt the corner and end up that little bit wide, it's practically impossible to get over to the bollards in time, as demonstrated by Romain Grosjean, who smashed through them in his attempt to follow the rulebook and brought out a VSC whilst they were replaced.
It is like the bigger picture has been totally abandoned by the FIA and its stewards.
Similarly, we had the penalties for Hamilton. A minor discretion in a "grey area of the regulations" - as described by Mark Webber and David Coulthard - before the race led to a significant in-race penalty. Hamilton was also awarded two penalty points on his licence, but they were later rescinded when the stewards determined that the team was at fault rather than the driver.
Why that's the case here but not in Monza, where Hamilton also received penalty points for following a team order to pit, isn't clear. Neither is it clear why it took so long for the stewards to change their mind, considering the radio of Hamilton being told he could perform the practice starts there were broadcast on the global feed immediately. And I won't even get into the current conspiracy theories doing the rounds regarding steward Mika Salo and the Finnish commentary team receiving word on the penalties 15 minutes before they were announced...
Coulthard sums it up nicely when he says, "we're just being bogged down by stewards getting in the way of allowing a sporting contest to play out". This is needless micromanagement that has lost all sense of perspective. The stewarding process needs to be ripped apart and rebuilt from the ground up.