Hamilton’s Sochi Penalty – Was It Right?
Yesterday's Russian Grand Prix certainly was the source of some controversy wasn't it...
Firstly, what did Lewis Hamilton actually do? He performed two practice starts, both of which were outside the designated practice start grid slot, and the second of which was done right at the end of pit exit. He did this because the designated grid slot was ‘all rubber’ due to having had drivers perform practice starts there all weekend. Lewis’ concern at this is very valid, as having more rubber laid down would provide more traction for the Pirelli tyres, thus you would have a better start. This grid slot condition is not consistent with the actual grid slots on the circuit, so Lewis wanted to get a practice start from a ‘dirty’ position to gain data more representative of the real start. He asked his team whether he could do this, and Mercedes gave him the go ahead.
Before going into the regulations surrounding practice starts, it is worth noting that his second practice start, in my opinion, was performed in an extremely dangerous location. The pit exit at Russia is unique – it’s a very narrow lane, with concrete walls either side, that goes on the inside of the Turn 1 kink, before the cars are spat out in an opening in the concrete wall onto the circuit. Because the pitlane speed limit ends before this section, the cars are driving flat out around this blind, narrow bend. Lewis did stop in a wider part of the circuit where the gap in the concrete wall is to allow the cars back onto the circuit, however rearward facing onboard footage from Lewis’ car showed cars appearing from the blind bend and passing close by his car within seconds. To me, even if there isn’t a regulation regarding practice start locations, this in itself is enough for a pretty severe penalty.
Sochi Autodrom's pit exit as seen from Google Maps
As for the actual regulation – Article 19.1 states that ‘Practice starts may only be carried out on the right-hand side after the pit exit lights and, for the avoidance of doubt, this includes any time the pit exit is open for the race. Drivers must leave adequate room on their left for another driver to pass.’
Article 19.2 states that ‘For the reasons of safety and sporting equity, cars may not stop in the fast lane at any time the pit exit is open without a justifiable reason (a practice start is not considered a justifiable reason).’
This was also outlined in Race Director Michael Masi’s pre-race event notes. As a result of Lewis’ practice starts, he was placed under investigation and was awarded two 5 second time penalties during the race.
For me, the regulation outlines quite clearly that a practice start cannot be carried out elsewhere other than the designated area, which is exactly what Lewis did do, not once but twice, therefore the application of two equal penalties I believe is also correct.
However there are some parts of the penalty that I don’t agree with – the time it took for the Stewards to award the penalty. This incident happened a long time before the race started, meaning they had plenty of time to analyse footage and come to a decision on the penalty. Why it took them to well into the race to award the penalty is anyone’s guess. In my opinion, and especially considering it was a practice start offense, a grid drop of 3 or 5 places would be a perfect penalty, however considering he did two starts the Stewards may have awarded double that, as they did for the time penalty. That may seem harsh, but if you do an offense worth a 5 second time penalty twice, then you will get a 10 second penalty.
Another part of the penalty that I didn’t agree with is the awarding of two penalty points to Lewis’ Superlicence. While both the team and the driver are to blame for misunderstanding the rules, I would apportion more of the blame on the team. Superlicence points effect only the driver, which is why I agree with the decision to remove the two points he received and replace them with a fine for the team, even if €25,000 is barely worth a coffee to Mercedes.
So, to answer the question of this article, was Hamilton’s penalty right? Yes, it was (in the end). He received a 5 second time penalty for clearly not obeying the practice start regulation, and got it twice because he did the offence twice. Could the situation have been handled better? Most certainly. I remain of the belief that an offence committed before the race should result in a grid drop, unless said offence is done at a point where it would be impractical to try and shuffle multiple cars, team members and equipment on the grid by a position to make way for the penalty to be applied.
2020 VTB Russian Grand Prix steward, and former F1 driver, Mika Salo
I would also like to talk about Lewis’ penalty point situation. Now his Sochi points have been removed, Lewis stands on 8 penalty points, with 12 being an automatic race ban. This has only been achieved once in F1, by Romain Grosjean in 2012, however it was achieve twice by the same driver in Formula 2 last year, by our Lord and Saviour Mahaveer Raghunathan, who had occurred 12 penalty points after 5 rounds, and another 12 in the next 6 rounds, accumulating a total of 24 penalty points within the season. This lead to a bizarre situation, as Mahaveer accumulated his 24th point during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend before the race, however the regulations stated that the race ban takes place for the event after the 12th (in this case 24th) point has been accumulated. Because Mahaveer wasn’t retained by MP for the 2020 season, and not signed by another F2 team, he never actually served his second race ban. This lead to the ‘Raghunathan Rule’, in which the race ban will be served on the same weekend as the 12th penalty point is accumulated, unless the point is accumulated during the race itself.
Lewis has until November 17th before his current year of penalty points will reset. Between now and then there are 4 Grands Prix, and with all of them being on either brand new or returning F1 venues (Nürburgring, Algarve, Imola and Istanbul), Lewis has certainly got to be careful.
However, people call to question why Lewis has so many compared to everyone else, with the nearest driver to him being Alex Albon on 4, however Lewis’ offenses to get these penalty points are all perfectly valid. He got 2 at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix for a collision with Alex Albon, taking him out of his maiden podium position. At the Austrian Grand Prix this year he received 4 points for two separate incidents – ignoring yellow flags in Qualifying and a collision with Alex Albon in the race taking him out of his maiden podium position (I feel like I’ve said that before…). Then at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix he received another 2 points for entering the pitlane while closed during the race.
These are all offenses worthy of penalty points as they are all driver errors that have either caused damage to another driver’s race or been a safety violation. However, other drivers have committed offenses that arguable should have been awarded penalty points, and as David Coulthard pointed out on Channel 4’s coverage of the Russian Grand Prix, Romain Grosjean is on 0 points, despite having performed some questionable driving in the past 12 months. This highlights the inconsistency of Formula 1 stewarding that most certainly needs to be sorted out as soon as possible.
So there we have it, my analysis of Lewis Hamilton’s penalty farce at the 2020 VTB Russian Grand Prix. Thank you for taking the time to read it, I hope you enjoyed it, and feel free to respectfully let me know your view of the situation in the comments.