Had it not been for three controversial penalties, Lewis Hamilton could well have beaten his team mate in almost every race he started this year.Valtteri Bottas finished ahead of Hamilton in the Austrian, Italian and Russian rounds – all races where the stewards issued penalties to car number 44. The season finale in Abu Dhabi, where a less than fully fit Hamilton returned after catching Covid-19, was the only other occasion Bottas’s car was the first Mercedes home.
Hamilton had his first brush with officialdom at the season-opening round. On Saturday the stewards investigated whether he had failed to slow for yellow flags during his qualifying lap. He was initially cleared, but ahead of the race Red Bull requested a review of the incident after discovering new footage published by Formula 1. That revealed Hamilton had been in breach of the rules.
He was given a three-place grid penalty which meant he no longer started on the front row alongside his team mate. Bottas won from pole position, while Hamilton collected a second penalty during the race for colliding with Alexander Albon, dropping him off the podium.
While Bottas could reasonably claim he might have won that race without Hamilton’s penalty, there were two further occasions where the stewards’ intervention was clearly decisive in the contest between the pair.
Hamilton’s next significant penalty came at Monza. By this time he was comfortably leading the drivers championship, 40 points clear of Max Verstappen, with Bottas a further 10 behind.
He pulled clear in the early stages of the race while Bottas fell into the pack. But Hamilton was caught out when the Safety Car was deployed in response to Kevin Magnussen’s car breaking down. With very little time to react, neither he nor Mercedes noticed the pit lane entrance was closed, and Hamilton broke the rules by coming in. The regulations stipulated a fixed 10-second stop-go penalty for the infraction, which destroyed his race.
During the subsequent red flag period Hamilton took the unusual step of going to see the stewards in person in the middle of a race to discuss this incident. It made no difference to his penalty, however. When the race restarted he recovered to finish seventh, two places behind his team mate.
That was the first time in seven races that Bottas had taken points off Hamilton. More came his way just three weeks later in Sochi, again thanks to his team mate collecting a penalty.
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As at Monza it was for an unusual infraction. On this occasion the stewards ruled Hamilton performed two practice starts before the race in an unapproved and potentially dangerous location. He was initially given a five second time penalty and a penalty point on his licence for each violation.
Having led the early stages of the race, Hamilton fell behind his team mate and Verstappen after serving the combined 10-second penalty at his pit stop. The decision helped Bottas cut 10 points out of Hamilton’s championship lead.
Hamilton was deeply unimpressed at suffering a second setback in three races, and suggested the decision had gone against him to trim his advantage in the championship. “I didn’t put anyone in danger,” he insisted. “I’ve done this at a million tracks over the years and never been questioned on it.
“But it is what it is,” he continued. “It’s to be expected. They are trying to stop me, aren’t they?”
Not everyone shared Hamilton’s view that he had chosen a safe position to practice his starts. Daniil Kvyat, one of the drivers who passed the stationary Mercedes explained: “You go very fast there, already like 250kph. So it wasn’t a good place to be.”
“I was surprised,” Kvyat added. “I knew you couldn’t really do that.”
The consequences of Hamilton’s latest penalty initially looked serious. Two more penalty points put him on a total of 10, just two away from an automatic ban.
However the stewards then took the extremely unusual decision to rescind the penalty points Hamilton had been given for the incident. The U-turn followed a post-race meeting between the stewards, Hamilton, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and the team’s sporting director Ron Meadows.
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Hamilton’s run of penalties was unexpected for a driver whose record before the stewards had previously been among the cleanest. Speaking after the season ended, he admitted his suggestion someone was “trying to stop me” had been “a human reaction” said “in the heat of the moment”.
Nonetheless he made it clear he still doesn’t agree with the decisions.
“With the FIA and with the stewards, I think there’s been a growth of respect between us and understanding,” said Hamilton in response to a question from RaceFans. “I still don’t think those penalties were the necessary penalties. But it is what it is and it’s not my job to come up with what the penalties should be.”
In an otherwise excellent 2020 performance by Hamilton, his penalties contributed significantly to his rare defeats at the hands of his team mate, and point to one of few obvious areas of improvement for him.
“I learnt a lesson from it and they won’t be able to catch me out for that again, that’s for sure,” he said.
“I’m just going to be very vigilant and diligent, moving forwards. And not only as an athlete, I’m always trying to find an edge. I’m always trying to find that extra bit.
“It’s a fine line between being over the edge and beneath it. It’s fine if that one was over the edge. I learnt from it and it won’t happen again.”
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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