SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Lewis Hamilton's toughest opponents in the Russian Grand Prix weren't even on the track. They were in the stewards' office.
Hamilton's Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas cruised to the win Sunday after Hamilton, who was leading, was penalized 10 seconds for practicing his starts in the wrong place before the race.
Hamilton came into the race looking to match Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 wins in Formula One but had to settle for third behind Bottas and Max Verstappen. Bottas built a sizeable lead over Verstappen with ease and eased to his first win since the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.
Hamilton was already under investigation by the stewards when he started the race from pole position. Before the race he twice stopped to perform practice starts at the exit of the pit lane, rather than in the designated area. That eventually earned him two five-second penalties, dropping him as low as 11th at one stage.
Hamilton said he and Mercedes were under “a lot of scrutiny” from officials and that it sometimes felt as if that they were being targeted by the stewards “to keep the racing exciting” because of their dominant position in the championship.
“It feels like we’re fighting uphill. But it’s OK. It’s not like I haven’t faced adversity before. So we just keep our heads down and keep fighting and keep trying to do a better job and be cleaner and squeaky clean,” he said.
Hamilton had asked Mercedes over the radio if he could perform the starts at the pit exit, and was told he could. He later said he had been doing similar practice starts “for years,” though not in Sochi. The designated zone had too much rubber left from other drivers' tires and was “not representative of what it's like on the grid,” he said.
It was the second time in three races that a miscommunication with Mercedes cost the British driver a shot at victory. Hamilton was leading at the Italian Grand Prix when he was given a penalty for entering the pit lane while it was closed, after a radio message from the team warning him was sent too late.
Hamilton's championship lead over Bottas was cut to a still-healthy 44 points with seven scheduled races remaining on a calendar heavily modified because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bottas, who also claimed the bonus point for fastest lap, said he wanted to “thank my critics” after ending a run of eight races without a win despite having, with Hamilton, by far the fastest car.
“There’s been people telling me that, you know, I should not bother and I should give up. But you know how I am. I will never do that,” he said.
He tried to take the lead off Hamilton at the start using the slipstream but braked too late for the second turn, allowing Hamilton to retake first. Bottas later said a “massive bee or something” had obstructed his vision at the crucial moment.
Two first-lap crashes brought out the safety car as McLaren’s Carlos Sainz clipped a barrier while trying to rejoin the track from a run-off area and Lance Stroll’s Racing Point span into a barrier after contact with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Sergio Perez was fourth for Racing Point in his best placing of the season, ahead of Daniel Ricciardo for Renault. Leclerc finished sixth, Ferrari's best placing for seven races in one of the Italian team's worst-ever seasons. His teammate Sebastian Vettel trailed in 13th after a crash in qualifying.
Esteban Ocon came seventh for Renault ahead of the two Alpha Tauri cars of home racer Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly. Alexander Albon couldn't follow up his third-place finish at the last race at Mugello and was 10th in the second Red Bull. Albon has finished behind his teammate Verstappen every time they have both completed a race this season.
Russia allowed far larger crowds than at any other round of the F1 season to date. Fans wore masks in stands filled to around half of normal capacity and had their temperatures measured when entering the venue,
Organizers said 30,000 people on average were in the Olympic Park that includes the track for each day of the race weekend. That's more than 10 times the previous highest daily attendance for an F1 race this season, set at Mugello earlier in the month.
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