Valtteri Bottas won the Russian Grand Prix after Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes made a highly unusual error before the race that was hugely costly.
Hamilton was given a 10-second penalty for making two practice starts in the wrong area on his way to the grid and finished third having started from pole. He drove as hard as he could but his Mercedes teammate enjoyed a sufficient advantage at the front to ensure he closed out with a controlled drive.
Max Verstappen was in second for Red Bull, with Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez’s fourth and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo fifth.
Hamilton was clearly enormously frustrated and there will be a major examination of how such a simple mistake was able to occur and whether driver or team, or both, were to blame.
The world champion had been looking to match Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 grand prix wins and started from pole but his race was compromised before it had even begun. On the formation laps he undertook two practice starts a long way down the pit exit in a position that was outside the designated area. The stewards immediately announced they were to investigate and imposed two five-second penalties when the race was seven laps old.
The race director, Michael Masi, had made it clear in pre-race instructions the area where drivers could practice starts. “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,” he noted. “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).”
Hamilton had done so at the end pit exit slip road, past the curve of turn one. “What happened?” Hamilton asked his team when they told him of the penalty. “It’s bullshit. Where’s that in the rulebook? Anything to slow me down. But it’s OK.”
Potential further pain may await Hamilton. He is currently on eight penalty points – the FIA imposed one penalty point per incident. If he exceeds 12 points in the next four races he will receive a one-race ban. Bottas’s victory has denied Hamilton’s attempt to match Schumacher but such is the world champion’s form this season, it is only a matter of time before he equals and surpasses the German.
For Bottas, his ninth career win is his second at Sochi and his second this season after taking the flag at the opening Austrian GP. He won in Russia in 2017 also from third on the grid. It was just the fillip the Finn required, having seen Hamilton extend his lead with a series of dominant wins. The very least he required was to narrow the gap to his teammate.
Hamilton now leads the championship on 205 points with Bottas in second on 161 and Verstappen third on 128. Bottas, from third, had jumped Verstappen off the start in Sochi and did his best to slipstream Hamilton. He put his nose ahead through turn two but could not hold the place, going too deep in the corner and Hamilton maintained his lead. However a safety car was called almost immediately when Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz crashed out.
Racing resumed on lap six and Hamilton controlled the restart, holding his lead well. He immediately set out trying to open a gap knowing he had yet to serve his penalty, insisting to his team he wanted to stay out as long as he could. He pitted on lap 17, took the 10-second penalty and new hard tyres rejoining in 11th place and looking to make the finish without stopping again.
With Bottas leading, Hamilton set about moving through the field but in clear air the Finn made the best of it, extending the gap out front. On the medium tyre he was able to go long and pitted on lap 27, one lap after Verstappen to cover him off. His lead was rock solid, enjoying nine seconds on Verstappen.
Hamilton’s frustration was palpable, however. “I don’t want any more info, Bono. It doesn’t make any difference,” he told his race engineer Pete Bonnington when offered race information. When the pit stops had shaken out Hamilton was up to third but 21 seconds down on the lead and 12 behind Verstappen. He knew the win had long gone and settled into a lonely third.
Bottas was in complete control, knocking out fastest laps, and neither Hamilton nor Verstappen could make a dent in his lead. It was, indeed, a fairly pedestrian affair on a circuit that rarely offers a good race, especially so once the fight between the two Mercedes drivers was effectively neutered.
Bottas executed well to take the flag and felt he had made a point. “A nice message to my critics,” he said. “To whom it may concern, fuck you.” Yet he may find his celebrations somewhat lonely as Mercedes begin an extensive and painful debrief.
Charles Leclerc was sixth for Ferrari, with Esteban Ocon in seventh for Renault. AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat was in eighth with his teammate Pierre Gasly in ninth and Alexander Albon in 10th for McLaren.